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Gloria Esparza, on Gen Z, mental health among teens, generational disconnects, optimism for the future, and the best games of ‘cops & robbers’ ever

(Publication Date: 2.27.24)

Overview:  In this episode of the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast, Adam Williams talks with Gloria Esparza, an 18-year-old high school senior and a youth advisor through Chaffee County (Colo.) Family & Youth Initiatives.

Adam talks with Gloria about her upbringing in a home with three generations and two languages, teen mental health, loss of identity as an athlete due to significant injuries and generational disconnects in communication. Among other things.


The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.


Along with being distributed on popular podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via


We Are Chaffee






Looking Upstream Host, Producer & Photographer: Adam Williams

Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray

We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin

We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby

Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom


Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service.
Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.


[Intro music, guitar instrumental]

Adam Williams (00:17): Welcome to We Are Chaffee's Looking Upstream, a conversational podcast of humanness, community and wellbeing rooted in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm Adam Williams. 

Today I'm talking with Gloria Esparza. Gloria has a different element for the podcast than we've had before. She's an 18-year-old high school senior and a youth advisor through Chaffee County Family and Youth Initiatives. 

I'm grateful for this conversation because we get to hear a perspective that I think we collectively tend to overlook or at least give less attention to, it's that of someone young, a teenager, someone of Generation Z. 

Gloria and I talk about her upbringing in a home with three generations and two languages. And she's got me feeling envious of the fun that she and her cousins have had there, especially when playing a souped up version of a childhood game that I will bet is familiar to you. It's cops and robbers at a level I did not know existed.

(01:10): We talk about teen mental health and how that has hit closely for Gloria and has inspired her college and future plans. We talk about generational issues like communication and understanding. For those of you who are parents like I am or grandparents, this conversation might give us glimpses into what the teenagers in our lives are thinking and needing. 

As an athlete who has gone through multiple significant injuries, Gloria already has experienced something that a lot of us can relate to, how to figure out what we're about when something that's at the core of our identity gets ripped away from us. In her case, that was her identity as an athlete on the court and field, but we all have our own version of that who am I now crisis that challenges us, with jobs, with relationships, whatever it is, right?

(01:59): The Looking Upstream podcast is supported by Chaffee County Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority, and it's available on all podcast players. The show also airs at 1:00 PM Tuesdays at KHEN 106.9 FM community radio in Salida. Look for the monthly We Are Chaffee column in the Chaffee County Times and the Mountain Mail too. 

Show notes including links and a full transcript of this and all Looking Upstream conversations are available at You can support the podcast by following and engaging with @wearechaffeepod on Instagram. Enthusiastic ratings and reviews on Apple and Spotify, they're greatly appreciated too.

(02:39): Okay, here we go with Gloria Esparza.

[Transition music, guitar instrumental]

Adam Williams (02:55): Gloria, you're in your final month of high school and I know you have college and I'm curious, this is going to be a lot of change over the next several months, what's on your mind? How are you feeling about it

Gloria Esparza (03:05): Overall, I'm really excited. I think it's going to be a really cool change and just something to jump into, but it's definitely a little bit scary. I'm not necessarily the first person in my family to go to college, but the first in quite a few years to go and so leaving my family and I'm going pretty far away is definitely nerve wracking knowing I'm going to get homesick and I can't just come home. So I don't know.

Adam Williams (03:28): You're going to be really far away. Why don't you go ahead and say where that is, why you chose that location and that school.

Gloria Esparza (03:34): I'm going to be in Hawaii at Hawaii Pacific University. I chose that school because it's been on my mind since sixth or seventh grade and even if as my career paths changed, I think overall the school was beautiful, [inaudible 00:03:49] toward it last March and I just fell in love with everything about the school, the campus, the area. And so overall, I think it's just going to be a good experience and there's so much to see in the world. Might as well start now.

Adam Williams (04:00): It's a big change from where we are at high elevation in the mountains, it's very dry, obviously we have snow and cold at this time of year and then you're going to Hawaii with tons of humidity, you're surrounded by a massive ocean. Is that part of the draw for you? Are you excited about that? Or what do you think about that change?

Gloria Esparza (04:17): I'm super excited. I love the snow. I love the mountains, but I think something new is always fun. And I love the ocean. It's one of my favorite things. I love to be in the ocean. I love to swim and love the water. And I've always wanted to learn to surf. So I think overall it's just going to be a good change. [inaudible 00:04:32] a big change from where we're at right now, but a good one nonetheless.

Adam Williams (04:35): I was going to ask you about surfing because you're an athlete, you're a three-sport athlete in school, so it seems like a logical question that, okay, you go there, surfing is a thing, is that something you're excited to do? Or maybe some other sports? Or just even scuba diving and things that I don't know if it's considered a sport, but it's definitely a very cool pastime.

Gloria Esparza (04:55): I'm looking to do everything, new stuff. I used to snowboard before I tore my ACLs, so I'm trying to get back into snowboarding. And obviously going to Hawaii, try surfing, probably won't be very good at it, but I'm definitely excited to try, scuba diving. Everything within the ocean. I love the water. I initially wanted to go into marine biology and I still am super fascinated by the ocean and so I'm excited to do all that kind of stuff.

Adam Williams (05:18): You were interested in marine biology, but then changed course. I'm curious about what led to that, and you said you're still interested, so why is it you don't want to study that now?

Gloria Esparza (05:30): I wanted to do marine biology for a very long time because I am allergic to everything under the sun, especially animals. And I grew up on a ranch, so for me, I always wanted to do something that had to do with animals. Growing up I was like, "I'll do this, I'll do that." But anything like being on a ranch or being a vet was just so hard because I'm so allergic to everything. And so initially I was like, "Why not just go in the ocean? You can't be allergic to those animals that don't have any fur." I was like, "I'll just go into marine biology."

(05:57): And I just love the idea of the ocean. I think it's absolutely incredible that we know more about space that doesn't belong to us than we do our own oceans. And so I was like, "Okay, I'll do that." And then I got into my sophomore year of high school, took biology and hated it, hated everything about it. I was like, "Why do I need to care about these fish? Why do I care about the size of their scales? That's dumb." And so from there I just realized that it wasn't necessarily what I wanted to do anymore and I had to switch gears and figure out where I actually needed to be and what I was called to do.

Adam Williams (06:28): Science was always a tough subject for me, whatever kind of science it was. And I don't know that that's actually what you're saying was that it was tough, I think you just found subjectively it's like, "Maybe that's not what I want to pursue in my life and career," but it's cool that you're still interested. You can go do that as a casual interest by living there.

(06:45): So you grew up on a ranch. I'm curious what kind of animals you had around, what size ranch. Can you paint that picture for me of what it was like growing up there?

Gloria Esparza (06:52): I think I like to say I had the best childhood known to mankind, and I don't think anybody can compare. I live on a ranch and my cousins live on a ranch two minutes down the road and my other cousins live on a ranch about 10 minutes down the road. So we were all super close, and being super family oriented, I grew up knowing that if I needed flour to make a cake, my aunt had it if we didn't, and I loved that. We have cows, horses, pigs, chickens, donkeys. 

We get random animals here and there. Like we had a goat, but my aunt grandpa's not huge on those ones because they don't do much, but my aunt has other ones. She has a pet cow that just roams the ranch and we hang out with her and she has four fainting goats.

Adam Williams (07:40): And they actually do faint, right?

Gloria Esparza: Oh yeah.

Adam Williams: Yeah.

Gloria Esparza: That was our favorite thing to do, is chase them around until they fainted. [inaudible 00:07:45]. But overall, it was really fun. I think my favorite memory growing up on the ranch was just like when we got to play cops and robbers and we had all the four wheelers and three ranches to go between, so we would go everywhere and play for real cops and robbers till 1:00 AM and just hang out. I never had a worry about what was going on. I knew I was safe, I knew who I was with, and I knew that there was always a house that I could go to.

Adam Williams (08:07): That is a seriously leveled up cops and robbers game because of course I played that too as a kid, but we're talking about only within a yard or two or three with neighbor kids. That's huge, those ranches and four wheelers. That's some serious play.

Gloria Esparza (08:22): We had four wheelers and actual sirens and lights that we would use and the robbers could use whatever they could get the keys to, but we would take the keys to everything and put them in one location. So they had to rob the keys to rob the four-wheeler or the motorcycle or the golf cart. And the cops, we got like four four-wheelers between all of us and we had the keys to everything. And then jail was on a different ranch than everything else. We took it seriously.

Adam Williams (08:51): Wow. Yeah, no, that sounds like a lot of fun. A lot of fun.

So let's go back to what you're going to study. Since it's not marine biology, I know that it's psychology and sociology. I think you intend a double major. But also a minor in American sign language. I think that we're going to get into some deeper conversation about the psychology and sociology piece. So let's start with American Sign Language. I'm curious, what inspired you to want to learn that?

Gloria Esparza (09:16): I'm a pretty soft-spoken person and I have been since I was little. I like to tell people I sound like a little boy going through puberty because that's what I feel like I sound like all the time. And so when I was younger, speaking up, it's not easy for me.

 I don't really get much louder than I'm speaking to you right now. And so I took to ASL just because I thought it was cool and those people can't talk so they use a different form of language and it always fascinated me. I thought that was absolutely incredible.

(09:44): And so growing up I was like, "This is kind of cool." So I took it up as a hobby. I would watch YouTube videos. Nothing crazy, but then when I got older and realized I could actually study that and learn it, I think that would be awesome. 

I also think it's just a great resource to have going into psychology because I don't ever want to be the person that's like, "Oh, I can't take you because I don't understand you." And so knowing that I can speak English, I can speak Spanish, one more to add to that just means I can help that many more people and I just love that idea.

Adam Williams (10:14): That's incredible, yeah. Especially when you are commenting on I don't want to not be able to serve you and what you need simply because this language gap. And obviously for a lot of us that is a language gap, I don't know sign language. So that's very cool.

(10:30): I want to ask you about the psychology and sociology piece and what it is you intend to do with that and maybe what led you there of all things. You could have chosen, anything in the world at this point, what you want to study other than marine biology, since we've already covered why that's not happening, but why those particular subject areas?

Gloria Esparza (10:47): I went into psychology after I realized I didn't want to do marine biology because I just realized it was something I was good at. I like talking to people and I like listening to them. I like hearing everybody's stories and where they come from. And I have a lot of friends growing up who were very suicidal and very just going through a lot. 

And so I did everything in my power to help them. And I was like, "Oh, you feel like this? Let me google it. Let me figure out why you're feeling like that." My sophomore year I was like, "Man, I realize I'm good at this. Why not just pursue it? This is something people do for a living. Why can't I do that too?" And since then I just think it's been absolutely incredible to go down that path. 

Obviously, it's definitely a lot more difficult talking to strangers rather than my friends, but I'm excited to continue going down that. And then my end goal is to go into children and teen therapy and become a children's therapist.

Adam Williams (11:40): Okay, you mentioned your friends and feeling suicidal, and that's obviously a very big topic and a very significant one. I'm going to guess that you're aware that over the past however many recent years headlines that, hey, mental health in teens is... We're in a crisis state with this. 

I want us to be able to talk about that because I believe that you have insights that a lot of us, especially maybe those of us from older generations who don't necessarily understand why that is, I think you have something to share. And I'll also say, as many people who listen to this podcast regularly know, I have two sons, one of them now is a teenager and one is going to be soon enough. 

So this is a subject of interest and concern in our house from time to time that we want to not be closed off from what's going on and why are these things at a crisis point.

(12:32): Obviously, you can't represent all teens or all anybody, but just speaking from your own understanding and perspective, why do you think we're in the midst of a mental health crisis, if you agree that that's actually what is happening?

Gloria Esparza (12:46): I don't know if it's necessarily a crisis so much as now we have the media to publicize it. I think it's always been around and it's always been a thing, but it's just not something that was talked about nearly as much as it is now. I think a lot of it just has to do the way that we perceive ourselves now through the media. 

Kids are getting younger on Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, or whatever, and that leads to a lot of comparison and a lot of, "Oh, I want to be like this person. I need to be like this person. My friend just went on a vacation and I didn't, so they're better than me." And I think that just tends to lead to a lot of big feelings.

(13:23): And growing up, you're dealing with a lot of big feelings in a really small body and you just don't necessarily know how to handle it. And I think that's why it seems to be a crisis because we're able to publicize it a little more now. I do think it is definitely a problem, but I also think that has a lot to do with people just not wanting to talk about it or not wanting to admit that it really is a problem. 

I think a lot of people still have the outlook that it's in your head, which is the problem, it literally is in my head. And I just think it can be really difficult to deal with that kind of stuff. As a kid you're like, "I don't know why I'm feeling like this. I don't even know what I'm feeling." And adults a lot of time will be able to dismiss that as like, "You're growing up" or, "I felt like that too. You're fine. You'll grow out of it." So I think that can be a big issue.

Adam Williams (14:10): I think there is a tendency, especially from older generations, to maybe look upon whatever's happening with younger generations and decide, "You're being soft, when I was that age, we toughed it out in this way or that way," whatever, and to be dismissive of it. 

And I think a lot of that also has to do with, as adults, maybe we're busy is part of it, but how much do we also know about our own feelings in the ways that you're describing there? Because everybody told us, "Tough it out. You have to have grit," and they wouldn't listen to us. So there is this pattern maybe of dismissing it.

(14:45): I'm curious about your take then on what you're seeing maybe of us adults since I am... I'm of Generation X, I don't even know what your generation's called. Is it-

Gloria Esparza: Gen Z.

Adam Williams (14:54): Z? Okay. So there's a couple between us or at least one in the space between us. And I'm curious what your take is because so often we don't ask. I ask my kids things, but I think in general as adults we find it very easy to not ask and then like you're saying, headlines, we're talking about you, but are we actually asking and then listening to you?

Gloria Esparza (15:17): I think that's the biggest problem is communication overall, just listening to your kids and knowing that I may not be able to describe how I'm feeling, but I can tell you that I'm feeling something. I think [inaudible 00:15:30] be hard, especially as adults who were put through the cycle of, "You're fine. I was told I was fine, so I don't see why you can't be fine either." 

And so trying to completely change that cycle of like, "My mom told me I was fine, so I have to tell my kid I was fine." It's definitely generational and I think just somebody has to stop and be like, "Hey, we're going to change this, we're going to fix this, we're going to do something different."

(15:51): But it's definitely not just an easy thing to completely change and fix, especially because there are some times that it really is just, "Hey, you'll be okay." Sometimes it can be a little deeper. Somebody could have depression, but they could also just have had a really bad day. 

And I think the biggest way to start out with that is just to ask and just listen rather than... A lot of times people don't even want your input, they just want somebody to be able to tell, "I had a crappy day at school today and my teacher did this." And a lot of times we don't say it because we want you to be like, "Did you ask your teacher to..." 

No, I just want you to sit there and be like, "Hey, I feel you. I'm here for you. That does suck." Sometimes we just want that sympathy piece. We just want that, "Hey, I know you're there for me when I need you to be there. When I can't be stable for myself, I need someone else to be more stable for me."

Adam Williams (16:34): I think that's exactly the same for a lot of us adults too, actually probably all of us just as humans. So when we tend to tell people things, I think it often makes the listener feel uncomfortable and then they do... I've used this phrase on this podcast before, they try to fade, fight, or fix. They try to diminish the significance of it, maybe help you fight against it, or they want to solve it instead of just listen with a compassionate ear.

(17:01): Do you feel like, and I don't want to put you on the spot with your family here, but do you feel like that you have grown up with that being modeled for you, that compassionate [inaudible 00:17:08] when you need somebody to hear, "Hey, I've had a bad day"?

Gloria Esparza (17:12): I think 50/50. To be honest, I think my mom and I have definitely grown a lot in our relationship. Obviously, she's a younger mom. She had me when she was 20, so we're definitely closer. I would say she's my best friend. And so I think I'm lucky enough to be able to sit and be like, "Mom, shut up and let me talk." 

But definitely seen with like my grandparents who I also love, adore, I love being around them, but with them it can definitely be like, "You're fine. I don't understand. Stop talk..." They are very dismissive, especially of my mom's feelings and a lot of stuff my mom goes through. They're very dismissive of her.

(17:47): And so my mom and I have worked a lot fixing that and being like, "Hey mom, I'm feeling like this just because of this. It's not a hit on you. It's nothing like that. I just want to have a conversation. I want to talk about it. I want to communicate with you." And my mom and I have had a lot to work on through that, but I think it's been with her, especially, very open and very like, "Okay, I'm going to do my best to just listen. 

I'm going to do my best to do this." And just very like, "Hey, I know what I said an hour ago was really wrong. I'm sorry, let me fix that. Let me say it better." But it's also been like, I know my grandparents are definitely still very dismissive and very hard to go through that kind of stuff. And so it can be 50/50. I think it depends on who I go to and the specific topic.

Adam Williams (18:29): You mentioned to me before that your grandfather, at least, he came here from Chihuahua, Mexico. So I wonder if in his story there is some real challenge and some things that a lot of us maybe wouldn't understand. 

And when you're coming from that perspective and you're thinking, "I've been through and here's a whole list of all the hard things I've been through, you can make it through your bad day at school." Well, how about, let's talk a little bit more about the family, because I think with that piece in your background, you grew up speaking Spanish in the household. Was that the only language being spoken?

Gloria Esparza: [inaudible 00:19:05] the most part, yeah. Now we all speak English and Spanish. It's bilingual household. But when I was growing up, my aunt didn't speak a lick of English and my grandpa was learning English while my grandma was learning Spanish. When they met, she didn't speak any Spanish, he didn't speak any English, so that was definitely tough for them and so-

Adam Williams (19:27): Sorry, what did she speak?

Gloria Esparza (19:28): She spoke English and he spoke Spanish.

Adam Williams (19:31): Oh, I got you. I got you, okay. I misunderstood that for a moment. So they each had their own language, but then they didn't... So how did they come together in that? What have you heard from stories or observed in that process?

Gloria Esparza (19:42): I don't know the full story, but they've been married now for like 50 years. They're my ride or die. When I look at, "Oh, who do you want to be like?" My grandparents. He came here when he was 20-ish and my grandma had just graduated high school and something... I don't actually know exactly how they met or anything, but I know she grew up in Nevada and my grandpa was... 

I want to say he was trying to sell something and she saw him was like, "Huh." And slowly they just got to know each other. She would sneak out and go see him. And eventually he was like, "Let's just get married." 

So they got married when my grandma was 19 and he was 21. They've been married since then. I don't know the full story. I don't know everything about it, but it worked for them. She taught him English, he taught her Spanish, and then my grandma's fluent in Spanish and my grandma's fluent in English.

Adam Williams (20:36): That's incredible. And it was a learning experience for you then. You mostly spoke Spanish I think when you were very little and then got into school, started learning English. So we have two languages, like you mentioned, American sign language. 

You'll be trilingual when you learn that. What is it that drives your curiosity to expand and learn and want to sit and listen and learn about others and just all these ways that I think we're starting to piece together who you are, and it's a courageous, curious person.

Gloria Esparza (21:07): I like people, all people. I love stories and I think everybody has such an interesting story to share. And I think it's so sad when somebody has a story to share that you can't understand. And I also know growing up in a bilingual household that there were parent teacher conferences that I had to go to with my aunt and sit and translate for her and all my cousins who had to translate for their mom because she didn't speak English. 

So they would go in and they would sit and be not only the student, not only the kid, but also the translator. And I think sometimes just that barrier stops us and prevents us from doing so much more than we can solely because you just don't understand.

(21:45): I love listening to people talk, tell me everything about themselves, where they came from, and I think having more of a diverse language can just open up who I'm able to talk to and listen to and help out. Obviously going into therapy, I want to help as many people as I possibly can and just be an ear for even one more person. That would always be the goal.

Adam Williams (22:09): I think it's not uncommon the experience that you're talking about, but it also is in the minority of percentage wise of population that most of us we grew up one language, it's English. 

We're not part of that experience that you're describing where a kid might have to be the translator between teacher and parent or parent and everyone, you go to the grocery store. It's because your family has learned English as well. Now you're able to go off to Hawaii and have that experience, whereas otherwise, I wonder if you would feel pressure to stay near home because you are the go-between.

Gloria Esparza (22:43): Yeah, I know that's why a lot of my family is super close. We're so tight-knit because at the end of the day, we all have each other. And I know that none of them would go very far from family just because that's scary. And I know like my grandpa, he came here from Mexico, he has 12 siblings. 

And so coming from there, his brother is my uncle, and they live five minutes from us and all that stuff because being away from what you don't know can be really scary. And I think if I wouldn't have had the ability to learn more and all that, I don't think I would've been able to leave and go so far from home.

Adam Williams (23:20): You mentioned your ACL injuries. I want to go back to that because, well, first of all, I've never had a torn ACL. I have had friends who had, at least in one case, a potential basketball career derailed from it. What was that like for you to deal with emotionally when, "Hey, I'm this three-sport athlete and now suddenly I'm not because I'm sidelined"?

Gloria Esparza (23:44): I always tell people that an injury is 20% physical and 80% mental. I tore my first ACL at the end of my eighth grade year. And again, I'm a three-sport athlete, and that hit me harder than I could have ever imagined. It was in the middle of COVID. Second COVID hit, I tore my ACL. I felt like I lost everything all at once. I had lost my athletics. I'm also a people person. I'm extroverted. 

Couldn't really go and talk to my friends anymore. I couldn't go to school and see them. I just felt like I had lost everything. I also couldn't get surgery within four months of tearing it because of COVID, and it wasn't priority. So I was on crutches for four months. Couldn't go to physical therapy.

(24:31): For me, I always thought I was invincible as an athlete. I have hurt myself, I've broken things, but I was always like, "Yeah, I'm fine." I remember I had a cast on one time, I completely took it off because the doctor had put it on a little too loose and I slid it off my wrist by putting on enough lotion so that I could play in the tournament that weekend because I was the starting setter for my middle school team, and I didn't want to not be there. And so it hurt, sure, but I was like, "It doesn't hurt enough to stop me." And I remember tearing my ACL and it stopped me. I could not do anything. I couldn't walk.

(25:07): I just think overall, pain, I don't remember being in any pain. I tore my ACL and I tried to get up three times. My mom was in the bleachers and she was screaming at me to get up, keep going, get up, get up, because that's who we are. You don't stop. We don't give up. 

And so I'm sitting there and I'm like, "Man, I don't know what's going on." After I finally came off the court with my coach, sat down with one of the trainers at the school and she was like, "You're done for the tournament, at least. You need to go get an MRI." And I was like, "Oh."

And my cousin, who is... She's a lot older than me, like an older sister to me, had also torn her ACL, had done this other stuff. So in the back of my mind, I definitely knew that that was a possibility, but I was like, "No, I'm fine. I'll be fine by the next game," is what I told the trainer. 

She was like, "I don't think you can." I ended up trying to walk and I fell on my face because I put pressure on it and it completely... There was nothing to hold my leg anymore. And so it was that moment that I was like, "Man, I really am done."

(26:07): I don't know. I didn't know how to handle it, I don't think. It is a really, really difficult mental battle, especially coming back. Because I think people assume that you can, and do the rehab or whatever, but you can't get the sound of the pop out of your head. And so I would stand on a core and all I could hear was my knee popping over and over again. I was like, "Mm." I still struggle to do little things like diving, jumping.

(26:34): And it's now a lot more of a thinking game than it was before. Before, it's instinct, "Oh, there's a ball, jump, get it. Oh, dive on the floor, do this, do that." And now I have to be like, "Okay, ball's coming. I have to one, two-step, jump up, land. Land, do I feel okay? Is my neighbors on enough? Is it tight?" 

I had such a thinking process now because I think mentally you just hit this block of it happened once. And for me it happened twice and to each leg. And so for me, I was like, "Man, I'm done. It happened two times, who's to say it's not going to happen again? Who's to say that I don't step on that court again and I'm screwed?"

Adam Williams (27:09): How long was rehab for each time?

Gloria Esparza (27:12): The first one, obviously a little longer because I couldn't get surgery. Typical ACL rehab is about eight months.

Adam Williams (27:19): That's taking you out of your... You're a three-sport athlete, that's taking you out of a lot.

Gloria Esparza (27:23): Every single sport. My eighth grade year, obviously COVID hit, so sports was very different. It was like we didn't have normal seasons, we didn't have anything normal, so that was hard. I came back my freshman year and they switched the season, so basketball was before volleyball and I ended up re-tearing my meniscus my freshman year. 


After I had gotten the clear the go ahead, I re-tore my meniscus and was out again. So I didn't have a freshman year of sports. And then this ACL, which was my right one, it was supposed to be an eight-month recovery. I told my doctor to suck a butt and it was a six-month recovery and I was good. 

After six months. I got the clear, but he told me to be careful, be aware, and I was not, I didn't listen so now I'm actually probably a little over a year still going to rehab and all that because I re-injured it after the six months.

Adam Williams (28:20): What did you learn from that piece of things where you didn't listen?

Gloria Esparza: Apparently nothing.

Adam Williams: Okay.

Gloria Esparza: Because I did the same thing the first time. He was like, "Hey, it'll probably be longer because you have a lot of built up scar tissue that we have to get out of there." I was like, "But you're saying I'm good? What I heard is I can play." He was like, "Yes, but you have to be careful and you can run it 30% for so long." 

There's a lot of rules coming back from an ACL tear, and all I heard was, "You're good to go." I was not good to go. I don't know, I think a lot has to do with I found a lot of my identity being an athlete, being that three-sport athlete. And so losing that, I just didn't know who I was anymore. So everything in me was like, "I have to do everything to get back because I don't know who I am not on the court."

Adam Williams (29:05): Right, right. How did that go over at home when... Did your mom then with you, of course, she learned what the injuries were, and then did you have the support and things that you felt like you needed there? Or did you also feel like, "I can't help around the house and do those things and now people feel like I am, I don't know, quitting on them"?

Gloria Esparza (29:23): I think it was a little bit of both. I definitely had my family who was very... They're very supportive of me and good about everything. And so it was good to know that, but I just felt so useless sitting all day. But I knew that if I would stand up and try and walk, I would be in excruciating pain. And I also don't taking very many meds, I'm very like, "Oh, if I don't need it, we'll see how long it takes before I'm dying and debilitated." So they gave me strong dose of meds and I just refuse to take them.

(29:54): So I'm sitting on the couch every day for like two months. I'm just like, "This is the worst." And my mom's a single mom, and so I've got two little sisters who I'm like, "Okay, but they need to do this. They need to do this." And their schedule, their routine is ingrained in my head and I just always wanted to make sure I could do something for them to help them. 

And so when I tore my ACL, I literally just... I felt useless. I was like, "There's nothing for me. I can't walk. I can't go downstairs and do laundry. I can't get my sisters where they need to get. I cannot do anything."

(30:26): And I think it just hits you when you have no injuries, you don't want to do the dishes, you don't want to do laundry. And then I tore my ACLs and I would give anything to just do a chore. I would've given anything to just sweep the house because I just felt like I was sitting on the couch doing absolutely nothing all day, and it was awful.

Adam Williams (30:46): This is a very relatable experience I think for any of us because if we've lost a job as an adult or something, it's, "Who am I now? Or how am I providing and participating in my family or in my life or with whoever?" So I think that's very relatable and easy to understand what you're talking about. 

And the challenge is mentally and emotionally when this thing that we think we have in our life that's such a core piece gets taken away, what do we do now? So I'm curious, for you, I am guessing it was to get back into sports and things like that, but was there any other component where you were thinking about that question, "Who am I now? What is it I need to focus on?" 

And maybe that's preparing just academically for college or to be there for your friends, like you said, they were having some struggles. So how did you approach that if you thought of that question? I don't want to put words in your mouth. Did you think about, "What do I do with this time now and who am I now"?

Gloria Esparza (31:39): I definitely never took out the aspect of being an athlete. I never was like, "Oh, I'm never going to be an athlete again." In my head I was, "I always am and always will be an athlete. That's who I am." But I had to look at it from a different angle. I also explored other hobbies. I love to write. I write a lot of poetry. I always say big feelings bring on good words. 

So I wrote a lot of poetry during that time. And I also just learned to be a teammate outside of being the one on the floor. I learned to sit on the bench and say, "Hey, you're good. We'll get the next one." I learned how to be an encourager and a positive just role model on the bench and not just on the court. I knew that my presence could be used regardless of where I was at, and I just had to learn how to expand on that.

(32:24): And so I think even now I'm able to be that kind of person who can just sit there and be like, "Hey, yeah, you missed a shot. Who cares? It's one shot. At least you get to play." So even now as I'm coming back and I sit on the bench a little more than I would like to, I think I took on more of the role of being there for my teammates in a way that they can vent to me. 

If you feel like the coaches ain't doing you right, come vent to me about it. You feel like you just need something, I got you. I'll talk to you about it. We can get through this. I don't have to be on the floor for my name to be known. I can be on the bench and still make that impact and still be that positive voice and that influence.

Adam Williams (32:59): I think that's a really key takeaway, of something that you've learned in that an awful lot of people might not. They might be so much into the self-pity or just feeling bad about what they're missing out on and how they are not able to contribute. That's really a really significant learning there, I think, that's going to serve you later as all our lessons do.

(33:21): I want to ask you about the state of the world kind of thing. I don't know how much you pay attention to news and stuff like that, but given environmentally, obviously coming through COVID, there's a big shock for all of us in our life experiences. That's something I hope we don't have to experience again. We have politics, we have societal, social issues at play. 

I wonder from your perspective, if you're aware very much of those things going on throughout your youth, if you have a perspective as you're about to head out into the world, a college student and then a young adult out in the world, are you optimistic about it? Are you concerned about it? How are you feeling about what's happening in the world around you?

Gloria Esparza (34:04): I don't know. That's a loaded question. It's hard to answer. I think personally, I don't want to pay attention to politics and all that kind of stuff as much as some kids my age just because I don't want to. I just have other things I'd rather focus on than certain things. I definitely know like, oh, who's our president and stuff like that. But I definitely don't have a huge political stance. 

But overall optimism and stuff for the future, I'm optimistic for my future. I'm also really religious though, so I think a lot of that comes from God's got me, god's got it. I'm not going to worry about it, I'm not going to stress. He's brought me this far. He's going to keep taking me that far.

(34:41): So I don't think necessarily it's optimistic for everything. I think we have a lot of issues that are like, "Oh my goodness, what's going on in our world? What is happening?" Definitely have my stance on a lot of stuff like that. But I just know that in the future when I need to worry about it, I will. Right now, I have no desire to sit there and be like, "Oh, I need to worry about Israel and all this other stuff." 

I always have my stance and I'll talk about it, and I love to learn. And if people want to talk about it, I'll learn about it, I'll educate myself when we can, but there's other things that I would like to focus on opposed to the negatives of our world because I think there's a lot of positives that we don't necessarily shed as much light on, and I try to focus on that.

Adam Williams (35:22): I agree, and I think that's a great perspective and it gets to be pretty difficult I think for an awful lot of us adults who maybe have an ingrained pattern where it's like, oh, the stressors in life. What's going wrong? What's difficult? 

So I'm curious then what you think some of those positives are that you're paying attention to in the world and that you think ought to have more light. Let's give them light right now. What's going on in the world or even just in your life or whatever that is the positive that you're focusing on, the things you're grateful for?

Gloria Esparza (35:53): I'm graduating. I think that's fricking amazing. I have friends who are graduating who I didn't think were going to graduate. I have a friend who's pregnant [inaudible 00:36:02] have a baby in April, and I think that's absolutely incredible. I love babies. Just little things like that that I definitely try to shed more light on than huge things. But definitely big things too. 

We're rebuilding from the fires in Maui. I think that's really cool in how big a community can come together after something so tragic, and how quickly the community was to come together after something like that happened. 

I definitely keep tabs on that obviously because that's where I want to go to school. It was really significant in how it impacted everybody and how quickly everybody was like, "Can't do anything about it. Let's all just... Let's come together. Let's do it. Let's fix it."

(36:41): And so stuff like that. I try to focus on the littler parts of life just because I know when I focus on really big parts, I stress myself out. I already have a lot of big stuff. I'm going [inaudible 00:36:52] college and all that. So I try to focus on my friends and the people around me, I like to focus on their successes. Their successes always make me a lot happier and a lot more optimistic.

Adam Williams (37:02): I wonder if your religion is part of that and is that a family approach, that gratitude and that focus on the positive and that belief that things are working out and we can accept what is and move forward in a positive way regardless of what it is?

Gloria Esparza (37:17): I did grow up in a very religious family. We're all Christians, so I grew up a Christian. And I would be lying if I said that didn't have an impact on my faith now. But I definitely did not grow up in the family that was like, "You have to go to church. You have to believe in God." 

My family's big on find him the way that you need to find him. And so I think that was a big part of also how I grew up religiously. I knew from when I was little obviously, "I have to be believing God because that's what my grandma says and what Grandma says was right." 

But as I got older, it definitely was different and I had to learn for myself. I would think when I turned 13 or so is when I really was like, "I am going to believe in God from what I want to believe" because I tore my ACL, I didn't really have much to look at. I didn't know where to go.

(38:04): And I was like, "If there's a God up there, I'm just going to talk to him." And from there, I think that just opened a lot of, even if there isn't a God, I know that I'm not losing anything by believing in one. And I personally think it's making me a better person. 

And I'm able to look at the bright side of things and I'm able to just sometimes put things off because I know I cannot contribute to certain things in life. I can't fix specific problems that I know I wish I could, but I know I can sit there and be like, "God's got in his hands and whatever his plan is is going to come through in the way that it needs to."

(38:37): And so I think my family definitely contributed to it a good amount just because we did grow up religious, but it was also a journey that they were like, "Hey, if you want to be religious, you find that, you have to find God for yourself." So I'm really grateful for that because I think had it been a very forceful thing, I probably would've veered away from religion just in spite obviously.

Adam Williams (38:56): I think that's huge and that is a difference maker, and that's very cool that you see that. I've had so many of these conversations over the years with people who there is a common theme of, "This was put on me, so I turned away from it." So the idea of giving space to find who you are and what those relationships and spirituality and things, faith, are in your life, I think is really significant. And you have found how to connect that to your own experience like you're suggesting with the ACL.

I also want to talk about you are involved as, I would say, a leader for other teens with the 5th Quarter Teen Council. Is that right?

Gloria Esparza (39:28): Yeah.

Adam Williams: Will you tell us what that is and what it is you do with that?

Gloria Esparza (39:41): So I'm the paid youth advisor through Family and Youth Initiatives here, which is run through the department of human services. One of our programs is 5th Quarter, which is a teen council in the high school. Our overall goal is to provide activities, events where we provide things to do that don't involve substances. Obviously, in a small town it can be really hard to do anything other than drugs and drinking because you can't, "Oh, you want to go to the mall? Oh, that's two hours away. You want to go eat something? What are we going to eat? Poncho's? Pizza?"

Adam Williams (40:14): Or even a movie theater.

Gloria Esparza: Everything that a lot of kids have the experience to do, we don't have that, especially freshman year through junior year. You don't even have your license. So then it's like, "Hey, mom, can you take me here?" And a lot of kids don't want to inconvenience their parents constantly [inaudible 00:40:30], "Can you take me to his house? Then from his house we need to go to this place then to this place." That can be a really hard thing. And in 5th Quarter, obviously we noticed that was a thing. 

And so I can't tell you, I've only been part of the group for about two years now. I think it started I want to say almost like six years ago. And the whole idea is 5th Quarter is the fifth quarter of the night. So we usually do events after a football game, a basketball game, because there's four quarters of football, then you go to the fifth quarter of the night.

(40:57): And so we do things, our biggest one, our biggest turnout is always Mount Princeton Night where we have free admission for everybody at the high school to come to Mount Princeton for about two and a half hours. 

And we bring mocktails because we cannot have cocktails and we just say, "Hey, come hang out," and realize that we can all hang out with each other, be around each other and have fun without having to do these substances and having to rely on, "Oh, there's a party. I'm going to go. I don't want to drink, but that's all I can do." 

Especially when you go with friends who are bigger partier or drinkers and you go with them, you feel a lot of that peer pressure to go in and be like, "She's drinking and she's drinking. Can't be that bad. I'm just going to do it anyways."

(41:37): And so we're trying to veer away from that because we have noticed a rise in all that kind of stuff. And so we're trying to provide people with, "Hey, we can do other things. We can still have fun and we can still do stuff and we don't have to be drunk or high to do it."

Adam Williams (41:52): What do you think the reception has been to that, just based on, I don't know, how many people are coming or what the feedback is or the joy people are having together, or that connection?

Gloria Esparza (42:02): It's not great, honestly. I wish I could say it was like this crazy incredible movement. It's not. I think high school students are not very susceptible to stuff like that. Being one, I know that there are things that happen, I'm like, "Oh, shut up. You're annoying." 

And I think that's how a lot of people see 5th Quarter, as like, "Oh, that's so annoying. We don't want to do that." "Oh, they're going to have adults and chaperones. I'm 16, I don't need a chaperone." It can definitely be frustrating going into that knowing that we're trying to bring our whole student body to it. But our turnout's usually between 50 kids, sometimes we only have 20 kids.

Adam Williams (42:35): I would say that's actually pretty decent. That might be more than I was picturing, the 50, I don't know.

Gloria Esparza (42:41): Sometimes we have events where 5 kids show up, 10 kids, sometimes we have 50. It just depends on the event, how much we promote it. But in our book, one kid showing up is a positive. We get the word out there and we are obviously always trying to improve and we're trying to incorporate more people into our groups so that we can hit more of a diverse community of people. 

Obviously, now I can get to the athletes, but I can only get to the athletes. I don't talk to the band kids or the theater kids as much as somebody in theater would. So we always try to expand out and get the word out to every kind of group at our school and we hope we're the best.

Adam Williams (43:15): I think quality of connection definitely has at least as much value, if not more, than quantity of connection. So if you had 50 kids there, okay, that's great, but are all 50 really engaging with it in creating these bonds and friendship around this idea? If you reach that one kid, those five kids, that is impactful.

Gloria Esparza (43:34): Yeah. I think it's really cool that we even get the opportunity to do it at all and that the community is really supportive of it. Even if sometimes the high school kids are like, "Oh, that's annoying." I just know that we still get people to come. And I think that's absolutely incredible. I think just what we're trying to spread, especially... What do we do? 

We did a poker night a couple months ago and that had a great turnout. We had about 20 or so kids come and we only had three poker tables, so we couldn't really do much other than that. It had just been absolutely incredible to see that many kids come and just play poker and maybe with people that they don't normally hang out with.

(44:09): And I definitely know that people afterwards, we've always gotten good feedback. It's never been like, "oh, this was terrible." So when people do come and they show up, we get good feedback. And I know that I've made a lot of closer friends through 5th Quarter and gotten the ability to learn more about other people just because I hung out with them because they weren't on my team and I got to see what they do outside of school and stuff.

Adam Williams (44:31): Do you feel like you have your finger on the pulse of the other activity that's going on with students? Let me put it in this light. When I was in high school and when my older brothers were drinking, and we lived in a rural area, so partying out in the woods, that was the thing. 

Now, I wouldn't say that we had much for drugs, hard drugs anyway, marijuana, we didn't have a lot else. But when one of my brothers I talked to several years ago, because his kids at the time were teenagers in high school and they were going out to so-and-so's cabin. 

And so of course I naturally thought, "Oh yeah, they're going to be drinking and stuff." He said, "They actually don't. I don't know what it is, but the kids, they're just not into that like we were." Maybe it's because we felt the need for defiance in that way. I don't know about his kids.

(45:21): So in that context, do you feel like that's really a prevalent behavior right now with drinking? Is it more on the drug side? How big of a thing are we looking at that those of us who are parents in the community might not really quite know?

Gloria Esparza (45:35): Honestly, it can be a pretty big thing. I think it's a lot bigger than people actually realize. I don't drink or do anything, so I don't go to things like that. But I know of them. I am still an athlete. I'm still part of what you could consider the popular group. So when things are going down, I know it's happening. 

I don't know, I think it just depends on the group of kids. There are definitely those kids who are like, "No, we're not going to drink." I know when I hang out with my friends, we literally just go and we hang out. My best friend and I will go and we'll sit in the car and we'll listen to worship music. That's our time. Good fun time.

(46:06): But it is definitely still a problem that I see. I don't know if it's necessarily as heavy on the drinking now as it is smoking weed because we live in Colorado, it's legal and it's a lot more normalized now, as well as vaping and stuff like that. High school kids are going to try what they're going to try a lot of times. I think it's bigger than people would imagine, but it's also not like every single kid on the street is dealing drugs. It's not that bad. [inaudible 00:46:32] just depend on how you look at it.

Adam Williams (46:33): Sure. You also, I want to point out, co-hosted We Are Chafee's Dinner & a Movie event in Salida not long ago. And I'm curious about your experience with that. Was that something you were nervous about? This is a community event. I think there were, more than 100 people in attendance, I think I would've been totally floored with nerves and not wanting to do it if I were in your shoes. So I'm curious about that piece of you that's like, "Yeah, I will have the courage and step up to this thing."

Gloria Esparza (47:06): I personally like public speaking a lot. It's not a very common thing, but I fell in love with it. My junior year of high school, we did a really big presentation that we had to do on stage and hold a microphone. I was super nervous about having to do that when we started it. And then eventually the presentation day came and I was like, "There's nothing I can do about it. I just got to go up there and do... I know my topic. I'm just going to do it." And as I started talking through it and through the microphone, I realized that this is fun and I had a great time and I genuinely enjoyed it.

(47:37): And so then when I had a couple people mention the event and how they were wanting to get more youth involved and all this other stuff. That's literally what I get paid to do is put youth input within our community. And so when they were like, "Hey, would you be willing, would you be interested?" I was like, "Absolutely. That's what I'm getting paid to do is to put my voice out there so that other youth can be heard through my voice." And so I was like, "Sure, let's try it."

(48:02): I would be lying if I said I was not nervous. I was about to pee myself. I was like, "Oh my goodness, there's so many people here. And if I mess up, I'm misrepresenting all the youth and the entire history of the world." I put a lot of pressure on myself. I was like, "I'm so nervous. I could mess up. I could do this." It was also a topic that I didn't know anything about. I had to introduce some groups that I had no idea what they even were, so I had to read directly off a script that I didn't write.

(48:30): And so trying to put my own spin on that and still make sure I'm getting the right information out and everything, it was definitely nerve wracking. It was challenging, but I think in the best way possible. I love challenge. I love trying to see what I can do that's why I took the job to begin with, was to put my voice out there and get opportunities like that. It's definitely nerve wracking, definitely very scary, but it was a really great opportunity.

Adam Williams (48:53): I was going to ask you about your willingness to step up to new experiences because it seems like that's part of, I don't know if it's fun, if it's just... If you're looking down the road and saying, "This is all going to build my character." I don't know how you approach it. How would you say you're motivated to try on new experiences and like that, get on stage and talk to a crowd?

Gloria Esparza (49:14): I think everything honestly goes back to my original I just want to help as many people as I possibly can. I think the more experiences that I can get, the more I go through certain things, then I can relate to more people. I'm always the quote-unquote, "Helper friend." 

And so when kids are like, "Oh, I need somebody to talk to," they're going to come to me. And so I think being able to go out and learn more and experience more gives me more to be able to talk about with other people. And I never want to not be able to talk to certain people about certain things because I don't know anything about it, I think.

(49:49): So I think just that, and I just got interested in this specific jumping into the community last year when I met my best friend through the high school. She was the paid youth advisor last year. Her name is McKenna St. John, so she's literally the best thing on the planet. 

But she was the paid youth advisor. She did all this kind of stuff and she was like, "Hey, you should take my job when I graduate." And I was like, "I couldn't be you. I'm not, you're better than me." And she was like, "Why? What makes me better?"

(50:15): So she encouraged me to do all that, and I shadowed her all last year through all the events that she did and all the stuff that she was able to do. And slowly I was like, "Man, this is actually cool. And she's able to talk to adults and people listen to her," and I thought that was really cool. And so I think that alone was enough for me to be like, "What do I have to lose? If I go and talk and I mess up, it is what it is. I'm just going to try."

Adam Williams (50:39): I appreciate that. And you know what, this podcast today, this conversation was a new thing for you as well, and you mentioned this idea of you talking and maybe feeling like, "Oh, I have to represent the broader youth voice" and I really have tried not to put that on you because I think that's such an unfair burden. And at the same time I'm asking questions that it's like, "You kind of are." 

You are the youngest person, the youngest guest to appear on this podcast, and we now will have talked with people who are ranging from 18 years, that's you, up to 96. And so I think you do have for better and worse an important piece here where you are representing so far that much younger perspective. I'm curious, this was your first experience with podcast, how have we done? How do you feel about it now?

Gloria Esparza (51:32): I think I feel pretty good. It's been a pretty basic conversation and I'm good at talking. So hopefully it sounds good when other people listen to it, but I think it's been pretty good.

Adam Williams (51:40): I'm glad that you came here and you were willing to do it. I appreciate the conversation and getting to hear from you, Gloria, so thank you very much.

Gloria Esparza (51:46): Yeah, it was great. Thank you for having me.

[Transition music, guitar instrumental]

Adam Williams (52:01): Thanks for listening to the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast. If our conversation here today sparks curiosity for you, you can learn more in this episode show notes at 

If you have comments or know someone in Chaffee County, Colorado who I should consider talking with on the podcast, you can email us at info at We invite you to rate and review the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or whatever platform you use with that functionality. We also invite you to tell others about the Looking Upstream podcast. Help us to keep growing community and connection through conversation.

(52:36): Once again, I'm Adam Williams, host, producer, and photographer. Jon Pray is engineer and producer. Thank you to KHEN 106.9 FM, our community radio partner in Salida, Colorado. To Heather Gorby for graphic and web design. To Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment. And to Lisa Martin, community advocacy coordinator for the We Are Chaffee Storytelling Initiative.

(52:59): The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chafe Housing Authority, and it's supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities. 

You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives at And on Instagram and Facebook @wearechaffee. 

Lastly, until the next episode, as we say here at We Are Chaffee, share stories, make change.

[Outro music, horns and guitar instrumental]

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