How Cesar Chavez Inspired My Journey to Environmentalism

By Laura Torres

 

As we recognize Cesar Chavez Day today, I find myself reflecting on how Chavez’s life and teachings influenced my own life, and shaped my perspective of what it means to be an environmentalist.

In 1997, I transitioned from elementary to middle school. Beyond the superficial changes, (from collecting Lisa Frank stickers and wearing a lot of pink to wearing only dark colors, crazy hoop earrings and way too much eyeliner, and lipstick too) my mind was also transforming.

My English teacher Mr. Duenas, thankfully, recognized that many of my classmates were experiencing similar evolutions.  He was patient and understanding with his squirrely class, and treated us with respect. He became our advocate when he made it his mission to teach us about our Mexican-American history. I was immediately drawn to Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the many leaders associated with the farmworkers’ struggles. I also gained a new appreciation and understanding for what it meant to be a leader

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Learning about Cesar Chavez, I gained an understanding of what it looks like when communities like mine take a stand for their own health and wellness. The 1990’s was a difficult time for my community of Boyle Heights and I was familiar with struggle. As I learned about the violence Cesar Chavez and other farmers faced, I felt angry. However, I became inspired when I learned about his organizing. Upon understanding the story of the grape strike, I felt hopeful to know that people can make an impact and demand a life with dignity. And I felt empowered to know that I too could improve conditions in my own community.

Aside from the grape strike and hunger strikes that he is primarily known for, Chavez was concerned about the damage that humans cause to the earth. In learning about his life and the early work of the United Farm Workers, it is clear Cesar Chavez was creating a movement that was about much more than labor rights. He had a vision of a better quality of life for the poor, one in which the environment was healthy, too.

He was frustrated by the lack of awareness of threats to the planet, stating, “It’s amazing how people can get so excited about a rocket to the moon and not give a damn about smog, oil leaks, the devastation of the environment with pesticides, hunger, disease. When the poor share some of the power that the affluent now monopolize, we will give a damn.”

I began to question the conditions in my community. Chavez’s fight for a life with dignity made me see that my family experienced so many of the same struggles of working in painful conditions for low pay. This stuck with me through my college years, where I learned about how communities of color are the most affected by pollution. I thought of Boyle Heights, where I grew up, which is surrounded by freeways and adjacent to factories. I thought of the cement-covered LA River, and of the difficulties my community faces in accessing healthy food and open green space. Chavez’s analysis of power and his dedication to organizing made me feel the responsibility to organize and look at power structures in my own life. And this was the dawn of my professional career as an organizer; I want to know that I am active in reminding my community that we have power when we organize.

Cesar Chavez once said, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.” This comment has stayed with me through my career, from my years as an education-focused organizer to present day.

I learned a lot in my time working with parents in my previous positions as a parent advocate, community organizer, and project manager for community gardens. Many of the parents I worked with were immigrants from Latin America, and I distinctly recall a nostalgia for the nature of their homeland. They shared how they raised their own food and grew up playing outdoors. Many lamented that their children would not experience a childhood in the hills, bonding with animals or simply being able to breathe fresh air. As I became friends with some of them on social media, they would marvel at my pictures of hikes. They were shocked that I could access the San Gabriel and Santa Monica Mountains.  They had only known the San Gabriels as a faraway background or the Santa Monica Mountains as a place in which they worked for rich people but had no idea that they were public lands. I found myself spending time chatting with them about self-care by eating healthy food and the importance of spending time outdoors.  I saw the opportunity to connect our conversations on food to the legacy of Cesar Chavez.

Chavez was an environmentalist who grew organic food and incorporated hikes, meditation and prayer into his daily life. His connection to nature and his regular hikes were the self-care, which provided him with strength to continue to advocate for a life with dignity. His close connection to the land and tremendous respect for nature is a reminder that the word ‘environmentalist’ takes many shapes. Being an environmentalist goes deeper than knowing where the closest organic co-op is, or staying up to date on the latest eco-trends. It’s about having respect for the environment and a willingness to care for nature in our everyday lives.

In my own life, I seek time outdoors to clear my head, to relieve the stress of city life, and to rekindle my sense of adventure. I have come to believe that access to natural spaces is essential for improving one’s quality of life. I experienced the benefits of spending time in nature in my own life, and began to share it with friends
and family. I officially  joined Latino Outdoors as a volunteer in 2015 as I felt need to increase the representations of Latinos, and, more specifically, Latinas in the outdoors. Joining Latino Outdoors has helped me embrace my culture and connect with some amazing people. Being a part of this group reminds me of Cesar Chavez outlook, “Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures”.
Access to nature has become a major part of my career, through advocating for an expanded Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area that would reach more Los Angeles-area communities and foster stronger connections to nature. I have no doubt that increased access to nature is beneficial for LA. I am grateful to combine my passion for conservation and preservation of history in my work.

The teachings of Cesar Chavez, by way of Mr. Duenas, had a profound impact on my life that continue to present themselves each day. Cesar Chavez is an example of someone who committed himself to organizing for an improved quality of life, while keeping his cultural practices and connecting with the environment. I am inspired to do the same as I work to connect Angelinos to public lands and preserve the great legacy of Cesar Chavez, at Cesar Chavez National Monument, and to expand his and the farmworkers’ story through sites across California and Arizona. Like Cesar Chavez, I am an environmentalist, because I believe it’s an essential part of living a better quality of life. On Cesar Chavez Day and each day forward, I will work to advocate for fair representation in our National Park System and speak up for opportunities to share the stories of Cesar Chavez and the many people who helped shape our country’s shared history. Si se puede!

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 comment on “How Cesar Chavez Inspired My Journey to Environmentalism

  1. Dan McCorquodale Reply

    Jennifer,
    I was impressed with your article about Cesar Chavez. You are correct in being impressed with him and his story. I had the opportunity to know him and work on the strike and boycott in the late 60’s. I live very near his early home and am working to accomplish one final project, which is to get the County to build a neighborhood park in an area with no park within 1/2 mile. It is part of a promise I made over 40 years ago and still no success. I seems that everyone, including Hispanics sees little value in this neighborhood. Hopefully from your history in Boyle Heights you will understand how parents and children feel when they think that government and agencies have no respect for them. I think that my space has about ended so I will sign off and hope to read more of your articles in the future. Cordially, Dan McCorquodale, California State Senator, Retired.

  2. Michelle Tamez Reply

    Very inspiring comment above – I hope you are able to create that park Mr. McCorquodale! It sounds like you have some stories to tell. Perhaps creating some kind of historic landmark or educational signage will help to make the case. Converted lots to green space are usually supported by counties because it increases property value. Sometimes you need to connect people to the history and legacy of their people to get them interested.

    Thank you for this story Laura. I didn’t know about Chavez’s meditation and self-care through time spent in nature. It’s important for us to know and understand our own environmental leaders and legacy in the U.S.

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