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

.

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.

 


Latino Outdoors Interview: A Conversation with Claudio Rodriguez

10257668_1483730281857242_6096421950554338447_o

Tell us your story –  What is your connection to the land and conservation?

In a conch shell, I’m from South Side Tucson, Arizona and my journey began when my mom traveled from Santa Maria del Tule, Oaxaca to Nogales, Sonora where she worked in a maquiladora, she met my father who was an albañil, at the age of two the border crossed me, I learned choppy English in elementary, learned about guns and drugs in middle school, in high school I really learned my colors, I learned a different type of sign language. After being a trouble maker for a good while dodging bullets and ducking the law, I started losing friends. One friend in particular really impacted me, my best friend whom I lost through gang violence. After this I remembered conversations I had with him and he told me I was smart and I should go to school, after all the memories and liquor passed through my mind I decided it was time to enroll in community college, after a year in college a girl invited me to a community garden by the name of Tierra Y Libertad, I would say that I would go and I never showed up and I eventually gave in, so I showed up one Saturday morning in the fall, I walked to the address provided and I had this imagination of vegetables, trees, tomatoes and chickens but when I arrived there wasn’t anything but a dirt backyard, and I asked where the garden was and the response I got was, “we’re going to create it.” Tierra Y Libertad was a grassroots group in the south side of Tucson that talked about healthy food, gardening, and environmental justice. It saved my life and I thought they were crazy when I met them, I eventually became crazy myself. Now I create gardens in homes, schools and community centers. I have found my purpose, something the world needs, something I love, something I’m good at, something I can get paid to do, and something that makes my mother proud. Now I find myself working with kids creating food justice trough their little hands. Because it’s more than growing vegetables, it’s about seeing the magic when their eyes blow up and their smiles glow when they pull up their first carrot or taste their first cherry tomato, it’s about changing the environment that we live in, making our dreams our reality and it’s about creating value to our lives. Through mother earth we learn respect, value and humility. And of course if we ever run into each other I can tell you a gang(← did you catch the pun jaja) of stories that will make you laugh, wonder and maybe cry.

IMG_8362

How is this connection celebrated/expressed and understood/misunderstood in your community and culture—in the broader conservation community?

The green movement has created a belief that people of color do not care for the environment when that’s what our culture is all about! We are reflections of our realities and its time to change our realities, lets make the hood healthy, we express our needs and dreams through hood clean ups, art, fiestas, ceremonies. Sometimes we do have neighbors or friends who say, “Why you got to be such a tree hugger” obviously I’m quoting a nice version of this. Eventually what we do rubs off on people because conservation work or sustainability work doesn’t have to be super literal or linear. In society we are told to be a cholo is a bad thing but when we look at history and our language cholo is an “aztequismo” derived from the nahuatl work xolotl wich is the dog that guides us to next world in our passing. In my journey as an eco-cholo I have heard stories of nanas referring to the homeboys who would protect the barrio from anyone wanting to do harm us. So a cholo is a protector, I am proud to be a cholo, to bring back ways to not only protect the neighborhood from drive-bys but also drive-thrus. I love talking to youngsters about being green and what it really means to take care of the hood, about what it takes to be an enVATOmentalist. And don’t get me wrong this work is not only pertaining to the barrio but also to our mountains, to our rivers, to our rains. We do everything we can to show anyone willing to learn about our desert medicines, how to conserve the rain, how to ask permission before stepping on a mountain, we need to bring back our connection as indigenous people back into our daily life, because if we don’t we will just end up being conquistadores with no soul, no respect and no understanding of the connection that everything holds.

IMAG1692

Latino/Chicano identities are connected to the outdoors, the environment, and conservation—how are those words reflective of YOU, how is it expressed, what does it look like?

First off I’m Mexicano, a paisa and a cholo, I feel like I could never identify as a latino or hispano because I come from the people of the clouds, I’m a Zapoteca, from my mothers blood, from my mothers food, from my mothers love. When I look at my farthest relatives that I still had a connection with they speak about farming and raising animals and how they would converse with the plant nation, everything was treated with respect.
Our outdoors happens as soon as we look out or step out of the door of our home, what do we see, what do we smell and what do we hear. The outdoors and our environment are our reality, I live in the hood where hipsters in chanclas would get stung by haroin needles, were sex workers run business up and down the street and homefree people harvest tunas from the near by empty lot. But this is my environment and I feel safe in it.
My wife and I just recently came back from our honeymoon trip exploring the outdoors of Arizona in respects to national parks and monuments. I got to see beautiful site from Montezuma’s castle, the Petrified Forest, antelope canyon and many more before reaching the Grand Canyon. Our experience was a little crazy by the end of the trip I was just in awe of how everything was described with Eurocentric lenses, even when there was a chance to show a glimpse of native knowledge it was still white washed. As a brown man who hardly leaves his city (big step because before I wouldn’t even leave my barrio) it was amazing to witness the ignorance many people carried with them, from “ugly looking injuns” to white males being the first to have laid eyes on the magnificent wonders of nature when clearly there has been ceremonies carried out at all these sites for millions of years. (I’m not an archeologist). Other than that I fell in love with the mountains, the rock formations, the water that cut through rocks to make beautiful rivers and streams. Night skies are definitely beautiful when your with the love of your life.

IMAG1706

What needs to change and how do we grow, celebrate, and have the broader conservation movement connect with the role and values Latinos bring to the field?

I think one of the biggest changes that I see Latino Outdoors doing is education and leading by example, that we as a people belong in the outdoors, to return to our mother, to learn from her. One thing that my wife and I noticed on our trip was that there were not many people of color working in national parks and that’s a change that I would love to see! Personally I would like to have a guideline on how to be in the outdoors like what to take and what to be aware of. I think we feel like we need hiking boots or fancy backpacks to be out here but we are hiking in chucks and dickies and we need to know that that’s ok too. It also cost money to enter some of the parks and I understand the need for that money but when a family is dealing with a low income the outdoors seem quite out of reach and we have to work harder to bring it within reach. Also as local Latino/Chicano/indigenous organizations wherever you are, you need to get in contact with outdoor organizations, the conservation groups, the people who are making decisions because we need to be at that table if not we are going to be on their menu, but never forget that you have to build your own table too because if not you’ll just be picking up their plates. Always make it fun, at least that what we strive for, make people feel welcomed and appreciated but y’all do this already.
Why does this issue and work matter to you?

It matters to me because I need my kids to be able to hike, run and swim in the forest, in the valleys and in the canyons. I need my kids to go with their mother to harvest herbs, go hunting and fishing with their uncles. There are things that can be measured that don’t matter and things that matter that can’t be measured. Our environment is immeasurable, pictures cannot do justice to the real beauty and magical feeling one gets from being in the middle of nature. We are surrounded by concrete too much that we forget the health benefits of going on hikes, eating wild foods, breathing fresh air. I mean don’t get me wrong I love the roar of a work truck but that noise will never compare to the roar of a mountain lion or a coyotes howl.

What does success in all this (a Chicano/Latino conservation identity, community connection, land conservation with Latino support, diversification of conservation movement, etc.) look like to you?

Success in my eyes is happiness. If we can make families or individuals happy and knowledgeable of their own backyards then I think we may be doing something right. In the work that I do in regards to urban food production I see success when a gardener does not need me any more, when they can handle it, when they know what they are doing and are growing better peppers than me. It’s about making others better, letting it all spiral into something bigger. I mean at first I was like what is Latinos Outdoors? Then I understood when I played with my own identity and messed around with Cholos Outdoors, making myself comfortable with who I was in the environment that I placed myself in. Some of the conservation work that I have partaken in has also included building with adobe, a dying art, now we are working to conserving homes in the barrio through a Mexicano lens. I wasn’t even planning on doing this but my wife pulled me in and I’m all for it.

How has work with (your organization/current project) connected to/is reflective of all this?

My work is building strong, safe and sustainable communities through urban food production. We are outside working in the dirt, creating mini eco systems in our backyard, restoring alleys and neighborhoods that the city has forgotten. Teaching youth skills that can help them start something in their home to ease the stresses of eating healthy and living healthy. We work towards changing the hood environment; a design that was meant to kill our people should motivate us to find the means to live a healthier, happier life. We are surrounded by liquor stores, fast food, and police militarization how can we not care, its our duty to act for the our generation, our generation before us and the ones that will come after us.

I want to thank Latino Outdoors and Jose Gonzales for the opportunity.

Gracias!!