Community activist aims to educate at grassroots level
Juanita Salas pauses at the Planned Parenthood Organizing and Policy Summit in Washington, D.C., the week of July 8. (PHOTO COURTESY JUANITA SALAS / July 21, 2013)
She is very enthusiastic and animated, telling stories that go in several directions at once.
She is a modern success story in the classic American sense.
Salas’ father died when she was 5 years old, leaving her mother to raise her eight children alone.
As a migrant student, she attended four elementary schools before she got to middle school, before graduating from Central Union High School.
Salas was the first in her family to go to university, choosing San Diego State University because it was close to home.
While SDSU isn’t far from the Valley, moving to the city gave Salas some culture shock.
To deal with feelings of homesickness, Salas got involved with women’s organizations and the student council.
She said she was the first Imperial Valley native and first Latina to be elected Associated Students president.
Her liberal studies education and interest in international relations and education policy took her to places like South Africa, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and Mexico, where she worked on a number of community service projects.
Yet, for Salas, the Imperial Valley remained her home.
Salas moved back to the Imperial Valley in 2004 when she accepted a position with U.S. Rep. Bob Filner’s office.
She recently accepted a position with Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, heading up Promotoras de Salud, a community health education program.
The challenges of the Imperial Valley and the opportunities to address them elicit the most enthusiasm from Salas.
“We have the third- or fourth-highest teenage pregnancy in the state. Unemployment is first in the nation. It’s a domino effect,” she said. “Not only do they drop out of school, they can’t go to work.”
To educate the community about reproductive health, teenage pregnancy prevention, early cancer detection and sexually transmitted diseases and infection prevention, as well as birth control methods, Promotoras de Salud delivers its message at the most grassroots of levels, going from door-to-door to bus stops.
Their breast-health initiative seeks to educate women and men about perils of breast and testicular cancer, and early detection methods. Those who qualify are referred to state health programs.
Salas has many long-term goals to help the community, and many of which center around community education and empowerment.
While she does not have a shortage of opportunities outside the Imperial Valley, those places are not home.
“I can be working in Chicago, L.A. or New York. The passion would be for my career, not my community,” she said.
Staff Writer Antoine Abou-Diwan can be reached at 760-337-3454 or firstname.lastname@example.org