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Latino Community Leaders Recognized In Hall Of Fame Ceremony

Five people hold trophy awards and two hosts stand on each side of the winners.
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(From left to right) Commissioner Louis Moreno, Director Sonia Reyes, award winners Michael R. Reyes, Crystal Ambriz, Henny Ohr, Buffy Jamison, Elizabeth Balcarcel, Commissioner Caleb Knutson and Commissioner Marlú Abarca pose for a picture at the Latino Hall of Fame award ceremony at the Des Moines Art Center on Saturday. They all wore masks as a precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic and chose to stand in a line instead of close together for the annual award-winner photo.

This past weekend six community leaders were recognized and inducted into Iowa’s Latino Hall of Fame.

Six leaders were officially recognized for their work within and outside of the Latino community this past Saturday. The Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs hosted the fourth annual celebration for the inductees. Three were added into the Iowa Latino Hall of Fame, one for Latinx youth leadership, one for equity and justice and for the first time, one for LGBTQIA leadership.

Last year, the director of the Office of Latino Affairs Sonia Reyes said more than 300 people crowded into the Des Moines Art Center to witness the ceremony. This year, due to pandemic concerns, only about a dozen people watched the inductees' introductions and thank you speeches. For those who were not permitted to attend the socially-distanced event in person, it was also live streamed. Everyone wore masks and between speakers, a host cleaned the microphone with antiviral wipes.

Although it was different, Reyes said the pandemic-friendly celebration had some positives: this was the first time it was live streamed so everyone could watch, even at a later time. Reyes still made clear it did not take away from the successes of the award recipients though.

“You guys make a difference. You all make a difference. And we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have someone to look up to," Reyes said.

Twenty-seven Iowans were nominated this year for the awards. The selection committee is made up of three community members and two commissioners from the Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs. Reyes said every year, they receive more nominations than the previous year, and this year was especially difficult to narrow down the winners.

Latino Hall of Fame Honorees

Marlú Abarca, commissioner with the Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs, announced the first two inductees.

A woman stands behind a podium with "Iowa Department of Human Rights" behind her. She is holding a microphone.
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Elizabeth Balcarcel gave her acceptance speech as the first person this year to be inducted into the Latino Hall of Fame on Saturday. She spoke in Spanish because she said she was nervous about her speech. She said when she first crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, she had a lot of thoughts, but "none of them reflected or made me think that one day I was going to be known, I was going to receive recognition for my work and I didn't even imagine that my name was going to be mentioned."

Elizabeth Balcarcel is originally from Zacatecas, Mexico and now lives in Des Moines. She first immigrated to California in 1990 and moved to Iowa five years later. Balcarcel became a U.S. citizen in 2013. She earned a nursing assistant certificate from Des Moines Area Community College and spent many years after caring for senior citizens in nursing homes and providing home health care.

Along with working in the health field, Balcarcel also advocated for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors at Latinas Unidas Por Un Nuevo Amanacer (United Latinas for a New Day, LUNA). To further her work in both mental health and legal assistance for domestic and sexual assault survivors, she earned her advanced sexual assault certification from the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 2016 and has maintained it today. As of this year, Balcarcel is the director of State Program Technical Assistance and Programs at the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CASA). She facilitates her many trainings, speaker events and outreach programs in both English and Spanish.

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Claudia Gabriela Rivera goes by Gabriela and did not attend the ceremony in person due to COVID-19 concerns. In her speech provided to Reyes, Rivera said she now understands why her mother brought her to the United States for a better future, and she hopes she can provide resources for other Latino youth to achieve the bright futures as well.

Claudia Gabriela Rivera was the second inductee into the Iowa Latino Hall of Fame this year. She moved to Davenport from Mexico City in 1988, and now lives in Coralville. Rivera is an only child and was a first-generation college student. At her first job as an admissions counselor at the University of Iowa, Rivera focused on recruiting and encouraging Latino students to attend higher education. She has worked numerous jobs promoting the success of Latinos in Iowa and now works as the associate director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business.

Rivera was unable to attend the ceremony due to COVID-19 concerns, so she sent her acceptance speech to Sonia Reyes, one of the hosts, to read out loud.

"When I was first notified of this award, I asked myself what attributes and contributions would make me deserve it?" Rivera asked through Reyes. "In fact, I had recently provided a letter of support for the nomination of a colleague, who I feel was very well deserving of this honor and for the first time, I had to ask myself the same questions."

A man stands behind a podium holding a microphone.
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Michael Reyes thanked Sonia Reyes (no relation) for opening the opportunity for more Latino leaders to be recognized in the state by helping host the Iowa Latino Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Reyes said he was inspired to do the work he does by his grandparents who immigrated from Mexico. "And one last thing," Reyes said at the end of his acceptance speech. "There are 67,000 Latino registered voters in Iowa. We have to get out and vote."

Louis Moreno, one of the newer commissioners with the Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs, announced the third inductee: Michael R. Reyes. He was born and raised in Davenport. Reyes served in the military for 30 years. For over 50 years, Reyes played in the band Los Mocambos and helped bring Mexican music to Iowa. He also served as the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) council in Davenport and then as the LULAC state director of Iowa. He spearheaded the growth of LULAC in the state, expanding outreach from four councils to twenty.

"For those of you who know me, and that's a lot I guess, know I don't seek recognition for what I do: supporting Latino communities across the state of Iowa. I do what I do because I think it's important," Reyes said. He took the time during his acceptance speech to thank all of those before him in the Latino Hall of Fame and said he hoped he played a small role in the lives of the rest of the inductees, all members of LULAC.

Iowa Latinx Youth Leadership Award

A woman holds a microphone behind a podium.
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Crystal Ambriz recited her acceptance speech in both English and Spanish at the Latino Hall of Fame ceremony on Saturday at the Des Moines Art Center. With every English exclamation, she followed it with its perfect, word-for-word Spanish translation. Ambriz said much of what she has accomplished today is because of DACA. "My life changed when I was able to apply for DACA, which started off as a two-year program. I was able to provide for my son, obtain my driver's license and not live in fear of deportation," Ambriz said. She said being a DACA recipient, she is caught in the middle: "not here, nor there."

"This award sprouted from the commission's desire to uplift our youth, which has experienced increased adversity in recent years," commissioner Moreno said.

This year was the third in which a young person was recognized with the Iowa Latinx Youth Leadership award. 2020's award went to Crystal Ambriz, of Columbus Junction. Ambriz is originally from Tijuana, Mexico and is currently raising her young son in Columbus Junction. She is a single mother, raising her son alone after his father died in a car accident which resulted in three other deaths. She did not attend university immediately after high school because she did not have documents and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) did not yet exist. Eventually, Ambriz did complete her associate of arts degree and is now currently a customer office representative for MidAmerican Energy.

In her free time, Ambriz is a referee for youth soccer. She said it is important for women to have representation in a male-dominated field. She is a community organizer for workers' rights, housing discrimination and food insecurities. Ambriz said she is a proud "DACA-mented" individual and although she cannot vote, she said she encourages her son to participate in all of the privileges awarded to U.S. citizens when he is of age.

Robert D. Ray Award for Equity and Justice

A woman stands behind a podium wearing a blue face mask and points to her eyes.
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Henny Ohr chose to keep her mask on during her acceptance speech because her elderly parents live with her. "So please look to the twinkle in my eye for the expression," Ohr said as she pointed to her eyes at the Latino Hall of Fame ceremony. At the end of her speech, Ohr spoke directly into the livestream video and spoke to her parents in Korean. She translated to English and said she told her parents that she is who she is today because of their sacrifices.

Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs Chair Caleb Knutson presented the Robert D. Ray Award for Equity and Justice to Henny Ohr, of Johnston. The award was created to honor Iowans who uplift people inside and outside their community.

"Originally the Iowa Latino Ambassador Award for Equity and Justice, recognizes and honors the efforts and accomplishments of non-Latino and/or Latino Iowans whose work is deemed outstanding and a significant contribution to the equity and justice of Iowans for Iowa's immigrant population," Knutson said. The award was renamed after the first recipient, former Iowa governor Robert. D. Ray.

Ohr is originally from Seoul, South Korea, and is the founder and executive director of Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (EMBARC). In 2017, Ohr was presented with Des Moines Civil Rights and Human Rights Commission's Humans Rights award. Before founding EMBARC, Orr was the executive officer for the Iowa Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs and the Status of Women within the Department of Human Rights. Ohr partnered with the Línea de Ayuda (Help Line) taskforce to provide resources and information through videos and phone line to the non-English speaking community in Iowa.

Iowa LGBTQIA Leadership Award

A woman stands behind a podium wearing a black mask and holding a microphone.
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Buffy Jamison kept her mask on during her acceptance speech for the Iowa LGBTQIA Leadership Award. She is the first recipient for this award. "Like [Orr], I'm with my parents at home, only it's a little bit of a flipped situation. She said that her parents live with her, I live with my parents," Jamison said while the attendees laughed. "Because I'm a broke millennial and that's what we have to do right now."

“Each year, from here on, the commission [of Latino Affairs] will honor an LGBTQIA person of color that’s making a difference in the state of Iowa," Knutson said as he introduced Buffy E. Jamison.

Jamison uses she/her/hers pronouns or they/them/theirs. Jamison grew up in Des Moines, but graduated with her master's degree in higher education at the University of Denver. She said she is dedicated to helping historically marginalized populations achieve academic success. Jamison co-chairs the Iowa Queer Communities of Color Coalition within the Office of Latino Affairs. She also sits on the communication committee for the Des Moines National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Jamison focuses on promoting the community's understanding of intersectionality, as she identifies within the autism spectrum.

"When it comes to awards that are focused on social justice and equity work, I always have mixed emotions about them," Jamison said. "On one hand, yes it's nice to be recognized for doing that work, but at the same time, it would have been nicer had folks listened to my ancestors when they were talking to them a long time ago so that I wouldn't have to do this work to begin with." Jamison recognized she received the award through a shared platform with the Latino Hall of Fame, and said it should not have to be that way.

For more information about the award winners, the live stream of the award ceremony will be posted on the Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs Facebook Page.