The following is an interview with Karla Y. Sierra, who is the Grassroots Engagement Director for the LIBRE Initiative, which is a non-profit and non-partisan organization which seeks to improve the lives of Latinos in the United States. Sierra, a past Peace Corps Volunteer, recently won the prestigious George Gibbs award for outstanding grassroots organizing. The award was presented by Americans for Prosperity, the sister organization of The LIBRE Initiative, with more than 1 million activists and volunteers. El Paso News.org had the opportunity to interview Ms. Sierra on Sunday, August 7th, 2022. Sierra’s jurisdiction covers the area from Village of Vinton, TX to Fabens, TX.
Juárez: Thank you for doing this interview. I would like to ask you where you were born and were, were you raised and what high school? Did you attend or where you received your education?
Sierra: No, thank you for the opportunity. I really appreciate you taking the time. Thank you for coming out and interviewing me. Again, my name is Karla Sierra, I’m the Engagement Grassroots director for El Paso area. I was born and raised here, my grandparents, migrated for Mexico from Coahuila and Jalisco. My dad was born in Juarez. I graduated from Montwood High School and then I did my undergraduate studies at Colorado Christian University, which is outside of Denver.
Sierra: I graduated from UTEP, worked in Denver for many years, came back to El Paso, then worked at the El Paso Times for a little bit, and then went back to Colorado to work for another newspaper out there. So, I’ve been kind of in and out of El Paso since I graduated from high school. I worked in the circulation department, which was a different side of the newspaper business.
Juárez: Can you tell me more about what the Libre Initiative and what it purports to do in the region or in El Paso?
Sierra: We were started in 2011. Our founder and president is Daniel Garza and he’s based out of McAllen, Texas. The idea was for us to create a nonprofit to help empower the Hispanic community. We are not an exclusive group, so anybody is welcomed to participate with us or volunteer or help in any of our efforts. Initially LIBRE started teaching ESL. In El Paso, we wanted anyone that came over from a Latin American country or who were already here, to have the opportunity to get a better job by learning English.
Sierra: In El Paso, we also offer financial literacy and personal finance workshops. Financial literacy has been a passion of mine since I started with LIBRE. Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions about financial freedom, about debt and credit cards, so we have been working heavily in financial literacy in El Paso. We partner with a professor at UTEP who comes and offers those workshops. We offer those workshops to high school students, as well as to the general Paso community. We also engage in some policy work. We are a non-profit non-partisan organization. We have also engaged heavily with immigration reform and helping to provide a legal path to citizenship for DACA recipients.
Juárez: Over thirty 30 years ago, there used to be an organization in El, Paso called LIBRE (The League of Immigration for Border Rights Education). It was run by Suzan Kern, Debbie Nathan, and Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, was also part of it.
Juárez: How many people are part of your staff and/or are part of your local organization?
Sierra: I currently have twelve part-time people on my staff. Our volunteer base ranges from 15 to 50 or 60 volunteers at any given time.
Juárez: I saw Rodney Garza being interviewed on Fox News. He stated that that outreach and engagement was the solution to empower Latinos for the elections in 2024. Is that the basis of the LIBRE organization? Is that one of your strategies?
Sierra: Yes, it’s one of the facets. We definitely want to engage with Hispanics in non-partisan ways. We talk a lot about free market principles. About Latinos becoming self-sufficient. Our motto is to limit government, but once they overstep those boundaries, that’s when we want to educate our communities on how they can take a stand and be better informed about what is really going on, yet that isn’t the sole reason why we exist.
Sierra: Daniel Garza migrated from Mexico and his family were migrant farm workers. Garza saw an opportunity to start a nonprofit where we could really make a difference with our Hispanic communities. That was really the essence of what he envisioned. Garza’s aim was to make sure we were breaking down those barriers so we could help improve people’s lives. I believe that we can all make a difference, and that officials and candidates need to be transparent. I don’t come from a political background. Politics is not something that I wanted to take part in. Throughout the years, I certainly voted, but my passion was always to help my community.
Juárez: How big is the LIBRE organization?
Sierra: LIBRE is currently in 11 states and in multiple cities in Texas. Our most recent chapter was opened in Michigan. We have experienced rapid growth in the last 11 years and people are taking notice of what we’re doing. Yesterday, CNNBC was in McAllen with Daniel Garza at an event we sponsored there. We’re currently talking to folks about inflation and how that’s affecting Latinos. Everything is going up, gas, groceries. CNNBC was there, doing a story on that event and we were talking to people about how inflation is affecting us. It was a great opportunity to show how we engage with our communities.
Juárez: What’s been the reception in El Paso?
Sierra: Mostly positive. I think a lot of that has to do with our approach and our strategy. I’m here because I want to work with anyone to do good and do no harm.
Juárez: What is something that you feel can improve in El Paso?
Sierra: I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of, you know, diverse partners around the community, whether it’s a business, folks, public schools, charter schools, and people that love this community. My passion is for us to help the El Paso community. With LIBRE, I want to make sure that we are doing right by and for El Paso.
Juárez: How long has an initiative been here in El Paso?
Sierra: We started in 2016. I was in the Peace Corps where I served in Panama for three years. Then I came back to the states. I wanted to continue working in the nonprofit sector. I applied to LIBRE in Colorado because I wanted to go back to Colorado, but unfortunately, I didn’t have enough qualifications. I certainly had the community part, but they wanted me to have more experience in the grassroots and the policy side of things. I didn’t get the position in Colorado, but it was a blessing in disguise, because a few years later, they decided to open LIBRE in El Paso. I applied and I’ve been the El Paso LIBRE Director since 2016.
Juárez: I noticed on the Facebook page that you are sponsored by the Americans for Prosperity. Can you tell me about that relationship?
Sierra: We are a sister organization of Americans for Prosperity, but we do our own thing. We are also a sister organization for Concerned Veterans of America. We’re three different sister organizations of hundreds and hundreds of other ones, but we all have our own initiatives that we all work on. Of course, we have different demographics. The Concerned Veterans for America group is primarily focused on active and retired military. Americans for Prosperity have their own initiatives.
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Juárez: Where does your funding come from, because it seems you are well-funded.
Sierra: That’s a great question, which always seems to come up. In 2011, we were started, by Charles and David Koch. They provided 10 million dollars to start this organization. Today, in each state, LIBRE chapters are fully self-sufficient with donors in their own states. Here in Texas, people donate anywhere from a dollar to a million dollars. That comes from people appreciating what we’re doing. We’ve been fortunate enough to be around for 11 years because we’re making a positive impact in our communities.
Sierra: We’ve never engaged in local elections. We’ve never endorsed any candidate, or any party.
Sierra: Property taxes affects every single person whether you have a D or an R or and I next to your name. There’s a lot of potential here and there’s a lot of things that our community could rally together to improve. I’m a property owner. I live in El Paso. I pay taxes and to be honest El Paso is one of the highest tax communities not only in the state, and in the country. It’s just unbelievable to me. At one point, we were paying more property taxes than Anaheim California and I asked people, what is an Anaheim California? Disneyland.
Sierra: Many people may feel that their vote doesn’t count, but we have been hearing in neighborhoods and communities that they oppose the increased funding, especially in populations with fixed incomes. We have been working tirelessly to collect signatures. I have not slept for probably the last three weeks because we feel this is a huge deal and I’m really trying to motivate our team and our community and encourage everyone that we now can rally together.
Sierra: We have been knocking on doors. We have been hosting community meetings. We tried to have a meeting at the Hilos de Plata Senior Center in South Central El Paso, a couple weeks ago, but they told us, we could not go in. So, we decided to meet at McDonald’s down the street. People are taking notice of us on social media. We have a great team member. He’s phenomenal in putting content together and he has made some great videos for us. That’s getting a lot of attention. We’re trying to meet with different groups so we can explain property taxes, and the certificates of obligation and why right now, not giving people a vote on them, is a terrible idea.
Sierra: Our elected officials have the power to pass these expenditures without our vote. Why do they insist on passing the certificates of obligation, which is debt without voter approval. Our effort of gathering signatures and working with other groups is fully transparent. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to win, but it may mean that El Pasoans will have the opportunity to vote on the issue.
Sierra: If El Pasoans come out and say they really need this then it will be apparent in their vote. The El Paso County Commissioner’s Court is basically taking that away voter approval on this issue. I’ve been contacting the neighborhood associations, as well as others like Scott Lynch, from the El Paso Apartment Association. The El Paso Builder’s Association has just come on board last week. We are gaining momentum. We just we just need to work together and fight this thing.
Juárez: Have you tried reaching out to other press or publications to introduce where LIBRE stands on this issue?
Sierra: We’ve been really trying to get our name out there, and get the word out. We were recently featured on Abel Rodriguez’s great podcast. KTSM came on Friday to interview us. You all are here, so thank you for the opportunity. They’re really the only news outlets who have reached out to us.
Juárez: What other social justice issues may LIBRE be interested in being involved in El Paso, such as overburdened communities, environmental issues, etc.?
Sierra: Primarily here in El Paso, we’ve focused on immigration reform. We have hosted a few policy forums, or we talked to local state or federal, elective officials. Daniel Garza also came into town last year (on June 8, 2021). He spoke about our efforts not only in Texas, but around the country. We are willing to work with both Republicans and Democrats to solve this issue because unfortunately nothing has been done about immigration in over three decades.
Sierra: Something needs to be done. There’s are a lot DACA recipients and dreamers that are sitting in limbo because they can’t even get their visas processed. That’s a huge issue for us. A lot of folks understand that is an important issue. We have also worked on criminal justice reform, trying to make sure that folks have a second chance at, at a job or a better life, despite having been incarcerated.
Sierra: Those are the types of issues we focus on here in El Paso. Property taxes is new for me. I’m learning a lot because I don’t come from a political background, so it has really been eye-opening and a learning process for us. Our challenge is how are we going to get 25,000 signatures in 60 days, which is essentially the timeline that we’re given.
Juárez: What is the end game for the Libre Initiative in El Paso?
Sierra: Here in El Paso, it’s to empower Hispanic community. And to help them be more informed and educated on what’s really going on in El Paso whether it’s a local state or federal issue. The property tax issue affects every single El Pasoan, like I mentioned earlier, and that is one way we can hold our elected officials accountable in a I respectful way. We always want to lead with respect for people whether we disagree with them or not. We cannot do it by ourselves.
Sierra: I’m really hoping that our community realizes how important this issue is and how it could affect them. In a time where inflation is already at 9.1%, where gas and food prices are increasing, the price of everything is going up and it places an additional burden on our community, and on many people on fixed incomes. Many people in El Paso have low incomes compared to other cities in Texas and to place another burden on them if property taxes increase is not good.
Juárez: Thank you for this interview.
El Paso News has extensively covered the UMC Certificate of Obligation issue:
Martin Paredes, “Opinion: Three Votes, Petitions, The Internet and The UMC Certificate of Obligation” (August 4, 2022)
Martin Paredes, “Breaking News: Specific-Purpose Committee Created to Gather Signatures Against UMC” (July 26, 2022)
Martin Paredes, “UMC Launches Website to Appeal to Voters For $346 Million In Non-Voter Approved Debt” (July 12, 2022)
Martin Paredes, “UMC Chief Asking Non-Voter Approved $400 Million Does Not Vote” (July 7, 2022)
Martin Paredes, “UMC El Paso County Commissioners $400 Million Meeting Highlights” (June 28, 2022)
Martin Paredes, “Exclusive El Paso Tax Tool and UMC Certificates of Obligations” (June 25, 2022)
Martin Paredes, “UMC And the Issue of Transparency” (June 21, 2022)
Martin Paredes, “Breaking News: UMC $400 Million Intent to Notice Taxpayers Postponed” (June 16, 2022)
Martin Paredes, “Exclusive: Recording of UMC Board of Managers $400 Million Vote” (June 15, 2022)
Martin Paredes, “UMC Jacob Cintron and Code of Conduct” (November 17, 2021)
Martin Paredes, “UMC Voluminous Personal Messages” (April 28, 2021)