‘She just has a love for humanity’
Latina activist fights to expand resources to immigrant and undocumented community
Last summer, Lili Navarrete spent her weekends under 100-degree weather for several hours straight in rural towns across Washington so she could provide health care assistance to farmworkers and Latinos whose needs were largely ignored as the pandemic loomed over their communities.
Navarrete, forty-three, recalls feeling drained from working over ninety hours a week on average alongside a team operating a mobile clinic during the late summer and fall months. Despite her weariness, she never hesitated to help wherever she could.
“Just seeing the appreciation of the community and hearing them say ‘mil gracias’ because they’d been put aside for so long,” she says, “that to us was all we needed to continue.”
Navarrete works as the director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, which based in Spokane, and the manager for Raíz, the organization’s outreach program for the Latino community. She had been working to address health disparities among the Latino community before the pandemic hit, but once it did, it magnified the existing health disparities and inequities. This prompted her to apply for a grant that would allow Raíz to fund a mobile clinic.
Navarrete led efforts to bring Raíz to Washington in 2018 after attending a conference that outlined how the program allows organizers to work alongside the Latino community to improve sex education, reproductive health, and access to health care.
“When I got out of that workshop, I’m like, ‘I need to bring this to Spokane, because there isn’t family support and there is nowhere where [the Latino community] can turn to,’” she says.
Within the first year, the program was up and running, and Navarrete was nominated for the Invincible Award in Washington, D.C., for her work in expanding resources to the Latino community. But her biggest accomplishments, she says, are the relationships she’s been able to cultivate with people through her activism.
Navarrete’s reputation preceded her. Mitzi Guerin, a coworker of Navarrete’s, had heard about Navarrete’s advocacy for the Latino and Immigrant communities before they even met. Guerin says she’s amazed to see the balance Navarrete has achieved in helping the Latino community all the while being a mom to three children.
“I was excited to be working with her and I also just really wanted to learn from her and figure out what drove her passion to do the work she does,” Guerin says.
Navarrete brings a fresh perspective to the work she does in health care and in ensuring resources are available to undocumented individuals, Guerin says, adding that Navarrete understands the discrimination undocumented people can face and the difficulty they have in accessing resources because she’s lived it herself.
When Navarrete was eleven years old, her family made the decision in 1988 to leave Mexico City and move to Spokane, in search of a safer and more stable life. She started sixth grade speaking no English.
“I remember going home crying every day, just telling my parents, ‘I don’t like this, we left friends, we left family in Mexico and this doesn’t feel like home,’” she says.
Even now, Navarrete can still recall the expression of frustration from teachers when she couldn’t understand what they were telling her. She was then moved into English as a Second Language classes, where she felt comfortable surrounded by other kids who, despite coming from different backgrounds shared a commonality of not being part of the dominant culture.
“We wanted to be accepted so we just didn’t talk about the hurt we faced, and my parents at the same time were hurting too because they didn’t know how to approach the subject. There were many things that they just couldn’t have known,” she says.
Fernando Diaz met Navarrete in 2007 through mutual friends, which marked the beginning of their friendship.
“She is an energy ball,” Diaz says. “Back then I didn’t know that she would ever become such a brilliant activist in the Latino community. I pictured her working an office job.”
But this makes sense, he says. Diaz is constantly left in awe by Navarrete’s activism—especially her efforts to provide health care to farm working communities during the pandemic, putting her own health at risk to help the most vulnerable, he says.
“She’s always doing something to help; she’s not only dedicated but she’s enmeshed in her culture and she just has a love for humanity,” Diaz says. “She really sees people as people and not as the color of their skin, their socioeconomic status, religion, or anything.”
Navarrete says her biggest struggle has been finding acceptance within a predominantly white society and culture. It’s been difficult to come to terms with the reality that some people are still racist and will shout degrading things during local undocumented and immigrant rights rallies, she says.
“Just because we’re undocumented doesn’t mean they get to demonize and dehumanize us,” she says. “We deserve to be treated as an equal and be respected out in the community.”
Navarrete had her residency while she was in high school, which allowed her to apply for grants that ultimately allowed her to attend college. But it wasn’t until she was twenty-two years old that she gained citizenship, having already graduated from Eastern Washington University in 1999. She still keeps her citizenship certificate safely in a vault that is waterproof and fireproof.
At one point, Navarrete was juggling three jobs at the same time, but still found it difficult to make enough money to pay her bills. When she was presented with an opportunity to apply to work as a call representative for Planned Parenthood in 2015, she jumped on it and was later promoted twice.
Once she established Raíz in 2018, Navarrete and her team set out to create relationships with community members and organizations in Spokane. She was involved in efforts to restrict border patrol agents from entering Greyhound buses to inquire about people’s legal status and helped organize rallies to increase awareness of the issue and call on city councilmembers to do something.
City Councilmember Kate Burke has worked with Navarrete on a variety of projects and rallies, particularly centered on educating the Spokane community on immigration.
“She really has used her life experiences to educate, and that doesn’t go unnoticed because when people are having to relive hard times in their lives or reliving their trauma, it’s not easy,” she says.
Navarrete speaks from her heart and always does what she feels is right, regardless of what people around her might think or say, Burke says.
A lot of Navarrete’s desire to help others stems from seeing her father volunteer his time to helping Airway Heights prison inmates as a young girl. Many were in for petty crimes such as stealing food or being caught with a few grams of Marijuana. All they wanted was to talk to somebody in Spanish, which her father did, offering them counseling or just an opportunity to talk. Navarrete was raised in a Catholic household and says her father taught her and her siblings to always lend a helping hand where they are able.
“To be out in the community helping out anyone who needs it—that’s my calling,” Navarrete says. “When COVID hit, I missed the community, the microphones, the bullhorns.”
But COVID-19 didn’t stop Navarrete and activists from organizing. She cultivated partnerships with local clinics in rural areas to better provide health care assistance to farmworkers and provide testing. Resources were limited, but they tested over five hundred workers and about thirty percent of the tests came back positive.
What Navarrete saw broke her heart. Some workers were living in FEMA-style tents, she says, and she remembers providing medical assistance to a family who had all contracted COVID-19. Eventually, the family could no longer pay the hospital bills and even considered taking a family member off a ventilator. The team provided them with health care assistance and enough food to last them several weeks as they self-isolated.
Guerin remembers Navarrete’s sunburnt face as she worked fourteen hours straight and, despite being tired and hungry, her number one priority remained on helping every patient.
“She was just like, ‘Let me check in on these patients, let me make sure they have phone numbers to call if they need to follow up with us, let me make sure they have food, let me make sure they don’t have any question before they leave,’” Guerin says.
Guerin wonders if the mobile clinic patients would have ever been tested or had enough food had Navarrete not advocated for the mobile clinic to go out and distribute resources.
During this time Navarrete and Raíz organizers—in partnership with the Hispanic Business/Professional Association—continued to provide culturally appropriate food to Latino families in Spokane and beyond. Navarrete recalls her family going to food banks when she was younger while going through economically challenging times and not having access to foods that they ate every day.
“The needs that we encountered growing up make me fight and make me help to make my community feel a bit more comfortable and welcomed here,” she says.
Navarrete says she still feels like she’s fighting for acceptance some days but knows she will never give up on her work. It’s important to be intersectional as activist and allow people of color to speak for themselves, she says.
“We don’t need white saviors, we need allies, we need friends that will show up for us and help us open doors,” she says. “It’s not about you having a bumper sticker or posting it on your social media, it’s about taking action, donating or volunteering,” Navarrete says.
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