Isabel Arrollo Program Director of El Quinto Sol de America
We had a chance to sit down with Isabel to talk about the unique challenges facing rural communities in California, how EQS uses art and culture to build community power, and what the Trump administration means for her communities, who are mostly monolingual Spanish-speaking immigrants.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
BLUE HEART: What is the story behind El Quinto Sol’s name?
ISABEL ARROLLO: Our name comes from the calendar of the Aztecs, an indigenous people of Mexico and Central America. They believe in different suns and every sun is a different era. The sixth sun is the era of nirvana, where everything is beautiful and healthy. The fifth sun is the “learning sun”, where you gather all the material and spiritual tools necessary to be able to move into the sixth sun. We called ourselves the fifth sun of America because we believe our community members come here to learn together and gather the resources they need to be able to move to a healthier community.
BH: How did you become involved?
IA: My mother started the organization, together with Victor Cervantes. She was an amateur photographer and used photos to capture the story of life here. But she realized that she didn’t want to just about capture the story - she wanted to change it. I was 14 years old when she started EQS and she would take me to meetings. I served as an interpreter, wrote all the reports and communicated with other organizations. Then I went away to college to get a business degree and thought I thought that was it. But I kept helping out with the programs and finances, and eventually decided to come back. When there’s something that you like doing and you’re good at it, you listen to that. El Quinto Sol feels like family because I grew up here.
EQS trains community members who to tell their stories to elected officials and advocate for issues they care about. On left, EQS executive director Irma Medellin leads a training session. Above right, EQS members at an advocacy day. Photo credit: EQS
What are the most pressing issues right now in your communities?
The biggest issue we are having right now is with water. Most people think it’s the drought, but what we care about is safe drinking water. Your community might have water, but you can't even touch it because it's full of chemicals. We can’t drink the water and we still have to pay for that water, on top of buying bottled water for our families to cook and drink.
One of the small victories we had recently is in Plain View where we helped community members secure funding for a new well. Because of this new well they have cleaner water and can use this water without health concerns. Another victory was stopping an increase in the price of water in five communities over the next four years.
A lot of these communities are less than a thousand people and they have their own water system which is extremely expensive to maintain. Many of them are very old and when something happens it’s very expensive to fix. These communities have extremely low income families and paying $100 dollars a month for the water service was just too much. Unfortunately, we have not yet found a solution.
Our next step is to get buffer zones for all applications of pesticides, around schools and residential areas. We live in communities that are surrounded by orange and grape farms. They use toxic pesticides which then drift onto our schools and homes. We've gotten public acknowledgement from elected officials about the importance of buffer zones around schools and now we are working to push policy change in Sacramento.
Are there any fears over the impact coming down the new administration's immigration policies?
Right now our community members are fearful of deportation. Many different questions have come up, like what happens to children when their parents are deported. We are trying to calm them down and are talking to them about knowing their rights. We are telling them about the lawyers closest to them and what they can do if they are stopped. Most of these people have been in the U.S. for years working hard everyday and getting involved to make a difference in their communities. Another concern is the removal of the Affordable Care Act, as many community members are scared of losing their insurance. So a lot of our members are fearful, and we are trying to keep them informed. We are also talking with local churches and schools to try to make them sanctuary spaces.
EQS uses dance as a community-building tool. Their programs draw from Mexican and Central American cultural traditions to strengthen family bonds and get community members moving together. Photo credit: EQS
BH: How do you build power and create change in the Central Valley?
IA: El Quinto Sol De America uses art and culture as tools for civic participation. Everything we do is around helping community members participate in the decision-making processes that affect them, like participating in a local school board. Our big focus is on small, rural communities who struggle to get basic infrastructure like lighting, parks, and drinking water because they are on unincorporated land, i.e. they aren’t part of a formal town or municipality. We invite everybody to come to an event and from there we identify community leaders who want to participate. This leadership committee meets to decide the improvements they want to see and creates an action plan. Throughout this process we give trainings. For example, who are your decision makers? What is the governance process in your community? If there is a Water Board, who are the members? Where does the money come from to make changes? The trainings prepare them to be able to attend a board of supervisors meeting or a hearing, and be able to represent the interests of their communities. We train them in public speaking, creating talking points, media engagement, and leadership. We help them understand that they need to be involved in what happens Sacramento - and that their voice matters. Because otherwise decisionmakers forget about the people that live and work in the Central Valley, and only hear the voices of the wealthy landowners who run the big farms and ranches.
The issue focus is driven by them. If they are interested in working on schools, we contact the schools. If they are interested in clean water, we contact the water experts. For example, we invited the head of pesticide regulation to speak and he talked directly to community members about issues of pesticides and the state policies that affect them. If there are issues with things like pesticides, water infrastructure, or transportation that is affecting our community, then we try to contact our representatives directly and get the issues resolved.
We want our community members to know that they need to get involved with what is going on in Sacramento so that their representatives don’t forget about the Central Valley.
What are some of the challenges that you face in getting funding, as a grassroots organization?
With foundations, it takes a long time to apply for a grant, and they move very slowly. Because we only have 4 staff members, we look really small, even though we have such an active, large network of volunteers. So funders tell us, “We’ll give you $5K, and then next year you can apply for $10K.” I keep telling them yes we have a small budget but we do so much: look at all our accomplishments! We have so much momentum and positive projects happening - if we could get a bigger sum of money then we could become a stable organization and double the work that we do now. We also know that we need to change our culture as an organization. We are used to giving away all our services for free, because people here don’t have much money and they are our neighbors… but we need to start charging for some of our events and services so that we can sustain the organization, which is in everyone’s best interest.
EQS creates spaces for youth to explore and celebrate their Mexican-American heritage. Blue Heart member funding will help support their 8 week summer youth arts program. Photo credit: EQS
What programs will the Blue Heart funding go to?
We will use it for our 8 week youth arts summer program. It's hard to get funding for that specific program because funders think it’s just an arts and crafts program but we know it’s so much more. A lot of the children were born here so they see things differently than their parents, who were born in Mexico or Central America. We teach the youth traditional crafts and dances, but we encourage them to put their own spin on it and to use their imagination, because they don’t get that in the schools. We invite the parents to participate during the program, too. It’s an opportunity for parents to explore values, culture, and creativity with their child. The program is a key way that we strengthen family relationships and community. Nutrition is a big issue in our communities, as well, and we’ve also noticed that our program helps our youth not gain weight. The dancing keeps the kids busy physically as well and they love it.
What are some of the things that give you hope?
I'm looking forward to the buffer zones for pesticide use. The EPA hasn’t said anything yet, but I’m hoping they will ban substances that we know are dangerous. I also draw hope from our summer program, because it is really fun to see the children grow every year. Another thing is our agroecology projects, where we are using about half an acre and teaching members how to grow fruits and vegetables without using any kind of chemicals. Not only are they going to be able to produce fruits and vegetables, but they will also be able to use them to create products such as salsa and chili.
How do you imagine growing in the next five or ten years? What is your vision for growing?
I would love to have one or two organizers so that we can increase our scope. There are many more communities that want to work with us on a regular basis. There are over 100 unincorporated communities in Tulare county! I would also love to amplify our summer programs - our model is unique and it has a lot of positive outcomes that we can duplicate in other communities. Finally, I dream about having our own community center. We would have a kitchen where people can come and learn about different types of food and the parents could teach kids how to make traditional, nutritious foods. We would have art shows and concerts, too.
We want people to realize that just because you live in a low-income area does not mean that you should not pursue the talent you have within. So I always tell students to look beyond your physical surroundings, because some of the things I’ve done despite very limited financial resources.
How do you keep surviving and thriving as an organization, despite the challenges?
It's community members. Every time we need something - food, space, transportation - they are here. They believe in the mission and they know that we are for them. It's a sense of togetherness that has really kept us going. I went to college, but I came back. We were born here raised here. Your parents, your brother, your cousins -- they all live here. So we know whatever change we make is going to impact our whole family.
EQS staff and community members call on the CA Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) to "raise the bar" and create pesticide buffer zones around schools. Photo credit: EQS and @Gus_jr88
Blue Heart: How can folks support your work who aren’t from your communities?
ISABEL: If they have time and they want to commit to volunteering, we would love to have them join us. They could also become a spokesperson for our organization and help raise visibility about the issues our communities face here. One small but important this they can do is join the campaign to address the high levels of 123-TCP, a cancer-causing toxin from pesticides, from our groundwater. We always appreciate individuals who share our story and listen to what's happening outside the cities, as well as those individuals who support us financially. (You can reach Isabel at isabel [at] elquintosoldeamerica [dot] org)
Have questions? Want to hear more from Isabel?
Join us in virtual video conversation with Isabel on March 22nd, 12-1pm.