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!

 

 

 

 

 

 


Why We Need a National Monument Designation

By Miché Lozano

 

My first visit to the Canyon 18 years old

When I turned 18 years old I asked my family to take me to the Grand Canyon for the first time. I had always wanted to visit, but despite living in the same state as the Grand Canyon, traveling was an expense that my family could rarely afford. Until my first visit to the canyon that year, I had never truly understood the meaning of the word vast. I fell in love with the depth and the beauty of the canyon. The Earth’s rough history is exposed in the layers of geologic time for all to marvel at. I swore to myself that I’d return. Since then, I’ve hiked around the canyon numerous times and I love taking people there for their first times as well. This fall, Ecoflight gave me the opportunity to fly over the Grand Canyon in a small aircraft and to see the canyon from an entirely new perspective.

EcoFlight educates and advocates for the protection of remaining wild lands and wildlife habitat through experiential learning, which utilizes small aircraft to immerse people in the world of conservation. I was asked to be a part of their program, to speak on behalf of Latino Outdoors and share stories of my personal experiences with Latino Outdoors.

My goal was to help the students understand how different people experience the outdoors and how to include more perspectives, making space for folks from different backgrounds in conservation work. My colleague, Sarah Ponticello was also involved in the program; she was advocating on behalf of the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument (GGCHNM), which will protect the canyon’s currently unprotected lands for future generations to enjoy. Sarana Riggs from the Grand Canyon Trust and Jason Nez, a National Park Service archeologist, spoke to the group about the movement: Save the Confluence. Both Sarana and Jason are Diné (Navajo) and they provided their perspectives of the dilemmas that proposed construction of a tram and tourist resort at the sacred site would cause.

The Confluence is the sacred site where the bright blue waters of the Little Colorado River meet the Colorado River. The Navajo and Hopi have origin stories tied to the Confluence, they are deeply connected to what this place represents to them spiritually.

Although each of us had different agendas and prioritized some of the countless issues impacting the Grand Canyon in different ways, we all understand that this place is in need of protection. Having a National Monument designation added to this natural wonder is essential to the protection of its precious natural and cultural resources.

To be completely honest, flying over the Grand Canyon was never on my bucket list because it just seemed so unattainable. It’s one of those touristy things only rich people do, right? I try to make a conscious effort not to be elitist or resentful when I see other people enjoying the same things I enjoy. But I’ll be heading in on the Kaibab trail with a backpack ready to go hike the canyon for a few hours, then I’ll see all the people standing on the rim taking selfies and think to myself you’re not going in? You’re just gonna take photos of yourself? Really? Aggressively rolling my eyes.

I guess I like to think that experiencing the harshness of the canyon has altered the way I like to experience it: the perpetually dry heat, the spiny plants with their flowery secrets, and long hours of hiking and getting to know my friends while enveloped in the canyon’s embrace. Experiencing the canyon’s harsh features, venturing through its rugged terrain, builds character and I really like that. I did the “tourist” thing when I was 18 and visited for the first time. I just took pictures at the rim and wandered down a few switchbacks, that was it. It was beautiful and I remember enjoying it, but nowhere near the extent to which I appreciate it now. I wonder if those people on the rim get out much, I wonder if taking pictures on the rim is the most time they’ll spend outdoors. Now, everyone’s experience is different and I bet we all think that our way is the best way to experience the outdoors, until we try something new.

So there I am. I’m sitting in the cockpit of a small aircraft – taking selfies – and we’re taking off to fly over the Grand Canyon and I don’t know if I want to throw up from the sheer excitement or from the nausea that comes from flying.
We flew over the Kaibab National Forest that surrounds the Grand Canyon and I watched the tall ponderosa pines that blanket the landscape slowly blurring into a sea of green. There was no reference point for perspective, you just have to take it all in and it’s incredible. The Grand Canyon is BIG. I mean it’s really, really BIG. I was literally flying over it and I still couldn’t see all of it. I thought I knew the meaning of Vast from my first visit to the canyon, but this was different, an entirely new feeling, once again I was immersed in an overwhelming sense of wonder. 

To a regular tourist who is not from the area or involved with all the political turmoil that surrounds the canyon, this view is breathtaking. But for people like myself and the other activists who were involved in EcoFlight’s program, I think this flight was something truly special. There it was. Everything that we want to protect, everything we are fighting for through policies, conferences, and petitions. The history of the Earth exposed by the famous Colorado River that sliced its way through the layers of ancient rock, allowing us to read into our past. The ancestral lands of the many indigenous people like the Navajo whose identities are deeply woven into that land. All of it, from a Condors’ eye view. The following photograph stirs a lot of emotions within me. Just south of the Grand Canyon (which is out of view) is a Uranium mine under the shadow of a sacred site known as Red Butte, on the horizon is the San Francisco Peaks mountain range (another sacred site); home to the highest point in Arizona just north of Flagstaff.

Two sacred sites and a uranium mine all in the same photo

 

The eye-sore you see here is a uranium mine.

 

The Navajo and Hopi are their own sovereign nations, but that hasn’t stopped the historical abuse of their land. Our own government has painfully often prioritized resource extraction on Navajo and Hopi land—adding to the history of broken promises since the first treaties were signed.It also reinforced the different perspectives the government and tribal communities had in regards to land. A sacred site is disregarded for its economic value as an extractable resource. . The same uranium used to fuel the cold war and generate energy for our society inflicted tremendous cultural loss and suffering on the people of the Navajo and Hopi nations for generations. The number of threats from uranium mining claims that could be validated in the near future is staggering, including jeopardizing the water source for over 30 million people who rely on the Colorado River and indigenous groups will likely suffer the worst of those repercussions. It’s scary stuff.

I won’t go too into detail about the history of mining activities and the environmental racism that has occurred and is still happening, but I will say that contemporary relationships between natural resource agencies and indigenous groups are sometimes strained because of that painful history. Luckily, I think times are changing and people are looking at the past with disdain and feeling hopeful about moving forward into a future of improved relationships with both the land and its indigenous people.

With the breath-taking view of Grand Canyon behind me, I spoke to the group of students in EcoFlight’s program about Latino Outdoors and our collective efforts to create opportunities for Latinx communities to access the outdoors and re-connect our culture with the land. I enjoy public speaking, but I was really intrigued by the curiosity and passion the students demonstrated during their experience. I also learned so much information I never knew from the other speakers, like the issues revolving around the Confluence and all the hope people were putting behind the national monument proposal.

Sarah Ponticello speaking to the students from EcoFlight about the GGCHNM

If the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument comes into fruition it will:

  1. Permanently protect 1.7 million acres of land that surround Grand Canyon National Park from new uranium mining.
  2. Permanently protect the entire Grand Canyon, its rich cultural and ecological heritage, archaeological sites, and waters sacred to Native American communities throughout the region.

Flying over the Canyon was most likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. I got to see the confluence for the first time and my understanding of the word vast was rejuvenated with a healthy dose of amazement. Let’s say I do get a second chance to fly over the canyon, I would definitely go for it!

I would just hate to fly over the Grand Canyon and see it peppered with mining operations and obnoxious tourist attractions that have total disregard for the validity of Native American culture and their sacred sites. I think the intrinsic value of the Grand Canyon is much too important to allow such desecration.

 


Estoy Aquí- Con Gratitud Y Apreciación

Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District, CA.

In the coming weeks I hope many of you have the opportunity to enjoy time outdoors. It is one of the many ways that I hope you spend time with family, friends, peers, loved ones—or anyone that connects you to the spirit of gratitude and appreciation. The holiday season may be celebrated differently by a diversity of our communities, but I want to stress the intent of what it is for many and what it can be for all—a reminder of the light that can guides us as we continue forward, reflect on our growth, celebrate success, and be thankful for what brings us joy and harmony in our lives. These are trying times for many reflecting on the political shift from the presidential election, and the implications for the work and the communities so many of us value. We can analyze the reasons for the outcome and cast blame if so desired. But this is where we are, and it doesn’t change that it is up to all of us to provide the leadership we need for each other and where it counts. Whether in struggle, in solidarity, as allies, or in any way we can support each other, now is the time to show it in authenticity and with the right intention. Every action, however small or large, helps, from inviting a new family to experience the restorative benefits of the outdoors, to the policy work in maintaining open and equitable access to our public lands. Use your favorite quote, inspiration, or guiding principles, whatever it takes—but never forget to realize that you can actualize change and make a positive difference for someone from where you stand. Most importantly, you have the power in making a difference where you live and with what you have.

LatinXplorers in Hood River, OR. Photo by Ray Perkins.

I want to connect that to what 2016 has meant to me with the work with Latino Outdoors. I always wanted to make a difference. That is why I went into teaching, because I saw it as an opportunity to give back to my community in the way that education had given to me. I saw it as a way to pay it forward and enjoying a certain livelihood and show my parents that “I made it”. But it was still not enough. I wanted to risk forward and leave the security of a teaching position to “try this idea”—that there was an opportunity to identify, connect, and celebrate Latino leadership with the outdoors. I was looking for individuals, communities, and organizations to which I could plug in and ultimately I ended up creating what I was looking for. I took the step forward from where I stood and stumbled into something larger than myself.

Cosumnes River Preserve Outing with Bureau of Land Management CA. Photo by Bob Wick, BLM.

Latino Outdoors started with an idea which has been shaping into building an organization with the responsibility to a passionate and dedicated volunteer based that in just this year delivered over 70 outdoor experiences. I’m astounded by what a small dedicated group has been doing to change a space in the outdoor world. But as the quote says, never be surprised by what a small group of dedicated individuals can accomplish…

Malibu Creek State Park, CA State Parks.

Our team is composed of college students or recent graduates vibrant with the ideas and pedagogy of making a difference in this space to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion. They are parents or community members that simply wanted to connect with nature and share that joy with others as they doubted their own expertise in this field. They are working professionals who have seen the outdoors as an outlet for adventure and finding others “like me”. They are Chicano/as, Latino/as, Latinxs, Raza, Paisas, Hispanos, or a variety of nationalities. They have clear indigenous roots or identify as Afro-Latino. They are “envatomentalists”, “ecolatinos”, “ecocholos” and a variety of other mestizaje identities that highlight an ambicultural space that connects more of our communities with the outdoors.  Regardless of the varied reasons, they all said yes to working in and building this community—and for that I am grateful. They are the community I was looking for and I am dedicating next year to supporting them.

Point Reyes National Seashore.

I started 2016 with personal challenges and a big opportunity for growth—as well as a need to continue to focus the work and steward the responsibility now in my hands. When I first launched my blog I wanted to see if my story connected with others—and was curious what we could build. Since then I met President Obama in the Oval Office, hit the trails with Secretary Sally Jewell, co-produced a movie that screened as a White House event, received a conservation award with Harrison Ford, traveled to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, delivered a series of presentations and workshops on increasing diversity in conservation, and had my face and story in several publications that I honestly never thought I would appear in. We engaged in several initiatives to increase diversity in our public lands, from the Parks Now coalition in California to the Latino Conservation Alliance and The Next 100 Coalition at the national level. From Latino Conservation Week to #OptOutside, we were there to say “Estamos Aqui” in our public lands and #EncuentraTuParque. Those are all privileges and opportunities I didn’t have before Latino Outdoors.

Photo by Pete Souza, White House, used with permission.

Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, CA.

Latino Conservation Alliance reception for Raul Grijalva, Ranking Member, House Natural Resources Committee.

Spirit of the Muries, Murie Center, Teton Science Schools, Grand Teton National Park.

Rock Creek Park, Washington D.C.

Next 100 Coalition, Washington D.C.

Many of you followed me and thanked me for what I was doing. Though it may have looked simple at times through social media, it came with a lot of work and a continuous search for that balance of service and self-care. It was not easy and I had to re-examine how I could best serve my community while caring for myself and providing the time for personal space.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But an important piece remains the same—gratitude and appreciation for being in this place. I was able to do what I enjoyed and cared about. I was being of service how I wanted to be when I first left graduate school. I felt my voice was being heard and that my identity was being seen—and that I could begin to not feel alone. Many of you showed that. If you gave me a helping hand, thank you. If you supported Latino Outdoors, thank you. I appreciate your patience with me and the work we do—and my commitment is to show that your investment is worthwhile and that we will pay it forward.

Members of various youth leadership programs including San Gabriel Mountains Forever Leadership Academy.

In 2016 I had a hashtag associated with me: #whereisjose. Bueno, estoy aqui. And although Latino Outdoors will continue to change along with my presence, my answer will be simple #hereisjose.

See you on the trails in 2017. Con respeto y admiración,

José G. González Founder, Executive Director @Latino Outdoors