Updated: Feb 7
Struggling community hit by layoffs, COVID-19
Author: John Woolfolk | email@example.com | Bay Area News Group
Published: July 29, 2020
HALF MOON BAY, CALIFORNIA - JULY 9: Dr. Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, executive director and founder of ALAS, Ayudando Latinos A Soñar, a Latino Cultural Arts and Social Services Program, poses for a photograph in her office in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Thursday, July 9, 2020. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
Belinda Hernandez Arriaga moved with her family to Half Moon Bay 17 years ago and saw a need for more community support for the immigrant agricultural and service workers who were among her new neighbors and fellow parishioners. A clinical social worker, she founded the nonprofit Ayudando Latinos A Soñar initially with a focus on cultural arts programs. But it has since grown into much more than that. And with the new challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, ALAS has become a lifeline for local families, providing everything from face masks to food. She sat down with us to talk about her work. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q Ayudando Latinos A Soñar means “Helping Latinos Dream.” What was the inspiration behind the name?
A We like to think of it as “Believing in Latinos to Dream.” It just really is: What is our mission? “Alas” means “wings” in Spanish, so our emblem is a heart with wings. It’s giving families wings to fly.
Q You’re trained in social work and have a doctorate in education. Did you see yourself running a nonprofit?
A I originally wanted to go into law. When I was studying for the LSAT (Law School Admission Test), I did work for an outpatient setting for high-risk youth. Ever since I was a kid, my parents always did service work in the community. And as a first-generation college student, I found I could get a master’s in social work and a career that would give me the opportunity to continue serving and giving back.
HALF MOON BAY, CALIFORNIA – JULY 9: Dr. Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, center, executive director and founder of ALAS, Ayudando Latinos A Soñar, a Latino Cultural Arts and Social Services Program, hands a worker boxes of food next to Joaquin Jimenez, right, community liaison and farm worker outreach for ALAS, at a ranch in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Thursday, July 9, 2020. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
Q Tell us more about how your parents inspired you.
A My dad was a deacon. He always taught me about service. He was an electrician, and he got hired to work in the Panama Canal Zone. So when I was 2 to 5, I lived in Panama. My parents worked with nuns there in the orphanage, and they needed help from families. We were a foster family, so we’d have children coming in. As a young girl, I remember playing with them, and when they would leave I was crying at this idea that they’d go back there. My father working as a deacon was always teaching me to stand up for justice and always stand up for the poor. We grew up poor ourselves — there was a time when my dad lost his job. My faith has taught me to give back and also my dad’s memory, what he taught me.
Q You mostly grew up in Texas and after earning your master’s in social work at Our Lady of the Lake University San Antonio, you came out to San Jose in 1998 to continue your education and started working for Catholic Charities and then providing mental health services in Santa Clara County’s Juvenile Hall. What led you to Half Moon Bay?
A I missed home a lot but also loved California. I felt if I’m going to have my life with my family in California, I want to be by the ocean. My dad was in the Merchant Marines, he was always by the water. I feel my dad is most present by the ocean, and if I’m going to be so far from home, I want to be by the ocean. We never knew about Half Moon Bay. One day we were going down by Highway 92, and we said: ‘Let’s go see what Half Moon Bay is about.’ It was September, with all the Christmas trees and wildflowers and sunflowers and pumpkin patches and we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so amazing!’ So literally that day we decided we were going to move to Half Moon Bay.
HALF MOON BAY, CALIFORNIA – JULY 9: Dr. Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, right, executive director and founder of ALAS, Ayudando Latinos A Soñar, a Latino Cultural Arts and Social Services Program, chats with Jorge Sanchez, left, with ALAS, before giving boxes of food and water to workers at a ranch in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Thursday, July 9, 2020. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
Q What motivated you to start ALAS?
A I started to learn about the community and through church I’d go to see up close what the community was experiencing and the needs they had. I started to do pro bono mental health work, that’s when I really got to understand the challenges of the community. The Latino community was very hidden — visible in the work space, but hidden in ways to be celebrated in their identity. It reminded me of things when I was growing up, this invisibility, living in the shadows of being Mexican, being different. What they needed was to celebrate who they were.
Q What was the most moving encounter you had?
A In 2011 I had a little girl I saw who was struggling with really bad stomach pains. Nobody could figure out why. Medically, she came out fine. But she was having visible pain. It was when they started having deportation of families. She drew this picture one day, a little baby cat and big-face mama cat with big tears, crying. She crossed out mama cat and put ‘no papers,’ and on baby cat put ‘papers.’ I made the connection that was her way of telling me her fear.
Q ALAS started with cultural arts programs, mariachi, traditional dance. Did that help?
A What we saw was a celebration — we saw families being proud of who they are, and we saw this kind of like healing, of the community being able to go back to their roots. I don’t think anything can take the place of people seeing themselves and their children, hearing this applause, seeing all the joys that brings. It reaffirms that you matter and that your culture matters.
Q ALAS also offers mental health services, help with immigration legal matters, after-school tutoring for English learners, support for asylum seekers. What are some more recent challenges?
A In November 2019 we had the largest nursery shutdown — 300 employees lost their jobs. We were like, ”What are we going to do?” We got a grant through the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation to hire someone and work with all the folks who lost their jobs. We were still working with them when all of a sudden COVID-19 hit and it just had a crushing effect on our community. Savings were depleted, people were trying to figure out how to make it. Silicon Valley Community Foundation stepped in to give us some help.
HALF MOON BAY, CALIFORNIA – JULY 9: A women with ALAS, Ayudando Latinos A Soñar, a Latino Cultural Arts and Social Services Program, gives a farmworker a carton of milk at a farm in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Thursday, July 9, 2020. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
Q What is ALAS doing to help the community with COVID-19?
A We started farmworker outreach, made 7,000 face masks for farmworkers. We started Farmworker Fridays where people can sponsor lunch for farmworkers, just to say thank you for what they’re doing. We heard they needed hoodies, it’s really cold over here. We were able to purchase sweatshirts for them with grant. We are having our mental health worker go out with us during the outreach to see what kind of mental health needs they have. We started to deliver these food bags in cooperation with our food bank every Thursday. We were hearing they needed more food, and we’d never done a food pantry before. We talked to city leaders, so we said let’s start a pop-up food pantry at the library.
Q What’s been the most rewarding thing about your work?
A To know our community knows we’re there for them. We believe in our community and they believe in us. This work is beyond just us, it’s the whole community coming together. We’re no longer invisible.
To learn more about ALAS visit their website at alashmb.org or call 650-560-8947.
Belinda Hernandez Arriaga
Position: Founder and executive director, Ayudando Latinos A Soñar Age: 49 Education: University of San Francisco, doctorate in education; Our Lady of the Lake University, master’s in social work; St. Mary’s University, bachelor of arts, communications. Family: Husband, Gilbert, and three daughters Residence: Half Moon Bay
Five interesting things about Belinda Hernandez Arriaga
She plays guitar and studied mariachi.
Has written a children’s book about fear of separation from parents.
Plays piano and dreamed of being a concert pianist.
Spent the last two years traveling and working at the Texas border with asylum-seeking families.
Was awarded Bay Area Jefferson Award for Public Service in 2020 and named to San Mateo County Women’s Hall of Fame in 2020.