Community involvement and an exploration of cultural identity are important components of the Hispanic Leadership Institute, which graduated its fifth class in a ceremony this week.

“They teach you to be conscious about what’s going on and be informed, not only to participate in the discussion, but to eventually be a factor for change,” said institute graduate Julio Espinoza.

The program was born after the president of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce noticed an absence of Hispanics in leadership roles.

“As I looked around I realized early on that we really lack diversity on key boards and commissions,” said Lea Márquez-Peterson. “It’s not just a Tucson thing, you see it at the state level, you see it regionally and at the federal level.”

Participants go through a 10-week program that includes classes focused on ethics, cultural and personal identity, community issues and public service, said Angela Florez with Valle del Sol, a Phoenix nonprofit that helps run the program.

“The ultimate goal is to find a way for them to engage civically with their community, more than they were when they walked in the door,” Florez said. “Each one of the graduates has to write a pledge, a commitment they’re making with their community.”

For graduate Aracely Coronado, that commitment is personal.

“When I was young I lived in a bad neighborhood, a lot of gangs, a lot of drugs. I used to go to the Boys and Girls Club and it helped me, they were mentors to me,” she said.

Before the institute, she was not very involved with what was going on in her community, Coronado said, but now she realizes her experience allows her to give back through a leadership role.

“In the future I would like to go beyond volunteering and serve on the board of the Boys and Girls Club,” she said.

A diverse mix of professionals made up the 16-member graduating class, with participants from Pima Community College, Tucson Electric Power, the Better Business Bureau and the Tucson Police Department.

Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor, who received the Daniel Hernandez Jr. Public Service Award at the ceremony, said he encourages his officers to participate in the program.

“Getting cops to go through training with community members is one of the absolute best things we can do,” he said. “When they can hear what the community thinks about a topic, they can share what they think, and it creates greater understanding.”

Two police officers from TPD and two from the Oro Valley Police Department were part of the class.

For Espinoza, who grew up in Mexico and recently joined the Tucson chamber, an important part of the institute was learning about cultural identity as a way to look to the past to better face the future.

“Before you take on a leadership role you have to understand who you are,” he said. “Not necessarily where you’re from, but where you’re going.”

Contact reporter Luis F. Carrasco at or 807-8029. On Twitter: @lfcarrasco