Chicana/o communities have been fighting for civil rights for roughly 70 years. That fight has expanded to include environmental justice in the past two decades.
Hoping to spotlight the struggle, California State University, Northridge Chicana/o studies professors Mary Pardo, Rosa RiViera Furumoto and Stevie Ruiz continue to raise awareness to the issues they outlined in an article entitled “Environmental Justice in Chicana/o Communities” that appeared last year in the journal, Resilience: A Journal of Environmental Humanities.
“Our goal was to bring awareness not only to the conditions within Chicana/o communities, but also how those conditions affect society as a collective,” Ruiz said. “These communities have been placed on the front lines of having to fight for environmental justice in addition to their battle for civil rights.”
Ruiz pointed to the Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA) as one of the many Chicana/o groups that have taken on the burden of fighting environmental problems found in their neighborhoods.
“Living in tight quarters in communities with the poorest air quality and being regularly displaced is a never ending cycle for so many members of these communities,” he said.
MELA started in Boyle Heights in the mid 198os when the mothers successfully fought to fight the building of an incarceration center in their neighborhood. Its leaders have evolved the organization into one that takes on issues that bring harm to their communities, whether the construction of jails, freeways or oil refineries.
“The Black community was among the first to align civil rights with environmental justice in North Carolina years ago. The Mothers of East LA were following in their example,” Ruiz said, noting that pollution does not discriminate.
More recently, Ruiz said, Chicana/o communities have taken on increased development in their communities. These efforts have been led, he said, by a younger generation who are following in “their mothers’ footsteps.”
“This the longest standing model of activism,” he said. “Younger people are becoming more inspired by the wins of their elders and are getting involved. It’s similar to the tradition of Black activism, which is passed down through generations.”
While the efforts to fight for environmental justice seem community focused, Ruiz said their impact is felt across society.
“Many in the United States view Chicanos as a liability [to the environment],” he said. “In reality, they come to the United States with a certain level of cultural knowledge, tradition and respect in regards to nature and the environment, and they are applying that knowledge, those traditions, to fight the impacts of climate change and preserve their communities.
“Many of these people don’t consider themselves ‘environmentalists’ or ‘activists’,” he said. “They are just trying to save their neighborhoods, and in the process are passing down traditions to their children and grandchildren and training a new generation of environmental activists.”