Third of a 4-part series.
SACRAMENTO -- When does one first recognize injustice?
As a child growing up in the city of Coachella, V. Manuel Pérez and his friends played in the desert, because they did not have parks near their homes.
His parents, immigrants from México, wore large hats and long sleeves while working in the fields to protect themselves from the hot sun and pesticides. His best friend, who had asthma, was killed as a teenager in a drive-by shooting.
As a kid, he viewed this as life in the poor -- but agriculturally rich -- Eastern Coachella Valley.
"But as I grew up, I came to the point that it was injustice," said Pérez, who represents the 80th Assembly District, which includes eastern Riverside and Imperial counties.
Since then, Pérez has been on a lifelong quest to improve justice in his community.
It took him to schools in Coachella and the East Bay Area, where he taught mostly immigrant and English-language learning students, and then to Harvard University, where he earned a Master's degree in Education.
It took him back to the Valley, where he served as a community organizer and then community health director at the Borrego Community Health Foundation.
In 2008, it led him to the state Capitol, where it now guides his work in the legislature.
"My purpose here as a policymaker -- and my purpose in life, for that matter -- is justice," Pérez said. "It has always been my framework, my inner core, as to why it is I do the work that I do."
Amidst the budget battles and partisan politics of Sacramento, it could be difficult to maintain the fight for social and environmental justice, and the hope for equality. But Pérez said he crafts legislation with his community, and others like it, in mind.
"It is my responsibility and obligation to be consistent, to be accessible, to be the voice, and to be the advocate," Pérez said.
"I do everything I can to work on and implement policy that does stem from the ground up," he said. "I really believe in that. I really believe in trying to think about ways in which we bring good ideas here from our community, connecting the grasstops to the treetops."
Pérez, the oldest of three children, realized at an early age that education would offer him opportunities beyond the tough, low-paying agricultural work of his family.
It would lead him out of the youth violence and drugs that claimed many of his friends in the barrio.
"I think I realized that education was going to be my way out of poverty, and just to try to do some change," Pérez said.
Still, he sometimes wonders how he made it. Sitting in his office in the state Capitol, which is decorated with framed prints of farmworker leader César E. Chávez and President Barack Obama, Pérez recalled a debate from graduate school about the factors that allow youth of color to succeed.
His classmates came to a conclusion: It required ganas, or will; strong values instilled by teachers, mentors, parents, and tíos (uncles); and some luck.
Reflecting on his own experience, Pérez said, "I do think it was luck, to some degree. I do think that something was out there, or someone was watching over."
Since then, he has used that luck -- or whatever it was -- to strive for greater social and environmental justice in his community.
After Harvard, Pérez returned to the Coachella Valley to organize around the social justice issues of education and incarceration.
He later worked for the Borrego Community Health Foundation, where he coordinated a medical mobile unit that provided health care in the fields, at low-income housing units, and in shopping centers. He also helped coordinate a promotora program.
Through his work with the clinic, he saw the barriers to healthcare that many people in the poor, medically underserved region face. And he saw how the environment impacted people's health, he said.
Those experiences helped prepare Pérez to become an environmental advocate for the Coachella and Imperial valleys -- regions rich in agriculture and tourist destinations, but also home to environmental hazards.
The Eastern Coachella Valley has poor air quality and high rates of asthma, which are aggravated by the dust and pesticides in the agricultural areas. Some impoverished communities get contaminated water.
The region was home to huge dump sites on Native American land, including the Lawson dump, once the state's largest illegal dump site, and "Mount San Diego," which became the state's largest mound of human waste, according to The Desert Sun newspaper.
It is also the site of Western Environmental, Inc., a soil recycling facility located on tribal land, that sickened the residents of the unincorporated community of Mecca for months, until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency temporarily shut it down in 2011.
Between the Coachella and Imperial valleys is the Salton Sea.
The sea -- which is saltier than the ocean -- is receding and becoming saltier, endangering its fish and birds. The drying lake bed is also considered a threat to air quality, agriculture, and the local economy.
Given these challenges, Pérez has strived to ensure the needs and concerns of his community drive his work.
"We have our theory of action, of justice," he said. "What does it all mean at the end of the day, when we connect the dots? It means real people, people in our community, are able to see the benefits."
At his request, the State Assembly's Committee on Environmental Safety & Toxic Materials held an oversight hearing regarding the Western Environmental facility in the Eastern Coachella Valley in June. An Assembly budget sub committee held a hearing regarding restoration of the Salton Sea in November.
Celia García, an environmental advocate from Mecca, said the Western Environmental hearing helped bring some needed attention to her community's concerns.
"It is only that way that people take us seriously," she said. "Otherwise, we're just bola de escandaloso (a bunch of rowdy people.) People don't understand us, and don't understand our struggle otherwise."
And he has written various bills intended to protect the environment, and the health of environmental justice communities.
Among them is AB 1318, enacted in 2009, which enabled the construction of a state-of-the-art, natural gas power plant in the region. The plant will be used during peak power periods.
But recognizing the environmental drawbacks of the plant, Pérez also fought to include provisions in the bill that would protect the health of nearby communities.
The bill requires Competitive Power Ventures to contribute $53 million toward projects to protect the region's air quality. It requires 30 percent of these "mitigation funds" be used for projects in areas close to the facility, and 30 percent be spent on projects in designated environmental justice communities.
Pérez has received praise for bringing environmental justice into a conversation about clean technology and jobs.
"It wasn't necessary for him to push for that language," said Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comité Cívico del Valle. But, "he wanted to make sure that environmental justice communities were being taken care of."
"I think he is trying to find viable solutions to address the economic downfall and the loss of jobs, and I certainly think he is leading the way in creating policies and developing jobs, without disregard for environmental justice communities."
Pérez also wrote AB 938, which ensures that state residents receive notification about the safety of their drinking water, in a language they understand. It requires that residents be provided public notifications about their water quality in English, Spanish, and any other language spoken by 10 percent of more of impacted residents.
The bill was signed last fall as part of the Human Right to Water bill package.
But how does one achieve justice?
As a legislator, Pérez has amplified the voice of the Coachella and Imperial valleys, said Olmedo of Comite Cívico. Pérez has listened to the group's environmental concerns, and written letters on behalf of the community, he said.
"I feel a lot more empowered than I have ever been, and I think that is important," he said. "Working with his office has give me a lot of access to government agencies, and I hope that continues to advance."
Pérez's has succeeded in keeping justice at the forefront of conversations in the Capitol, said UC Davis professor Jonathan London. London worked with Pérez years ago on a youth-led participatory research project, and said the Assemblyman speaks about justice and equality the same way he did when he was a community organizer.
"He speaks the same way now in the legislature that he spoke when he was doing community activism and organizing," London said. "He hasn't sold out -- not only his values, but literally, the way he speaks."
"He has a huge amount of integrity. He doesn't forget where he is from. He also reminds people where he is from and who he is really representing."
In his current quest for justice, Pérez's goal is to bring attention and resources to the many issues in his region -- including complicated health and environmental ones -- that have long been neglected. If he can do that, and unite and empower people through the concepts of hope and equality, then his time in the legislature will have been a success, he said.
"I just hope that when this is all said and done, and I look back at this, I can say that we did some great work, and we brought our work and our community closer to justice," Pérez said. "I can die with that. I'd be fine with that."
"I'd be cool," he said, and laughed.
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