When Alba Perez was leaving Honduras for the United States as a young adult, she got some advice from her mother.
“She said, ‘Whatever you do – whether you are in a room or at a dinner table – leave things better than how you found them,’” Perez said.
At the time, Perez took that as advice to clean up after herself. Since then, it’s become more profound advice for her.
Perez has spent much of her career trying to help Latinos and other underrepresented communities, whether that be advocating for what she calls meaningful inclusion or helping Latina women who struggle with English.
Her passion derives in part from her own memory of coming to the United States for the first time. She didn’t speak any English when first attending Ankeny High School, and her first night in Iowa was made more complicated by three tornado warnings. Perez recalls her host family taking her to the basement three separate times without being able to tell her why.
A few years later, she came back to Iowa for love, but unfortunately found herself living in a shelter for battered women with two small children for a few months because of domestic abuse. That helped Perez develop a “fire in my belly.”
More recently, becoming a grandmother has renewed her passion for helping people, she said.
Perez said she never consciously decided to be an advocate for Latino issues, but she just started naturally trying to help people when she saw those in need.
Part of her service includes helping launch Alianza: Latino Business Association and dance instruction organization Salsa Iowa, which became Salsa Des Moines. During her 12 years at the Greater Des Moines Partnership, Perez managed the diversity committee charged with helping make Des Moines a more inclusive community. She has also been heavily involved in the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa, and the Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines.
Perez took her current position in the Office of Latino Affairs at the Iowa Department of Human Rights in 2012.
The Latino community has developed a sense of identity and purpose in Des Moines over the last 20 years, she said, but it still has a long way to go.
The next step is to have more meaningful inclusion – meaning leadership opportunities at all levels for Latinos. Right now, Latino coalitions and leaders exist, but what’s needed are more elected representatives at the city, state and national levels, she said.
“We are a young and vibrant community, and we are all full of passion and drive,” Perez said. “There’s not really a lot of times where I lose my passion, thank God, because there are always issues, and each issue sort of fuels my passion again.”