BELL, CA— Every once in a while, I have to let the faucet water run until it goes from brown to clear. At least twice a week, I walk out of my house to the rotten smell of dead animals, thanks to an animal fat rendering facility two miles away.
Growing up in Southeast Los Angeles, I thought this was normal.
I was not shocked when the water crisis unfolded in the majority-black city of Flint, Mich. Here in Southeast LA, a predominantly working-class Latino region made up of eight core cities that include Bell, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Huntington Park, Maywood, South Gate, Vernon, and Walnut Park, we know the issue all too well.
Southeast LA is still feeling the effects of the now-closed Exide battery recycling plant that contaminated as many as 10,000 homes.
And factory pollution like what was produced by Exide is only one of many environmental issues plaguing the region. Those living near train rail yards in Commerce have a 70% to 140% increased risk of cancer. On the nearby I-710 freeway, over 40,000 cars and trucks drive by every day, transporting cargo to the ports of LA and Long Beach and emitting diesel soot that poses the highest cancer risk of any toxic air contaminant. Pair that with little access to green spaces and affordable, fresh produce, and you also end up with some of the highest rates of obesity in California.
If there is a silver lining to be found, it is in the local activism that has sprouted in these communities. Where government has been slow to respond, residents have taken center stage in an effort to transform their neighborhoods by forming environmental justice groups, planting local gardens and spearheading education campaigns. I spoke to some of these local activists, to learn what had moved them to action.
For community organizer Hugo Lujan, 28, it’s all about his grandma.
“That moment where everything clicked was when I went to go visit her in a hospital, and when I started talking to her she couldn’t finish talking because she would run out of air,” said Lujan, who works for local non-profit East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. “She kept saying, ‘I can’t breathe,’ and the doctors didn’t have an answer. That was the moment when everything was brought together.”
Lujan says that his grandmother, Maria de Jesus Garcia, 79, deals with constant bouts of respiratory illnesses, such as pneumonia and shortness of breath, which have inhibited her ability to walk. After years of hospital visits, doctors have yet to provide a specific diagnosis.
A native of Coahuila, Mexico, Lujan’s grandmother settled in East LA right next to a chroming facility. Like other residents in the area, she is exposed constantly to toxins released from adjacent chemical facilities and exhaust fumes from cars and trucks transiting nearby freeways.
“The way that I see it, the longer that I fight against this [contamination], the longer that I get to spend with her,” Lujan said. “So I’m literally fighting for her time.”
When 25-year-old Darlene Escobedo was on a ‘toxic tour’ organized by Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), a statewide organization that advocates for toxic-free communities, it included visits to oil refineries, ports, metal recycling facilities and other places linked to cancer and asthma.
For Escobedo, the tour turned personal when the guide led the group past the Kaiser Aluminum factory in Commerce.
“It was really hard for me to listen to what they were saying because as we were passing by, my dad was working in one of those factories,” Escobedo said. “Could it be possible that for 20 years my dad, who has given his blood, sweat, and tears to feed us, was also given a 25% higher chance of developing cancer?”
The tour wasn’t the first time Escobedo had been exposed to the effects of pollution. A total of 28 students and teachers from her elementary school were diagnosed with cancer during her eight years at the school. And between 1997 and 1998 alone, eight teachers at the school had miscarriages. The affected families blamed the chrome-plating factory located next to the school and sued the facility, effectively shutting it down in 2000.
“I don’t need to stay here forever, but I do need to be here now and show how much I’m grateful for growing up here and making me the person I am,” said Escobedo, who now works on behalf of CBE.
One day, 63-year-old Nicolasa Ramirez was standing on the corner of two high-traffic streets in her neighborhood holding a machine that measured the amount of pollution in the air.
“Whenever a huge cargo truck passed by, the markings went so high up, and there were just so many (trucks) that kept passing,” Ramirez said. “I felt horrible. We breathe in so much contaminated air. That really made me realize how important this work is.”
Ramirez belongs to La Cosecha Colectiva, a food-sharing collective in Commerce where members grow their own produce. For many of the city’s locals, La Cosecha Colectiva provides their only access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Ramirez says that her brother, granddaughter, and three sister-in-laws have all been diagnosed with cancer, as well as multiple neighbors she has lived next to since she migrated from Jalisco, México in 1970.
I asked Ramirez why she continues to do this work and without skipping a beat she responded: “Porque aqui vivimos. Aqui vive toda mi familia.” Because we live here. My entire family lives here.
In high school, Kristie Valdéz-Guillen knocked on doors to inform neighbors about local environmental policies, and was involved in efforts to shut down a power plant in Vernon. But it wasn’t until college that she began to truly appreciate the depth of her community’s health issues.
“I had just checked out my first race theory class and everything just clicked together,” Valdéz-Guillen said. “I remember being so grateful, and telling [my older community activists back home] that I have so much more to learn before I feel like I can give back to my community, but I’m going to learn all that I can while I’m here [at Scripps College].”
After returning home, Valdez-Guillen helped to start the Marina Pando Social Justice Research Collaborative, a program that supports first-generation college students of color who want to conduct social justice oriented research.
“We need people who are invested in community knowledge,” said Valdez-Guillen. “I’m gonna help train these students and teach them everything I know.”
Mayra Aguilar, 35, is part of Southeast Bicycle Alliance, a collective raising awareness of the needs of riders in Southeast LA, where essential things like bike lanes are almost nonexistent.
In 2012, the group organized a ride to drum up local support for Ciclavia, a widely popular cycling festival that promotes healthy living and car-free streets. She was surprised when over 300 people showed up to the event, a first for Southeast LA.
“For me, it clicked,” said Aguilar, “because I figured, alright, if a small group of us can do something [this big] even though we don’t have support from the city, well alright, let’s just do it.”
Aguilar is also a founding member of Chicas Rockeras de Southeast LA, an annual summer rock music camp for young girls that integrates environmental justice workshops into their weeklong program.
“Nothing happened here until people started fighting for it,” Aguilar said. “Around here, no one is going take care of you and you grow up knowing that. You have support from your family and your community, but not from the outside. That’s why this work is important. We’re in this together.”
This content was made possible by a grant from The California Endowment and produced independently by Fusion’s Rise Up: Be Heard Journalism Fellowship.
Betty Marquez will be exploring issues of environmental racism in southeast Los Angeles and its effects on the area's residents. Having been raised in Bell, California with little access to the outdoors, she is passionate about claiming space for women of color through her hiking, backpacking, and traveling adventures. She is currently a teaching assistant at an elementary school where she interacts with brilliant first graders on a daily basis. Betty holds a degree in feminist studies from UC Santa Barbara.