A chance encounter on the streets of Lawrence 10 years ago led Mexico native Enrique Penaloza to the role of advocate for the local immigrant population.
Penaloza was initially disappointed by the lack of fellow Mexicans when he moved to Lawrence with his wife, Cindy Sloop, a Kansas native, and their three children.
“When we came here we looked, but there was no Mexican community,” Penaloza said.
But one day, he ran across some Mexican immigrants downtown, started speaking to them in Spanish, and realized they needed help finding jobs and housing.
Ever since, Penaloza says, he gets calls from Spanish-speaking immigrants asking for help with employment disputes, interpreting assistance, medical advocacy and legal assistance.
“They’d say, ‘Oh, this guy can help you,’” Penaloza said of how his name and number gets passed around the immigrant population.
Penaloza, who works as a contractor for Mayhew Environmental Training Associates, began conducting church services in Spanish at the Douglas County Jail, and now helps teach English to immigrants at Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt.
Penaloza’s work in the community earned him a Tom and Anne Moore Peace and Justice Award on Thursday night from the Lawrence Coalition for Peace and Justice.
Shannon Gorres, a pastor at Plymouth, nominated Penaloza, and spoke about his dedication to local immigrants.
“His sense of justice is more well-rounded than most people,” Gorres said. “I have seen him continually serve the Spanish-speaking community.”
Gorres also noted Penaloza’s low-key reaction when others call him an advocate.
“Talk about humbleness,” said Gorres, who had received a grant to fund some of Plymouth’s programs and wanted to pay Penaloza for his work.
“I’ve tried to pay him, and he refuses,” Gorres said.
Penaloza brushes off the recognition he’s received for his work, and cites a very simple reason for helping immigrants in the area.
“Because they needed it,” he said.