wind turbines los angeles
Windmills are seen at a wind farm in Palm Springs, California February 9, 2011. Under California's new carbon trading system, big polluters will be paying through the nose for the privilege, funding efforts to curb pollution. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

First celebrated in 1970, Earth Day marked a quantum leap for environmental policy in the U.S. That same year, President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act and created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). When Nixon vetoed the Clean Water Act in 1972, the legislature overrode him with a supermajority. Latinos and Africans were largely silent on the reforms. Some members of the NAACP even opposed environmental legislation, as a distraction from racial issues. At the heart of the new national environmental lay two concepts. The first was conservation: rescuing ecosystems from collapse, saving the bald eagle from extinction, and reviving lifeless rivers so polluted that they caught fire.

Remember that “the environment” was itself a novel phrase. The second concept, what we now call “environmental justice,” didn’t yet have a name. Early environmentalists recognized this second concept: the principle that lower income and minority communities should not suffer disproportionate health impacts from pollution. Predictably, minority communities too a back seat as mostly Anglo politicians tried to save the eagle. Still, environmental justice started seeing it’s first mainstream champions. Earth Day organizer Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) explained this vein of environmentalism on “Face The Nation” in 1970 as both our relationship to nature and our relationship to each other.

“The environment involves the whole broad spectrum of man's relationship to all other living creatures, including other human beings. It involves the environment in its broadest and deepest sense. It involves the environment of the ghetto which is the worst environment, where the worst pollution, the worst noise, the worst housing, the worst situation in this country -- that has to be a critical part of our concern and consideration in talking and cleaning up the environment."

The “environment of the ghetto” was not erased by Earth Day, or the Clean Water Act, or the EPA. However, those achievements of the 1970s secured a framework that’s helping environmental justice today. For example, the EPA gained the power to respond to “discharges of oil and releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, and contaminants;” in locations called “superfund sites.” Many low-income communities are still environmental ghettos, what local organizers call “front line” or “buffer” communities that separate smog-sputtering worksites, invisible dumpsites an effluent factories from the rest of America. Frontline communities experience exponentially higher rates of cancer, asthma, and other ailments, but they have one thing going for them: they’re cheap.

Latinos In The “Environment Of The Ghetto”

“My mom was a nanny in L.A. living right next to the Burbank airport. Places were so cheap because Lockheed martin had abandoned a superfund cleanup site,” Linda Escalante, a Policy Advocate at the National Resource Defence Council (NRDC).

Like most recent immigrants in California, Escalante’s mother was automatically relegated to an underclass, not just in long work hours and low pay, but also dangerous living conditions. This was around the time that Cesár Chavez rallied against harmful pesticide use in farms on the other side of her state, in the farmlands of the Central Valley. Millions of undocumented farm workers left the fields each day covered in pesticides that increased the risk of birth defects and cancer. Meanwhile, the Escalante family was exposed to pollutants in the ground of the Lockheed site. Just as a single hurricane can’t be traced to global warming, it’s hard to connect a single case of cancer to a local pollution source. Escalante’s mother is now disabled from a bout with cancer, which is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the superfund site next door.

Linda Escalante was born in Colombia and brought to the U.S. at age ten. She was an undocumented Dreamer from age 10 until age 18, so superfund sites weren’t her primary concern. She struggled to get citizenship, go to college and earn a degree in biology. When she found a job with the NRDC as a marine mammal advocate, she was set. Yet she wouldn’t be focused on photogenic megafauna for long. Escalante’s arrival coincided with an attitude shift among big environmental groups, long driven by white conservationists, who began to recognize the importance of Latinos, especially in states like California.

Big Environmental Groups Environmental Began Latino Outreach In The 2000s

“It’s my 13th anniversary of doing Latino outreach for the Sierra Club*,” Javier Sierra, a journalist and Bi-lingual Media Strategist, told the Latin Times. “In the past three years almost every major organization has put together Latino outreach. I’m proud to be a pioneer, but I’m more proud to be a part of this big fight. We’ve got powerful opponents [like the energy lobby], and we have to wage this battle on every front.”

Sierra said that Latinos are fundamental to that effort, and environmental groups are starting to get the message. He also spends more and more time focused on environmental justice issues that directly affect the Latino community. For example, he recently published an article about astronomically high asthma rates in California’s smoggy Coachella Valley. It’s available in both English and Spanish. Escalante, the NRDC advocate, points out that the most recent decannual census hammered the necessity home for traditionally Anglo environmental groups.

“After the 2010 Census, there was a surge of recognition in the environmental movement that the face of America is changing,” Escalante said.

When the NRDC started doing Latino outreach in 2002, they struggled to communicate with their new audience. The Latino community felt environmental problems, but didn’t have the familiarity or vocabulary to discuss them. First, the NRDC commissioned a White Paper, a study of environmental impacts in minority communities. The idea was to reach out to leaders in the Latino community: local priests, doctors, and politicians. Next, they aimed for a wider audience. They wanted to create Spanish-language content, but that would require a serious rebranding.

Consejo de Defensa Nacional de Recursos?

“Enn erre de se just doesn’t work,” said Escalante, spelling out the NRDC’s initials in Spanish. She also wasn’t a fan of the longform literal translation, Consejo de Defensa Nacional de Recursos, whose acronym CDNR was even more awkward. Instead, she helped create an entirely new communication wing dedicated to Spanish-language environmental content called La Onda Verde, literally “the green wave,” but also connoting “la buena onda;” the cool thing to do.

Escalante and the Onda Verde team now create Earth Day content in Spanish. Escalante also appears on Spanish-language TV stations, like SoCal’s Univision. For years groups like the NRDC and Sierra club fumbled to communicate to Latinos, kind of like Gaylord Nelson bumbling about “the ghetto.” Like Hispanic media outlets, they’ve discovered more about how to communicate, and that Spanish-language content isn’t a silver bullet. In raw numbers, the NRDC has found even more outreach success with an initiative it helped start but doesn’t run called Voces Verdes, which publishes primarily in English. Forty-five years after the first earth day, most big environmental groups are not only talking to Latinos they’re listening to them too, taking on environmental justice issues -- like asthma in Coachella Valley -- and supporting grassroots Latino organizations.

This Earth Day article is the beginning of a series on the role of Latinos and Latino issues in the environmental movement. In future instalments, we’ll look at smaller community groups that fight pollution block-by-block. Specifically, we’ll cover at the conflict between conservation and environmental justice, a new environmental law that could make or break Latino participation in the climate change movement, and a closer inspection of a modern-day superfund site in Los Angeles.

*Full disclosure: I was an editorial intern at Sierra Magazine, which is owned by the Sierra Club

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