Latinos and the environmental movement: Change is afoot
Most days the two major state and federal highways dissecting East Los Angeles are packed with big rigs hauling hazardous materials, from poisons and explosives to radioactive agents. They pose a potential for health dangers but no greater, say experts, than the high density of air pollution threats and exposure already present in the hazardous waste and chemical plants dotting the predominantly Latino Eastside of the city that pose risks from toxic emissions.
"Nearly 70 percent of Latinos in America live in areas like East Los Angeles that violate federal air-quality standards, and where Hispanic children are twice as likely as non-Hispanic white children to have lead in their blood."But a loose knit group of environmental rights groups are trying to improve the quality of life for those Latinos – and hoping Hispanics can successful break away into an environmental movement of their own. The benefit of that, those advocates say, would be that Latinos could then take independent positions on issues ranging from emissions reductions to mercury pollution, while hoping Hispanic voters use those issues as a litmus test for candidates in the coming political campaigns. Communities campaign for environmental health In recent years, heavily Hispanic communities like Maywood and Bell Gardens in Southern California have moved away from electing old-style politicians and instead elected council members whose campaigns took strong positions on industrial pollution, lingering Superfund sites and water contamination. “A lot of power plants and factories are traditionally put in minority neighborhoods, and we suffer as a result of that,” says Irma Muñoz, founder of Mujeres de la Tierra, a group which works to empower women in the environmental movement. “What we want are all the things that are necessary to good community health in any urban area: trees and clean air quality.” Hispanic environmental activists like Muñoz say their agenda is to build an environmental movement that can force politicians to address issues that most directly impact Latino neighborhoods. “At the end of the day,” says Muñoz, “it’s all about power, influence and money, which we don’t see that much of in our communities. Environmentalism is big business. “And though there are good people working in our communities, often they’re one-, two- or three-person (efforts), and it’s harder to get the funding or recognition.” The godfather of the Latino environmental movement In California former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez is considered the godfather of the Latino environmental movement, having co-sponsored a groundbreaking law that made the Golden State the first to put a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, including those from industrial plants. As a child growing up in Southern California, Núñez says he saw firsthand the impact that poor air quality could have on residents of his environmentally challenged neighborhood, especially on children who are often victims of high rates of asthma and lead poisoning. “For a long time,” says Núñez, “the image of an environmentalist in California was a stereotypical brie-eating, chardonnay-sipping, Volvo-driving Marin County-ite. “But there were other issues that affected people who wouldn’t commonly be known as environmentalists.” Traditional environmental groups, such as the Earth Day Network and the Sierra Club, have helped empower Latinos into their own environmental movement, sponsoring organizing groups made up of Hispanic community leaders, activists and politicians. What they are showing, say Latino activists, is that environmentalism is no longer a luxury of the elite. “I think for many years, we had these alarming articles about (how) if we don’t take ownership, that global warming will result in all these horrible things,” says Muñoz. “Well, now that’s happening, and people are seeing it with their own eyes. “I think we’re beginning to realize that this is not someone else’s problem; it’s ours. And as a result of that, whether we call it the environment or not, we’re doing things to change it. “So it’s no longer going to be a white, middle-class, affluent movement, it’s all of us doing it.” Tony Castro is the author of the newly-released "The Prince of South Waco: American Dreams and Great Expectations," as well as of the critically-acclaimed “Chicano Power: The Emergence of Mexican America” and the best-selling “Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son." This article originally appeared in Voxxi.