Breaking the Cycle

Esperanza United interview
Beverly Martinez (from left), Nallely Castro Montoya and Felix Martinez, sit for a photo inside the Anderson Student Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul on Wednesday, June 21, 2023.

It was only after becoming a father that Felix Martinez-Paz realized he had a lot to learn.

Before his daughters were born, Martinez-Paz didn’t understand some of the hardships women face. That’s when he knew he had to do something about it and help others do the same.

“Everything started clicking in my head,” Martinez-Paz said. “I don’t want my daughters going through all these expectations of this society, that they can not go outside at night just because of the way they’re dressed, or if something happened to them just because of the way that she was dressed.” 

It was after this realization that Martinez-Paz joined Esperanza United, a national organization based in St. Paul, Minnesota. The nonprofit’s male audience asked for a male coordinator to lead conversations on breaking down traditional gender roles. Now Martinez-Paz works to rethink traditional gender roles as a men and boys coordinator for Esperanza United.

Martinez-Paz’s role is one part of Esperanza United’s efforts to organize and teach Latinx communities to help end gender-based violence. The organization’s various programs and methods consist of not only starting important conversations, but also running community-strengthening activities and offering other resources, such as a women’s shelter.

The organization hosts a virtual youth-led conference that allows youth of diverse backgrounds to talk about their community independently. The conference consists of three different sessions: gender-based violence, mental health and general community. Ultimately, though, the topics are decided by the youth participants.

Esperanza United’s goal is to help communities by specifically accommodating that community’s needs. For instance, the nonprofit formerly had an annual mother-daughter retreat, but after hearing from the community, decided to change it to a child-parent/guardian retreat.

Since Esperanza United’s founding in 1982, it has continued to grow, both locally and nationally. According to youth amig@ coordinator Nallely Castro Montoya, “the youth bring their parents or their parents bring their kids. So it builds that trust, with the community, and being present in the community has also really helped.”

That trust, along with personal connection, is what has allowed Esperanza United to communicate with the community so well. About 95% of the staff is Latinx, which allows them to bond over similar experiences and concerns, but also helps overcome toxic, traditional gender roles that can be embedded in culture. When it comes to family especially, traditional roles can be more prevalent, as well as harmful. To combat this, Martinez-Paz and his team use what they call the “family approach.”

“We work with the whole family and have these discussions,” explained Martinez-Paz. “They’re very difficult to have. They’re not easy, and sometimes considered taboo topics.” 

ThreeSixty Journalism students are passionate about mental health and how it impacts their community, which is why the stories produced at News Reporter Academy this summer are so important. In partnership with the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and led by MinnPost, students are profiling mental health resources in underrepresented communities. This resource guide highlights important people and organizations doing mental health work throughout the Twin Cities. Click to read more stories.

Esperanza United Featured at TV Camp, Too!