By Chanel Ward
As Hispanic Heritage Month enters its first week in October, El Semanario highlights Latino Coloradoans who are making an impact, as well as continue the conversation around mental health, specifically in men and moreover, men of color. Manuel “Manny” Almaguer not only saves lives on the frontlines in his profession as a firefighter for the last 24 years, but has made incredible strides in addressing mental health, to save the lives of the men serving on those frontlines. Almaguer has collaborated with various organizations to create safe spaces for men of all ages, but specifically, for men of color to speak candidly about their traumas and really work through them in unique ways. By setting the trend and sparking the match to the conversation around combating the stigmas of mental health within the firefighting community revealed the sad truth about first responders and suicide. “We’re losing more first responders to suicide than line of duty deaths,” Almaguer explained. Showing that the need for mental health in men is like the need for water in a wildfire.
The District 6 Chief oversees the firehouses in North Denver, including Districts 7, 12, 17, 20 and 23. He also ranked number one on the Lieutenants list, has served on the board for the United Survivors International for the last four years, which concentrates on suicide prevention and mental health and is the Board President of Homies Unidos, a gang prevention and intervention group. Additionally, and for the past eight years, Almaguer has held the title of Secretary Treasurer for Su Teatro Cultural & Performing Arts Center.
With so many incredible titles, endless accolades and countless awards of recognition, his real pride and joy are his two grandsons—Anthony and Adrian. A Colorado born native who loves the very community in which he serves, Almaguer was prepared at a young age for the work he is revered and now nationally known for. His father, Manuel was a law enforcement officer and his mother, Dorothy served as a nurse, working with the migrant farm workers in Rocky Ford and “very complex and stressful environments of the jail system.” Almaguer speaks humbly about his own accolades, but as proudly about his many positions as he does his wife, Olivia’s work for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. His two children, daughter Otelia Almaguer and son, Fabian Cardenas, also follow in their parent’s footsteps. Fabian, a firefighter like his father and his wife, Casey is well on her way to passing the extensive training to becoming a firefighter herself. Almaguer’s daughter, Otelia also works in the healthcare field as a nurse, proving that the Almaguer family is not only qualified to lead the movement in mental health, but have been preparing to do so for generations.
El Semanario: What is your official title and could you please give us a bio on yourself?
Almaguer: My title is Assistant Chief of the Denver Fire Department and a little bio about myself is; I’m a Colorado Native born in Pueblo. My parents [Manuel and Dorothy] were young, 18-years-old and from there [Pueblo] I bounced around Colorado up until I was around the age of ten. We lived in Walsenburg, Rocky Ford, Springfield and Florence. I’m the son of a law enforcement officer and we came to the Denver area when I was ten, and from there just kind of grew up in the Arvada area. I went to the Front Range Community College and got my Associates of Applied Sciences and Nursing. That was after having worked with the state of Colorado when I was 18. When I was age 18, I kind of didn’t take seriously the interest that the University of Northern Colorado was showing from the journalism program and I just wasn’t quite ready for college, so I didn’t really take that seriously. It broke my parents’ heart and some tough love was actually shown my way from my dad who told me, “well, you’ve got to go to the military, you’ve got to go find your own job, or enroll in the college of your choice.” So, you know, being a teenager, I didn’t take that seriously either, so one day my dad found me a job. It was roofing at the Stapleton Airport. I wasn’t really keen on that and as luck would have it, I kind of found my way working with the state of Colorado as a licensed Psychiatric Technician. I was taking care of the most severe cases of the developmentally disabled population in the state. So, it could be anything from teaching them basic activities of daily living, to – and in some cases – total care; feeding them, changing their diapers, all while having that nonverbal communication with them and running a few training programs, really, really gave me a huge dose of humility at an early age.
While most of my friends were out, you know, being teenagers. And whether they were in college, or whether they worked, when you’re age 18 you have that invincibility to you and a little bit of entitlement. While here I was working in a state institution with a population that wasn’t… I guess, what I’m trying to say is that they were not meant to be seen. So, I worked in these locked facilities and institutional settings. From there, those doors kept opening for me within the psychiatric field and the state actually helped pay for some of my tuition to go to nursing school. At the time, I really didn’t have any interest in being a nurse, but I was hoping it would open up to me that there’s a specialty in nursing called, Psychiatric Nursing. So, I became a Psych Nurse and I went onward to Ft. Logan on their behavior modification unit for about five years with some of the most severe cases of the mentally ill population and once again, just really, really gave me a huge dose of humility, but also a skill set at an early age on emotional awareness, being able to read nonverbal ques and be able to communicate non-verbally.
It taught me a great deal of patience, it taught me actually – whether I knew it, or not – an ability just to have a level of calmness to myself, because in those days at Ft. Logan we practiced what was called Milieu Therapy. Being an RN, we’re a part of the environment, you were the tool and you had to rely a lot on low level, de-escalation techniques and low level communication skills and from there, as luck would have it, there was a buddy of mine – we met when we were in our 20s, we were both members of the same gym – and one day he said he was going to apply out for the fire department. I’m like, “well, I’ll go with you. I got nothing else better to do.” And so, we went and applied for the fire department and really had no idea, the ignorance was bliss in this case, because I had no idea how difficult and how competitive the process was. I went in there and at that time, Currigan Hall was where everybody tested in one day, they didn’t have a cut-off number, now they have a cut-off number of like 1,000. But back then 4,500 people showed up at Currigan Hall and took a written exam. And once again, I was unsure. My wife dropped me off and when I saw all of the people there I was like, “oh! I don’t think this is for me.” Because she didn’t see me in her rearview mirror when she took off, I was kind of stuck there, so out of 4,500 people only 800 made the cutoff score. I then went and interviewed, and they rank you from number 1 to 800 and I end up ranking eighth. That is the story of my career in the fire service, and from there I was promoted very quickly. I became a Lieutenant within my seventh year and then went through the ranks. I became a Captain Assistant Chief and then in my 16th year I was appointed to Division Chief of Fire Prevention, which is basically the City’s Fire Official and then after four years in that position I decided to go back to Operations. Because I went back to operations, I went back at the rank of Assistant Chief, because the division Chief rank is appointed by the Chief and that’s my current position now; Assistant Chief and that’s the highest that you can test to in the fire service with the Civil Service Commission.
We see that the suicide rate is not only higher in men, but men of color, moreover when they don’t have an outlet to grow from and how that ultimately affects their mental health even more. Why is that something that you choose to get involved with and so heavily?
Almaguer: Well, what happened was, in 2013 a co-worker of mine and somebody that was a well-respected Captain on the Denver Fire Department took his life. At the time I was the Community Service Director with an employee group called Firefighters Incorporated for Racial Equality (F.I.R.E.) and this crippled our organization, as this Captain was a member. His passing also crippled our organization in some respects, as we didn’t see it coming. And because you think you know somebody and especially when you see a Command Officer, you think, they’re squared away and there’s nothing that they can’t handle, but what had happened was that a few of us kind of put our heads together and said, this is enough, you know? We were broken, but we didn’t really have a way of figuring out how to navigate to get attention to ourselves as first responders, as men and what we were dealing with, with stressors and high risk factors and so what we did is we kind of went out – almost like a grassroots type of approach – and just started going out to the community saying, “we’re men, we are at a high risk for suicide, can we partner? Can we collaborate?” And people would say, “yes, we’re interested.” But then they’d ask, “well, where do you work again?” and I’d explain that we’re firefighters with the Denver Fire Department, then you can kind of see the trepidation with a lot of people thinking, well… that’s a tough culture and a stigma to break, especially with men and first responders.
Regardless, we kept plugging away and as luck would have it, I was watching a video one day and it was on South Metro Fire Rescue. They’re over here down south, they were dealing with the aftermath of a suicide and put a video out. I went onto the website and I saw on the credits that the founder was a local doctor, Dr. Sally Spencer Thomas and we went and we talked to her. She was right in our backyard, and she was almost like waiting for us. Then, from there we were actually at the forefront and the fire service 10 years ago. What we did is, we rolled out a suicide prevention and total wellness training for the entire department, and that became a national model, and a lot of corporate America was saying, “well, you know what? If firefighters can be vulnerable and courageous in coming forward and telling their story, we can too!” So, that led me on almost this national tour speaking to organizations on how to start a suicide prevention and mental health program in the workplace and it took me to the White House to speak to the Obama Administration at the time and it’s become something that has been a part of well, I guess my life and the flight that I have flown for many years and continue to stay on the front of one of the latest practices. Then, where it kind of took another turn for me was I’m a triple risk factor, not only a man, not only am I a first responder, but I’m also a Latino and that’s where I started to reach out and started talking to firefighters of color, as well as the Latino youth and men.
Women were saying, “you know, I know we have to deal with the stigma in our own culture and how do we become brave and become courageous in telling our stories?”
For so long, we’ve been told not to air our dirty laundry because it’s a sign of weakness, so that’s kind of where I took it more into community-based and that’s where it aligns with me, with Homies Unidos, it’s actually getting out there and talking with the youth and being that model on intervention from an upstream approach. Su Teatro is no different, I love the arts. I love the telling of stories and we have been able to incorporate that storytelling as a very positive coping [mechanism] for dealing with stressors and having that creative outlet. So, when I’m on these three boards, they just touch my soul and I know that I’m in the right place, because it’s all kind of intertwined in the work that’s important to me.
Could you please tell us a little about the non-profit organization Latinos Impacting Our Futures Together (LIFT)?
Almaguer: I’m a founding father, meaning I was part of one of the initial groups that started the organization and basically, it’s the same kind of a concept; it’s men, Latino men who are recognized for their accomplishments, for their leadership, for their philanthropy through their deposits into the community and it’s more about a mentorship program for Latino organizations that are focused around the youth. So, it is something that, like I said, it aligns with the core values of who I am. It’s also great that you can give not just your time, you can give your talents and you can give money if you’re blessed to have it and so that’s why it’s so important to me. It was a founding fathers’ initiative – there may have been like 25 or 30 of us at the time. I’m not as active in that one as I have been in the past, but I still do stay connected with the organization. However, anybody can get involved.
Community seems to be most important to you, even in both your profession and communal work, you seem most proud of those with the community voices attached to them. What’s important when it comes to Latino mental health, specifically?
Almaguer: I would say what’s important to me now and the discussions that I seem to be most entrenched in is more holistic approaches with mental health. I meet probably once a month with Dr. Ramón Del Castillo, we talk about the challenges facing our youth and how do we come up with some of those practices that were maybe not given credibility in the past; such as spirituality, we talk a little bit about curanderismo, and so that is where I seem to spend a lot of my concentration in the mental health conversations these days. And I’ll tell you one of the awards that I’m so proud of was the César Chávez Peace and Justice Award, because that came from the community.
If I can add to that, when we were doing the training for the Denver Fire Department, we were just coming off with what was called Stress First Aid, it was a training developed by the National Fallen Firefighters Association. It was scratching the surface on what we were dealing with as first responders and then as I said we had a Captain who took his life, and it was right while we were doing this training.
So, when we started coming up with this model on how we were going to address suicide prevention and mental health within the fire service, we felt it had to be by us, for us. But we were missing something. We had all of the data and the data was startling and still to this day we’re losing more first responders to suicide than line of duty deaths, but we could not figure out how to really get that buy-in. Dr. Sally says, “Hey, listen. We’re going to put a video together and I need some courageous individuals to come forward and talk about any time they may have sought mental health treatment, counseling and talk about stories of triumph and resiliency.” It was like crickets in the room. Nobody wanted to come forward. Until finally, about five of us said, “okay, we’ll do it.” And at that time, I was going through some stuff in my personal life, but we put together this video and if you go to YouTube and you type in ‘Denver Fire Total Wellness’ it’ll come up. So that video was the most impactful thing that we did to create that shift in the culture and the stigma of mental health within the Denver Fire Department. It was also a national trend setter. I would go and speak on another topic, unrelated to mental health in the fire service and people would come to me and say, “hey you’re that guy from the video.” And it made its way across the country and became kind of the model. Like you know what? We’re going to start utilizing storytelling as part of the programs for suicide prevention and total wellness in the workplace. That was a game changer for how we brought forth the discussion on suicide prevention and mental health. There were many people who said, “We saw you! We saw the firefighters in there and it gave us hope and it gave us courage that these guys can come forward.” It even became really big in the construction industry and it became really big in the healthcare field as well.
If you, or anyone you know is suffering from mental health issues, you can call the SAMHSA hotline directly at 988, or visit their website at www.samhsa.gov. Also, to get involved with the gang prevention and intervention group Homies Unidos you can visit their website at www.homiesunidosdenver.org. A special thank you to the Denver Fire Fighters and all front-line workers for always being the bravest in the room and to their families for that same strength behind the scenes.
El Semanario believes in the efforts to combat mental health through awareness, but first riding the stigma plaguing our communities against seeking such treatments. With the Almaguer family, the Denver Fire Department, SAMHSA, Homies Unidos, and the many people and organizations like them, we want to give you all a special thanks.
Chanel Ward is an Independent Reporter for The Weekly Issue/El Semanario.
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