An advocate for Latino students, this teen is being honored as an emerging leader in Colorado

A high school senior wears dark purple graduation gown and hat while holding a diploma next to a large yellow sign that reads "Congratulations, Seniors!"
Osvaldo Garcia Barron poses for a portrait after graduating. He won the 2023 Emerging Community Leader Medal from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, in partnership with CiviCo. (Photo courtesy of Paolo Garcia Barron)

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When Osvaldo Garcia Barron started high school, he was often the only student of color in his advanced classes. He struggled to speak up and wondered if he had anything to contribute.

The start of the pandemic interrupted his freshman year of high school.

But instead of coming out of it feeling isolated, Garcia Barron came back to school determined. He followed his older sister Paola’s lead in participating in some leadership programs and continued taking advanced classes.

When he still struggled to feel a sense of belonging, he realized he probably wasn’t the only one.

Garcia Barron restarted the Boulder High School Latino Student Organization where he eventually became president. And he started getting involved in lots of other programs in his school, district, and city, including serving as a board member for the Boulder Valley School District Youth Equity Council and being a mentor in the school’s AVID program, which helps prepare students who are historically underrepresented in higher education for college.

Now he is being recognized as this year’s recipient of the Emerging Community Leader Citizenship Medal. The awards are in their ninth year and are given by Gov. Jared Polis and CiviCo, a nonprofit leadership development organization.

Garcia Barron was nominated by one of his mentors who said that he’s an inspiration to others.

“Osvaldo has the type of personality that can truly change lives,” Jasmine Johnson, the mentor who nominated him, wrote in the nomination letter. “Oftentimes, Osvaldo seems more like a counselor himself than a student. I am excited to see all the growth and change Osvaldo will inevitably bring to himself, his peers, and the wider community.

Garcia Barron didn’t know he was even being considered until he got a call from Polis.

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“The moment I answered that call it was like a series of emotions, first of all I was like in shock,” Garcia Barron said. “Talking to a governor, I didn’t know how to process that emotion. I did feel a sense of gratitude. I was honestly really honored and humbled.”

Garcia Barron, who is in his first year of college at Pitzer College in California, called his mom right after.

He said the unexpected recognition helped reinforce that his work does matter.

Asked to pick the work he’s done that he’s most proud of, he can’t pick just one thing.

When he was a member of Boulder’s Youth Opportunities Advisory Board, he helped interview children about how to make the city more kid-friendly. He researched how the City of Boulder could create an immigrant defense fund, perhaps modeled after other cities. He helped host information sessions for immigrants when he was involved with the city’s Office of Equity and Belonging.

Growing up with immigrant parents in a city that is predominantly white, Garcia Barron said he saw his family go through many struggles. His dad works multiple jobs, and his mom stays home with his three younger sisters. They support his education and his work, but don’t have a lot of time to be involved themselves. But he said his parents always instilled hope in him, despite their challenges.

“Echale ganas, mijo,” is one saying his parents tell him that he hangs on to. Roughly translated it means, “Give it your all, son.”

Johnson, who nominated Garcia Barron for the award, is a counselor for Access Opportunity, a nonprofit that selects students to help them with college prep, leadership skills, and career exploration.

She went shopping with Garcia Barron when he was preparing to leave for college.

“Just being out in Boulder with him, we were stopped seven to 10 times,” Johnson said. “People who just wanted to say hello. Those that have been impacted by him and his family. It was beautiful to see that.”

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Her group of students meets once a month, and when Garcia Barron can’t be there, other students always ask: “Where’s Osvaldo? Is he going to show up?” They tell her, “I just really feel inspired by Osvaldo when he’s here. When he speaks, it’s something I can relate to.”

Garrett Mayberry, the program manager for the Boettcher Foundation who helped chair the selection committee to narrow down the nominees for the award, said that Garcia Barron’s application stood out in a competitive group because of how he used his experience to help the Latino community.

“It seemed like he created opportunities for others to be at the table,” Mayberry said.

Even though it’s his first semester of college, Garcia Barron is already involved in several groups. He’s the first-year representative for the Latino Student Union, and he’s a part of the First Generation Club. He’s a Spanish conversation tutor, and he’s being trained to become an Affinity Fellow, which will mean representing Latino organizations on campus and facilitating their communication with the university’s other departments.

It’s a lot to manage, he acknowledged, but he said it’s not difficult because he’s passionate about all of the work. He’s exploring a major in either sociology or political studies, with a possible major in Chicano studies. He may one day go into politics, he said. Or he would like to help write policy with a nonprofit organization. Most of all, he wants to help lift the voice of young people.

“It’s really important to trust the process and continue advocating when it gets difficult,” Garcia Barron said. “I just hope the work I’m engaging in is inspiring others to get involved.”

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at yrobles@chalkbeat.org.

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