For Dawn Martinez Oropeza, recalling how her father was stripped of his cultural identity drives her to make sure that doesn’t happen to 600 middle and high school students her organization mentors in Des Moines and nine other Iowa communities. 

Martinez Oropeza said her father stuttered, and he needed English lessons. He was assigned to special education classes, not English as a second language. Along the way, he lost some of his Latino culture. “Back then, that’s how they assimilated people,” said Martinez Oropeza.

Al Exito strives to make sure that doesn’t happen today. Martinez Oropeza is the executive director. Her job is a diverse mixture of teaching, work in the arts, mentoring, coaching, dancing,  listening and inspiring. 

The hundreds of students in her program come voluntarily. They hear college professors and clergy and others speak about leadership skills and how to succeed in college. They work on hands-on exercises. The other day they toured Grand View University. Sometimes, she tells them about her previous job with the Cesar Chavez Foundation in Los Angeles, at one point working to preserve the famed United Farm Workers leader’s private office. 

“Dawn has motivated and supported so many Iowans to further their education, to dream, to learn, to grow,” Marlu Abarca, a member of the Al Exito board, wrote in a nomination letter.

Ruby Herrera also nominated Martinez Oropeza, writing, “Dawn’s vision and passion for making a difference in the lives of many Latino youths is what has kept her committed. She has been very devoted to creating a culturally competent and engaging curriculum for the program.”

“Dawn believes expertise within the Latino community adds value to the message of educational success,” wrote Diane Patton, another board member. “When Latino college students, who have overcome family objections or lack of financial resources to obtain their dream of education share their stories with students and parents, an impact is made. At the conclusion of one session, a father cried as he stated he now understood why he must let his daughter go to college.”

Martinez Oropeza said people wonder why she left her job with the Iowa Arts Council to run the nonprofit. “For this job, I get to mix everything I do,” she explained. 

What keeps her going is the desire for Latinos and Latinas to honor their culture as they prepare for success in school and in their chosen profession. “People in other countries keep their cultural identity. Des Moines and Iowa should have that approach.”

Three areas of influence:

  1. She works to help Latinos and Latinas keep their cultural identity and prepare for educational and professional achievements.
  2. Parents work with her to understand the importance of a college education.
  3. She has served on many boards of art organizations and as a grant judge.

Words to live by:

“Keep your cultural identity.”