Colorado’s San Luis Valley is a place of rich agricultural landscapes between ragged peaks. It is a place with a cultural history all its own. It is also a place of intense poverty, where measures like income and life expectancy consistently lag behind other parts of the state.
Small towns like Saguache, San Luis and Antonito have this in common, but each also has its own profile of strengths and challenges.
Shirley Romero Otero grew up in San Luis, and traces her ancestry to Mexican settlers who helped develop the land in the mid-1800s. She has spent her life fighting for the place— taking on ranchers who had blocked public access to a mountain range called La Sierra—through a drawnout court case that culminated with a Colorado Supreme Court decision in 2002. The court ultimately restored hunting, fishing and gathering rights to the original land-grant families, a victory for Romero Otero and others in the valley.
She was also among the first to start attending community meetings in San Luis in the spring, summer and fall of 2015, joining with her neighbors to talk about what’s great and challenging about the town. Great things include: The mountains, the fresh air, the people. Challenging things: Lack of jobs, an aging population, expensive gas and food, a growing drug problem.
Romero Otero took on the job of a local organizer in San Luis in the fall.
“As a long-time organizer and educator, mother and grandmother and member of this community, I saw this as an opportunity that I had never had,” she said.
Under Romero Otero’s leadership, a diverse coalition of her San Luis neighbors have since come together to forge a plan for their community— people, she says, who were unlikely to have convened otherwise: “We are empowering grassroots individuals to create change in this community.”