Latino concern for environment grows
Vida en el Valle
(Published Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012 11:42AM)
FRESNO -- When he began organizing farmworker communities around environmental justice issues in the early 1990s, Lupe Martínez said Latinos -- himself included -- did not identify with the environmental movement.
"To me, it was either hugging the owls, or hugging the trees," said Martínez, who today is the assistant director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment in Delano.
Since then, he has seen a huge shift in Latino support for environmental issues. Today, he said, the environment has become a very personal issue for Latinos across the state.
"It's about our children," Martínez said. "Who doesn't want to have clean air for their kids, especially if you have two or three kids who have asthma?"
Martínez's observations are supported by an annual Public Policy Institute of California survey, which has consistently found that Latinos and other communities of color in the state have high levels of concern about air quality and the environment.
The 2011 survey found that Latinos and African Americans are more likely than whites or Asians to consider air pollution a big problem in their region. Latinos and African Americans are least likely to say they are very satisfied with their air quality.
"I think there has been a belief that only people who don't have other things to worry about can worry about these types of issues," said Sonja Petek, survey project manager at the policy institute. "But we have such high percentages of people believing air pollution is posing a risk, and they or their families are suffering."
"These aren't just extraneous problems," she said. Survey respondents, "care about the risks that these problems may pose to their families. It is a very real issue."
Latinos also sense a disparity in environmental conditions, according to the survey. Latinos are most likely to say that air pollution is a more serious threat in lower-income regions, while a majority of whites do not believe that air quality is worse in low-income areas.
"We know that a lot of the state's Latinos and African American population are in urban centers or near agicultural areas," Petek said. "Those areas do have worse air quality, and I think that is reflected in some of these perceptions."
Government officials and scholars have also noticed the shift in the Latino community's involvement in environmental issues.
Jared Blumenfeld, regional director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, noted the ground-level change during a February visit to the Tulare County community of Seville, where residents can not drink their tap water.
"The environmental movement nationally is male and white, and here it is female and Latina," he said. "It is just nice to see a completely different face of environmentalism."
"This EPA cares about talking to that new face of the environmental movement, so the San Joaquín Valley represents an amazing opportunity to have a dialogue with people that are directly effected."
Jonathan London, director of the Center for Regional Change at the University of California, Davis, has observed a change in the environmental justice movement at the activist level.
He noted that Latino environmental activists -- including Martínez -- have transitioned from fighting local struggles, to taking on issues at a statewide, national, and even global level.
"Environmental justice in California is scaling up from local to global," London said.
The environmental issues that activists and community residents are tackling are changing, too, he said.
Today, environmental justice goes beyond fighting against a polluting facility in a community. It also encompasses equal access to basic amenities -- like sidewalks, street lights, sewers, and parks -- and planning for more sustainable communities.
"It is a shift from only oppositional, and only to saying 'no,' to saying 'yes' about really basic human needs, and economic needs, and health," London said.
Martínez, of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, also attributes the Latino community's strong support of environmental issues to a new sense of political empowerment.
"When it hits home and it is very personal, you're looking for ways to figure out why and what to do," he said. "I think that we are understanding that we can make changes ourselves."
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