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.

 


Taking Flight: Part 2 by Veronica Padula

 

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Looking for waterbirds in the Florida Everglades I learned how to drive an airboat in the process

This is part 2 of 3. If you missed the first one you can find it here.

 

Taking Flight: Part 2

Here’s the thing, I did not necessarily grow up “in nature”. I grew up in a city in New Jersey, played indoor sports (fencing, not exactly your typical sport), and my main experience of the outdoors was going down the shore with my parents and hanging out on the beach or riding my bike with my dad along the boardwalk. I had never gone camping, never learned how to build a proper fire, never even seen a shooting star. So choosing a major that focused on nature, and then registering for a five-week field course at the Biosphere II in Arizona the summer after my freshman year of college meant I was taking huge steps out of my comfort zone.

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I helped teach a field ecology course in Belize last year. Had to take the snorkeling selfie.

But I was ready to learn and experience new things, and boy did I learn and experience what seemed like a million new things in those short five weeks. I learned how to be out in nature – by the time the course ended I could hike many miles, pitch a tent, and pull cactus spines from my skin (I may have lost a battle with an agave cactus during one hike). I learned how to identify birds and reptiles and mammals and plants. I learned what an ecosystem was. I loved considering how all the bits and pieces – organic and inorganic, microscopic and giant – of a particular ecosystem are interconnected, how they each play an integral role to keep the system functioning. I learned that humans were really good at altering landscapes. I learned what it meant to be a conservationist and environmentalist. And perhaps, most importantly, I learned that this was the type of work I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Oh, and I saw lots of shooting stars…

Well, wanting to study the environment and work outdoors is a bit different from the morgue, no? That first field course in Arizona awakened something in me and was the start of a crazy wonderful journey that continues today. The passion for the environment, the love for all the plants and animals, and the desire to explore all corners of the earth took me by surprise. Took my friends and family by surprise too, I think. Like I said, I didn’t necessarily grow up the outdoorsy type. But the natural world fascinated me and continues to fascinate me. I realized that science did not just happen at a lab bench or in a hospital. Science also happened outdoors, and I could pursue a career doing science outside.

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I spent two summers working on Alaska’s North Slope. We used a float plane to get around, it was spectacular.

Over the past decade (a little more than a decade at this point I guess) I have been figuring out exactly what kind of scientist I am. So many options. Ecology? Geology? Biology? Climatology? And those are just umbrella terms, with countless specialties within each of those fields. Throughout college I tried to seize any opportunity to be outside studying something. A geology course where we spent spring break hiking around Death Valley. An ecology course in Peru where we searched for frogs at night in the rainforest. A six month study abroad program in Australia where we explored rainforests AND coral reefs.
Among all these explorations, something did find me though… birds. During my last year of college I assisted on a black-crowned ni
ght heron project (check out the youtube videos of herons chumming in fish with pieces of bread, they are simply brilliant) in the New York-New Jersey Harbor. Birds are fascinating, and I was instantly hooked on them. Their health and well-being can tell us so much about what is happening in an ecosystem, and what could potentially be happening to the people in that ecosystem. I was also fortunate to be in the company of passionate scientists who cared deeply about their research and about the herons in the harbor, and took
the time to teach me and prepare me for a career in this field. Their enthusiasm was infectious and motivated me to continue studying birds.

They have been a constant in my life since then. They brought me to Alaska in 2007. More specifically, seabirds (marbled murrelets, they are perhaps some of the cutest birds out there) brought me to Alaska in 2007, and I essentially never left. I love Alaska, and the seabirds that call this place home. They are pretty special creatures, I often find myself wishing I was one of them when I’m watching them. I feel a deep connection to and love for the marine environment in Alaska – especially the seabirds. That is why I am currently studying them and educating other folks about them for my graduate degree. More on that in the next post…

Veronica is a Guest Contributor for Latino Outdoors and is working towards a Masters of Science in Marine Biology at the University of Alaska Anchorage/Fairbanks. If you would like to get in touch in Veronica her email is vmpadula@alaska.edu or follow her on Instagram @vmpadula.

 

Stay tuned for more!