A voice reached out over the airwaves, urging listeners in Spanish to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
The speaker was Maria Guadalupe “Lupe” Gutierrez, who was chosen partly because she is bilingual, but mostly because nearly everyone in the community knows her – and knows not to mess with her.
Having poured countless hours into helping people in Spokane with tasks like filling out the necessary immigration paperwork, Gutierrez put her skill and experience to work when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Gutierrez, a Latinos en Spokane “community comadre,” helped hundreds of people sign up for vaccine appointments when they became available earlier this year.
And Gutierrez knows she’s not an easy person to tell no.
“When I know that I’m right, oh, don’t be in front of me,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez was nominated as one of The Spokesman-Review’s Women of the Year by Jennyfer Mesa, one of the founders of Latinos en Spokane.
Gutierrez has been involved with Latinos en Spokane since its early days, helping out with the organization’s community workshops. As its social media presence and outreach was growing, Mesa described Gutierrez as extending its reach to those without internet access.
When Latinos en Spokane received its first grant to conduct outreach ahead of the U.S. Census, it hired Gutierrez as a community comadre, a trusted community messenger.
During the initial stage of the pandemic, Gutierrez was essential in delivering food and personal protective equipment, as well as translating information into Spanish for Latino community members.
It was a natural fit, as so many in the community already knew Gutierrez, who is a longtime volunteer at St Joseph’s Catholic Church, where she teaches Sunday school in Spanish.
Gutierrez made it a mission to get as many people vaccinated against the disease as possible, signing up more than 300 people to get a shot at the first community clinic it held at the Native Project. The clinic was a robust community effort and even included El Mercadito, a free farmer’s market.
“She had the whole town on her list, and she probably would’ve brought in 500 that day had there not been more restrictions,” Mesa said.
The clinic saw 412 people receive the vaccine, according to Dylan Dressler, clinic director for the Native Project. As volunteer coordinator, Gutierrez was instrumental in ensuring its success.
“She recruited all these volunteers together, translated what our directions were from us to them, she worked alongside Jennyfer Mesa on getting the DJs and the culturally appropriate food,” Dressler said. “She really worked her butt off to get 412 people vaccinated in her community.”
Toni Lodge, CEO of the Native Project, said the nonprofit relied on people like Gutierrez to make its vaccination clinics work.
“She knew the community, so her knowledge of the community saved lives. Her and the other comadres just hustled,” Lodge said.
Latinos en Spokane tapped Gutierrez to serve as the “voice of reason” for its vaccination clinics, recording advertisements that went out over a local Spanish language radio station.
Gutierrez said she focused on restaurants and getting their employees vaccinated, warning about the consequences if they didn’t.
“Putting all the information in the system was – oh my lord,” Gutierrez said.
People who know Gutierrez describe her as someone people naturally reach out to when they need help.
“Her number and my number, we get calls all the time. … Lupe, she has her specialty where she worked as a paralegal and understands the court system. She’s not afraid of it,” Mesa said.
Her penchant for helping others extends far beyond her work for Latinos en Spokane. She now works as a caregiver to the elderly, a career she picked up after she promised a dying friend she would take care of her husband, who had previously suffered a stroke.
Gutierrez immigrated to the United States after meeting an American man with whom she shared mutual friends. They moved to the United States and married in El Paso, Texas, though they are no longer married. Her immigration story is relatively straightforward, but she soon learned that isn’t the case for everyone.
“I came with my visa already so I didn’t have to deal like a lot of people do, it’s what I feel sorry for,” Gutierrez said. “I never imagined what they went through until I started seeing these movies and talking to people.”
When Gutierrez moved to the United States, her English was “broken, broken, broken.” Her only formal English training was for about six months when she was 10 years old, and she only learned basics like the words for colors.
But she ultimately earned a degree in social work.
Gutierrez was working as a paralegal and won an internship under a prosecutor but became disenchanted with the system. She then switched to the defense and came away from both dissatisfied.
She realized “I don’t think I’m on the right path.”
She’s used that experience and expertise as she committed herself to community work.
As a community comadre for Latinos en Spokane, Gutierrez aids in an array of challenges faced by the people who walk in.
“That is our motto – come in and ask, we can help with immigration, rental assistance, all these different systems,” Mesa said.
Gutierrez takes pride in helping people overcome the challenges of applying for things like Social Security. The day before her interview with The Spokesman-Review, she had accompanied a man to a vehicle licensing office and the Social Security office.
She recalled the way one man was clutching on to his identifying documents, afraid to drop them in the mail for fear of never having them returned.
“This poor guy doesn’t even speak English. It’s those people who I feel rewarded when I do something for them, because this boy … he’s holding his birth certificate and his passport like gold.”
Gutierrez has developed an intimate knowledge of systems, and doesn’t back down if she feels she is in the right.
“I love to argue when I have the reason, but when I don’t have the reason I can say I’m sorry, I was wrong,” Gutierrez said.