Latinos & the Environment (Fall 1993)

Vol. 4, No. 3: Fall 1993

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Cover Stories

A Tribute to Cesar and His Lessons
     by Jose R. Padilla

Beyond Black and White
     by Elizabeth Martinez

Strategies and Analysis

3   Colonialism, Resistance, & the Search for Alternatives: The Environmental Movement in Puerto Rico
     by Deborah Berman Santana

6   Adding the Issue of Class: Latinos and Air Pollution in L.A.
     by Lisa Duran

8   La Sierra Foundation de San Luis: Reviving the Chicano Land Grant Struggle
     by Devon Pena

11 It's Time Latino Workers Stopped Dying for A Job
     by Amanda Hawes

14 Deconstructing Environmental Racism: A Look at the Early Pesticide Campaign of the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee
     by Laura Pulido

17 The Connection Between Latinos and the Environment
     by Jose Morales

18 History and Recent Developments in Puerto Rican Environmental Activism

Race Relations

20 Enough of the Great Melodrama Race Relations in Los Angeles
     by Victor Valle and Rudy D. Torres


23 Texas Task Force Takes on Environmental Racism
     by Antonio Diaz

25 Expansion of the Port of Miami
     by Daniel Suman

26 Building Power Without Borders
     by Catalina Muniz

27 CATA: 15 Years of Farm Worker Action

28 People Organizing to Demand Environmental Rights in San Francisco
     by Leticia Alcantar

29 The South Bronx Coalition for Clean Air
     by Nina Laboy

30 Taking Back New Mexico

31 Defining Power in Tejas: Latino Environmental Group PODER Widens East Austin Agenda
     by Elaine Ayala

32 Communique from Chiapas

Ellie Goodwin on Policy

34 From the Capitol: Views on Policy Development


35 Dr.Loco and his Rockin' Jalapeno Band:Confronting Environmental RacismThrough Music
     by Raquel Pinderhughes

37 Aerosol & the Environment
     by Bonnie Maria Burlin


Editor's Notes


The Connection Between Latinos and the Environment

The Macro Perspective

The global degradation of the environment threatens the survival of all life on this planet as well as human life. While this degradation affects all people, it does so unequally. This is a central point regarding the connection between Puerto Ricans and Latinos and the environment in the USA. How is this possible? To start, the degradation of the environment is generally the result of human activity; in particular, how society creates and recreates its life. In other words... the unequal degradation of the environment results from the unity of production and the social order. Production can be understood as industrial activity, and the social order is the way in which the society is organized around recreating its life, enabling production to happen.

The problem has been that there has always been a tight linkage between how we recreate our way of life and the degradation of the environment. The elimination of waste and dangerous materials affecting human health was impossible, because then industrial activity would then be impossible. Pollution has been linked to what we need to live. The traditionally predominant view on the issue has been how we should regulate/control/manage pollution.

To illustrate the point of linkage of pollution and industrial activity, an example of a body can be used. The body is society, and getting food and eating is creating its life. The brain (the powerful) decides what needs to be done to eat, but it knows that every time it prepares food and eats (to live) it must also poison itself. So it must do several things to keep alive and functioning. It must control its eating by taking in smaller pieces and do so every so often. This is the idea of regulation/control/management of pollution. The body decides that it will only dirty its hands and concentrate the poison in its feet. The hands and feet are correspondingly the disenfranchised workers, the poor, and communities of color.

To put the last statement another way, since the elimination of industrial activity is impossible, the social order regulates the degradation linked to it for all people by pollution control, management and regulation. Nevertheless, the social order also channels the degradation selectively, localizing the undesirable work, products, and waste on what the social order designates as the undesirable people. Not only is degradation unequal, but in disenfranchised communities, the impact is unequal. The beleaguered and debilitated array of supportive structures—education, health indicators, access to health services, stability of community institutions, and political power that normally buffer the affects of degradation in the Puerto Rican and Latino community—make the impact of degradation even more severe.

Latinos, the environment and the cities

Census trends predict that Latinos will be the largest national minority group in the United States in the coming years. One of the characteristics of the established Latino population is that most live in the America's urban centers; most Latino newcomers will probably also settle in urban areas. An example is that 75% of all Boricuas are concentrated in America's inner cities. In addition, many of us have seen the massive arrivals of Dominicans, Mexicans, and Central

Americans to the Latino communities spread throughout New York City. This urbanization of our population is paralleled by the general population, where 75% of the U.S. population lives in cities.

The decay of the cities, as Ritchie Perez has stressed, is of paramount importance because most Puerto Ricans and Latinos live and will live in the cities. Many things characterize the decay.  Ammong them are a deteriorating infrastructure, lost manufacturing and associated industries with their jobs, and high concentrations of people in destitute poverty. The decay's social consequences are visible to any New Yorker and were visible to the nation and world with the LA riots.

A malicious neglect by the federal government under three Republican Administrations has been a major cause of this deterioration. For example, federal dollars to the cities dropped from 9 percent in 1978 to 4.2 percent in 1986. The federal government's process of defunding city governments greatly increased the financial burden of city and state governments. The shifting resources that proved necessary for city governments to provide essential city services resulted in fewer funds for city environmental agencies. This caused a decline of environmental protection and a degradation of the urban environment overall, especially in terms of air quality and hazardous waste. This negative effect probably impacted more severely communities of color in these cities.

The low level of environmental protection of cities can be shown by two examples. The Williamsburg/Greenpoint area was shown to have 1.5 pounds of toxic air emissions for every woman, man, and child per square mile of this area. This is far above the government's clean air standards. The Latino population in this area is one of the most concentrated in the country. On the national scene, the Argonne National Laboratory has compiled data that shows that 91% of Hispanics disproportionately live in cities that exceed the federal Clean Air Act's emissions standards for certain airborne pollutants.

The combined effect of Republican administration hostility to cities and beleaguered local governments has resulted in a decline in the protection of the urban environment, particularly in communities of color. Whether the new Democratic administration, in the light of competition pressures for deregulation and budgetary cutbacks, will move to curtail urban environmental degradation is still a big question.

Another factor that influences the impact of the environmental degradation on the cities is the lack of an adequate response mounted by traditional environmental movement. There has been a lack of emphasis on urban environmentalism by the mostly white, middle-class movement since white flight has left the urban areas for people of color. The environment of the cities has been understudied and it seems that cities lack of a theoretical framework such as the ecosystem idea for wilderness areas. This is beginning to change due to the influence of the grassroots organizations of people of color. This influx of activists will push the urban environment to become a priority, so that we have ideas that will allow our work to forge ahead.

To transform the environment of Latinos, the social order must also be fundamentally changed. We must move from an order shaped by economic exploitation and racial injustice to one where the democratic spirit of self determination invades our economic and cultural lives as well. Perhaps only when the disenfranchised and their allies rise up against the scourges of racism, poverty and pollution will there be a "new world order." Only then will we have clean, earth-friendly, egalitarian ways of living on our planet.

The micro-perspective

This perspective presents the ways in which the environment of Latinos gets degraded by the intersection of the social order and production. How we work to recreate our life concerns the issue of occupational health or the exposure of workers to toxic chemicals (i.e. pesticides) in the workplace. How we live addresses, among others, the issue of lead poisoning from lead-based paint and proximity to transportation routes. How things are made and/or disposed of deals with the issue of exposure to toxic and hazardous materials in communities. The disposal of sewage, toxic and radioactive waste from production and services, as well as the incineration of solid waste from temporary goods, are the major ways in which our communities confront these issues.

 Latinos & the Environment      ?õ¬?       Vol. 4 No. 3      ?õ¬?       Fall 1993

Related Stories: 

Enough of the Great Melodrama of Race Relations in Los Angeles

Reliance on color codes to explain the inner city rests on a system of neat racial categories, but something about Latinos undermines it.

The recent flurry of newspaper articles and TV news retrospectives on Los Angeles six months after the riots shared a common story line. Whether victim, bystander or hero, they were all actors in the great melodrama of "race relations." For audience convenience, it seemed, the cast was color-coded.

But racial strife did not create the L.A. communities that went up in flames. Over and over again, citizens interviewed in the aftermath stories said as much: The riots were principally the result of economic inequalities. Still, the journalists pushed racial conflict as a principal force behind the April unrest.

This emphasis on "race relations” is perplexing. Taken at face value, it suggests that if only the city's various racial and ethnic groups could just "get along, recovery would be just around the comer. No wonder much of the post-riot coverage reads like a morality tale.

But the media's proclivity toward symptom-cause confusion masks a deeper problem: The race taxonomy reporters largely rely on to describe inner-city life rests on a system of dubious racial categories. Fortunately, there is something about Latinos that undermines this system. That something is mestizaje - Latin America's unfinished business of racial and cultural crossbreeding. Despite racist injunctions to forestall the consequences of five centuries of genetic and cultural dialogue between the descendants of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the hemisphere's indigenous peoples, mestizaje insinuates itself in every aspect of Latin American life.

In the United States, mestizaje expresses itself in the Latino's refusal to choose one language over another, or one culture or national heritage over another. Latinos prefer to juggle them all, even if the resulting synthesis may seem messy or dangerous. But to those conditioned to tidy racial compartments, Latino ambiguity is indeed threatening. A people who violate boundaries of race, language and culture upset myths of a nation-state based on borders and exclusion.

It's thus not surprising that the media also stumble over the mestizo's celebration of ambiguity. The clash of race language and lived reality was evident in the post-riot coverage in the nation's elite print media. The "two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal" dichotomy made famous by the Kemer Commission report was simply not big enough to contain a "multicultural" upheaval in which villains and victims defied racial typing.

Ted Koppel's foray into South-Central was one example. By largely turning "Nightline" over to interviews with African-American gang members, he fell into the black-vs.-white trap. Another variation on the black-white dichotomy, blacks vs. browns, suggests that Latinos are snatching jobs the nation owes to blacks. In its most divisive form, this thesis blames Latinos for the poverty in African-American communities.

There is no sinister conspiracy here. The media merely reflects beliefs widely held by their audiences and codified by the nation's political institutions. The Census Bureau, for example, has had an especially difficult time trying to figure out how to classify Latinos by color.

In 1940, Latinos were categorized as "black" or a "racial" non-white group. In the '50 and '60 Census, the category of "white persons of Spanish surname" was used. In '70, the classification was changed to "white person of Spanish surname and Spanish mother tongue." Then, in '80, the expansive "non-white Hispanic." Latinos were back to square one. Because the census uses a "white" and "black" paradigm to classify residents, it has shuttled Latinos back and forth between the two extremes. In each case, the principle behind the label is the perceived presence or absence of color.

Latinos pay the price each time they conform to such color-coded insanity, especially when they try to extract a few morsels of recognition from the media. They know reporters will take notes if they frame their demands in the language of racial or ethnic strife, and only perfunctorily record their economic and social complaints.

Accordingly, the Los Angeles depicted in the riots reaffirmed the image of an industrial city of the 1950s, one that upheld the corporate status quo bolstered by improved "race relations" as the only reasonable alternatives to arson and looting. The reporters barely noticed that the flames had charred a different city, one transformed by global restructuring, post-industrial manufacturing and collapse of all the mythic categories that once defined the city's social, cultural, and linguistic identity.

Still, all this provides an unusual opportunity for journalists to describe the city anew, as if seen for the first time. Latinos are key to this renaming and retelling. The authority comes from the very mestizo ambiguities they share in a more concentrated form with the citizens of the world's post-industrial cities.

But it will take courage and subtlety to tell this story. Both local and national Latino leadership, which includes Latino journalists, must find the words to continue the dialogue of inclusion that writers such as Jose Marti started more than a century ago when he redefined Latin America as "Nuestra America.”

Latin and Caribbean America has struggled to live and understand its difficult heterodoxy. English-speaking North America may be ready to join this conversation when it overcomes its disdain of mestizo impurity. Latinos can hasten this dialogue by recognizing their many ambiguities and border-crossings as strengths, and by remembering that America is moving toward a future in which its citizens will be accomplices in multiracial kinship and culture. This is the mirror Latinos hold up to America.





Latinos & the Environment      ?õ¬?       Vol. 4 No. 3      ?õ¬?       Fall 1993