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!

 

 

 

 

 

 


Parques Para Todos: Pa’Delante In 2017

By José G. González

This article was originally published in Huffington Post 

Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, California. A new monument in Northern California which Latino Outdoors supported,

It’s clear that 2016 was the year of the park. The nation’s treasured spaces celebrated their centennial, raising awareness about the need to preserve our public spaces and expand opportunities to access for all Americans. In California, cities across the state voted to invest in expanding the amount of green space in their communities. We hope that the momentum continues in 2017 and that parks and public lands continue to have the support of the future President.

The Obama administration was an example of the importance of having park champions at the highest levels of government. President Obama protected more land and water than any other president. His Every Kid in a Park initiative gave every fourth grader, and their families, free access to national parks and all public lands, which preserve America’s most beautiful and historic places. Obama expanded monuments that celebrate the country’s historical diversity, such as Harriet Tubman National Monument, César E. Chavez National Monument, and Stonewall National Monument, to harness the power that parks and preservation have in making history come alive.

Kids receiving their Junior Ranger Badge at Muir Woods National Monument as part of a joint program with CA State Parks Summer in Learning Program with leadership from Latino Outdoors Regional Coordinator Alicia Cruz.

Kids receiving their Junior Ranger Badge at Muir Woods National Monument as part of a joint program with CA State Parks Summer in Learning Program with leadership from Latino Outdoors Regional Coordinator Alicia Cruz.

California has led the charge, too, to protect our public lands and treasured green spaces. State parks are often a model for the rest of the country, and California is stepping up to the challenge of meeting the needs of an increasingly urban, diverse population. A two-year transformation process is wrapping up, paving the way for reforms that will provide programming and diverse staffing to ensure that state park visitors reflect the Golden state’s demographics by 2025.

North Table Mountain Ecological Preserve, Butte County. Outing led by Latino Outdoors Outings Leader Eduardo Gonzalez.

Californians also showed a willingness to support funding for parks in places like Los Angeles and Berkeley. In the case of Los Angeles County, an assessment of park needs commits the region to investing in reducing historical park disparities that have resulted in low-income communities receiving less than their share of green space. Given the importance that parks play in the health and wellbeing of our communities, I helped to launch Parks Now, a coalition of diverse park champions have come together to ensure that park reforms don’t get lost among other issues. We are pushing for equity in access, guided by the work I do through my own organization, Latino Outdoors, where we lead efforts to reconnect people of all backgrounds to our open spaces and to prove that we all have a place in the outdoors.

Malibu Creek State Park, Calabasas, California. Latino Outdoors 2016 Leadership Campout.

But there is still a lot of work to be done, and parks will always need a champion in Washington D.C.

We urge the president-elect and his administration to continue the work accomplished so far and to aim even higher in honor of our future generations and their right to public lands. Federal lands make up roughly 27 percent of the land area of the U.S., and they belong to each and every one of us. Public lands protect wild landscapes and natural and cultural resources, and invigorate us with their beauty, crisp air, and majestic views. Parks are a birthright of all Americans, which means we all deserve access to green space and we all have the responsibility to be stewards of our public lands.

Cosumnes River Preserve, Sacramento, California. Latino Outdoors outing by Regional Coordinators, Ambassadors, and Outings Leaders Raquel Rangel, Jacky Elizarraraz, Natividad Chavez, and Eduardo Gonzalez.

We hope that the incoming administration embraces everyone’s right to green space and upholds the principle that public lands belong to everyone. We expect the Trump administration to:

  • Be a vocal supporter of parks. Make sure that we continue to preserve our public lands for future generations.
  • Continue to encourage greater access to our outdoors. Support initiatives like Every Kid in a Park and policies to expand access to parks for park-poor communities.
  • Advocate for diverse parks leaders. Park staff should reflect our population in order to cater to the needs to our entire communities. Everyone deserves to feel welcome when they visit a park and to be able to take ownership of our breathtaking landscapes.

Improving our parks will benefit all our generations to come. Now is the time to be a champion for parks and keep the flame alive. Now is the time to protect the future of our public lands, more than ever.

Little Basin State Park, Boulder Creek, CA. Sacred Heart Nativity School, San Jose, CA Outdoor Education program facilitated by Latino Outdoors


¡Estamos Aquí! Opening America’s Public Lands and Green Spaces

By José G. González

This article was originally published in Huffington Post

In their heart of hearts, Latinos are conservationists and environmentalists. Polls show that environmental issues are near the top of Latinos’ greatest concerns, and they strongly favor protecting the nation’s public lands. Yet, numbers show only about 1 in 10 national park visitors are Hispanic.

As we near the end of the year and closed a month of Hispanic Heritage celebrations, Latino environmentalists are pushing to include a recognition of the significant ties that our community has to nature and the outdoors. This is important not just to help our parks reflect and welcome the whole diversity of the American identity – but also because as we head to the polls in November, we want to highlight the ways that conservation and access to nature will be at the top of the Latino agenda.

Fortunately, there is growing acknowledgment that the future of our public lands depends on their ability to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse nation. Recently, the White House highlighted efforts Latinos are undertaking to connect our communities with public lands by hosting the premier screening of Estamos Aquí: A Celebration of Nature y Cultura, a film created by Latino Outdoors and The Nature Kids Institute.

Public lands belong to everyone—as President Obama has stated, it is a birthright of all Americans. All communities deserve access to our natural resources and the subsequent health and economic benefits. Yet, Latinos continue to face barriers in accessing parks and engaging in the outdoor experience, including a lack of knowledge about national parks and an inability to access these parks from their homes. Despite widespread interest in visiting parks, some park-poor communities simply don’t have the needed access to green spaces.

Take Los Angeles as an example, one of the most diverse cities in one of the most diverse states: neighborhoods that are predominantly white have 32 park acres, while Latino areas have 0.6 park acres. When Latinos do visit our parks, they are faced with a cultural divide – park staff who do not look like them and outdoor spaces that do not nurture large families and social gatherings. In a country that prides itself on inclusivity and diversity, we still need to undertake more work in our public lands so they reflect and respect the perspective of more communities.

The conversation about Latinos and the environment must start at the local level by ensuring that everyone has access to quality, local parks. In our home state of California, Latino Outdoors has created pathways for families and youth to connect with nature. Our leaders have developed culturally relevant programming and events to empower the Latino community to explore and share their personal experiences. For many, opportunities such as bilingual hikes serve as their first introduction to our parks system. We’re also part of a California coalition that is working to ensure that equity is a driving principle in park policy.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is leading the charge on the national level. We are pleased that the White House has pushed initiatives that fuel interest in our public spaces among youth and communities of color, adding a narrative of inclusion to America’s green spaces and the Great Outdoors. President Obama has protected more public lands and water than any other president, designated national monuments that honor the distinct heritage and history of our country, and launched an initiative to allow every fourth grade student and their family to experience the grandiose beauty of our public lands. With other partners we are also pushing for this work at the national level with the Next 100 Coalition and the Latino Conservation Alliance.

The White House’s premier screening of Estamos Aquí: A Celebration of Nature y Cultura brought to light the personal stories of Latinos who are leading local efforts to engage with the outdoors. Together we must take the steps to further showcase and grow this as a national movement.

José G. González is the Founder of Latino Outdoors, a volunteer-run organization focused on celebrating Latino culture in nature and connecting families with the outdoors. Connect with José “Green Chicano” and Latino Outdoors on Twitter @JoseBilingue and @LatinoOutdoors.