She pushed for wildfire alerts in Spanish. Now she’s taking language equality to the state Capitol

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16min 35sec
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Democrat Elizabeth Velasco, a fire communications official and Spanish translator, was elected to the state House representing Glenwood Springs.

Conservation is a familiar topic in the Western Slope, where elected officials make choices that directly impact the local environment and economy, including through outdoor recreation and mining.

Elizabeth Velasco became directly involved with conservation in 2020. It was one of Colorado’s worst wildfire years in recorded history, one that directly threatened her hometown of Glenwood Springs.

As the Grizzly Creek fire burned a mile east of the city, firefighters asked Velasco if her small translation agency could translate emergency alerts into Spanish. She jumped at the opportunity, translating dozens of press releases and signing a contract to translate for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Velasco, 35, is now a certified wildland firefighter and has served as a public information officer for megafires in California and Oregon. Earlier this month, the Democrat was elected to Colorado’s House of Representatives in District 57.

In an interview, she said her Mexican upbringing and background in translation have prepared her to be a voice for her district, which covers Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties.

“I want everyone to understand what I'm saying, and I want people to ask questions and to participate,” she said. “The more barriers that we can remove for people to engage, that's going to just make us stronger.”

Here’s our conversation with Velasco, which has been edited and condensed for publication.

Q: Last year, you were coming off a busy year of translating emergency fire alerts for Spanish speakers. What made you want to put that aside and run for office?

Velasco: During COVID and during that very crazy fire season, I saw that we were leaving people behind, that one size doesn't fit all. It felt like there was a disconnect between leadership and people on the ground. And I knew that we could do better, and our families and our communities deserved better. So that's why I jumped in. 

Q: Doing that work, what did you learn about how Latinos are treated by state agencies and other officials?

Velasco: When there's an emergency, things move really fast and we need to be proactive and create plans where we're able to reach everyone. For our Latino community in the district, the Spanish information came later, after there was advocacy from different organizations and local nonprofits. And really, that should be at the forefront. We should be able to communicate with everyone when there's an emergency. I saw that language access is a gap, that representation was a gap, that we didn't have diverse leadership with all these different agencies.

Q: We spoke almost two years ago about the need for more immediate information for Spanish speakers during emergencies. Do you feel Colorado has changed on that front?

Velasco: I feel like there's still a lot that we can do to be proactive. That year we had some of the worst air quality in the world — here in Colorado — because of the compounding effects of fire and smoke coming from the West. There's still so much more that we can do to have better channels of communication with community. To me, there's a gap in trust and strong relationships with community that would really help with emergency communications.

Q: Did you notice that gap when you were running for office?

Velasco: Yeah. My bigger goal, when I think about my campaign, has been to expand the electorate, to engage community. Because a lot of times, politics feels like it's not for us. Like it's something complicated. And we have to bring down the issues. How does this impact my family? How does this impact our pockets? And when we think of inflation, that means pressure on working families. That means that things are more expensive, that it is harder to pay rent, to make ends meet. And I think that we need people to be engaged and we need people to support someone who's going to fight for them and who has their values.

Q: Do you expect you’ll have to do more translation or fire emergency work in the future? 

Velasco: I definitely would love to continue serving and doing public information. I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to continue with my agency, but I definitely will bring in my perspective as someone who brings in language access. Because that's needed at all the levels. At emergency communications, at healthcare, our court systems, our schools. Language access definitely needs to be a priority for the state.

Q: Last year, the state decided it wanted to start fixing and preventing disproportionate impacts of pollution and climate change — and to center environmental justice in future work and policy. How would you describe environmental justice?

Velasco: That's a tough question because I know that there's a lot of work to do. I look forward to the recommendations from the environmental justice task force that was created. I know that in my community, we have areas that are heavily impacted by resource extraction and where there's going to be a need for a just transition. So in my mind, environmental justice means not leaving anyone behind. It means letting community lead, listening to all the stakeholders and making sure that we have clean air and clean water. 

Q: At a recent debate, you said you did not support diverting water from your region for urban areas. Why did you make that statement? Is this an issue in your district?

Velasco: It is an issue. We have a lot of ranching in our communities. They're the ones who have the water rights. And we have been seeing that when they come into hard times, they have to sell their land, and then urban areas [want to] buy up the water rights and divert the water away from our ranching communities. 

Also, we are sharing the [Colorado River] and the water with the upper-basin states, with California, with Arizona. And they are using a lot more than we are. And they are growing a lot faster. There's also the risk of the federal government coming in and saying, “We're going to take charge and tell you what to do.” Which we don't want. We want Colorado to keep leading the way when it comes to water resources and clean energy, and we want to make sure that we are holding the other states accountable to make sure that we have our share of this very valuable resource. 

Q: What do you think is the most important part about interpreting?

Velasco: The most important part is giving a voice to people — to be able to share what they care about. And I think that language access really is the minimum. We need to make space for people to come as they are and share what they care about and share their experiences. We also need diverse leadership for kids to see themselves in those positions, that that is a possibility for them.