Introducing Greenpeace Unidos: A Place for Latinx Environmentalists
"In a very personal and literal sense, Latinxs can’t afford not to care about the environment."
by Azucena Lucatero
April 11, 2017
Latinxs overwhelmingly support action to protect the environment, but we haven't always been given a place in the movement. Under a Trump presidency, Latinx environmentalism needs a voice now more than ever.
© Prometeo Lucero / Greenpeace
In the Trump era, much is uncertain — especially when it comes to protecting our environment. But for people of color, the Trump administration is proving to be a reliable source of added frustration and anguish.
Latinxs stand at the intersection of these threats to our climate and communities. Polls have consistently shown that Latinxs are concerned about climate change and want government action to mitigate it. At the same time, we are less likely to self-identify as environmentalists than white folks or other people of color. While this might seem like a contradiction, it’s not surprising at all in the context of the historic disconnect between latinidad and the mainstream environmental movement.
Let’s start with some anecdotal evidence. Before working at Greenpeace, most of my activism was directed at my family. I would encourage them to give up bottled water and plastic bags, buy organic produce, and eat less meat. But I wasn’t very successful at getting them to follow my advice. My parents, at least, would listen curiously. My brother usually just laughed and teased me for it.
Looking back, my family’s reaction was not unexpected. Besides not being sure how to say “environment” in Spanish until I went to college — it’s medio ambiente, by the way — what I learned about environmentalism online and in school never landed in the culture my family comes from. As Mexican immigrants to the United States who built new lives and a family out of next to nothing, my hard-working, frugal parents didn’t seriously consider suggestions to spend extra money on the dubious benefit of an “organic” label.
What I didn’t recognize then, however, is that my parents had been practicing everyday environmentalism long before I was around to prod them on it.
— The New Tropic (@newtropicmiami) June 29, 2016
Most of the money-saving and cultural habits my parents keep up are inherently environmentally friendly. Reusing plastic bags and containers, recycling cans for cash, growing vegetables and herbs in the backyard, limiting our use of electricity and heating, fixing and mending things before buying new ones — these are all motivated by the same desire to conserve resources underpinning environmental ideals.
My younger self failed to recognize my parents’ environmentalism because it’s made up of acts of necessity and thrift. That’s quite different from the mainstream eco-consumerism of today.
Latinx concern for the environment is nothing new; in fact, it’s impressively widespread and well-informed.
For one, it’s hard not to be worried about climate change and the environment when the consequences of the fossil fuel economy are directly affecting our neighborhoods and our health. This is true for Latinx communities on the frontlines of toxic emissions, where air pollution from proximity to gas and oil facilities creates elevated risks for asthma and cancer. These health consequences are compounded for frontline Latinx neighborhoods because they are often low-income and have less access to health insurance and care.
In a very personal and literal sense, Latinxs can’t afford not to care about the environment.
Despite many of Latinxs experiencing first-hand the scarily palpable effects of fossil-fuel pollution and climate change, most Latinxs still feel distanced from mainstream environmentalism. But identifying with the massive movements to protect the environment and fight climate change is difficult when the figureheads of those movements don’t look like you or speak your language.
In the United States, the mainstream environmental movement (markedly different from locally-led grassroots movements) has historically been organized by and for white people, often at the expense of people of color. As a result, Latinx communities — along with other marginalized communities of color — have been excluded from environmental discourse and policy-making, creating the false perception that people of color simply don’t care about the environment.
The legacy of that exclusion persists to this day. People of color are greatly underrepresented in the largest and most prominent environmental advocacy NGOs, and smaller, local environmental groups that serve vulnerable communities receive much less funding and resources than their larger, more visible counterparts.
There’s no quick-fix here, but it’s clear that we have to overcome the cultural disconnect that circumvents Latinx inclusion in the environmental movement. We can start by providing platforms for diverse Latinx voices and perspectives on environmentalism to exist and be heard.
That’s exactly why we’re starting this blog series featuring Latinx writers exploring environmentalism as it pertains to our individual experiences, backgrounds, and communities.
In the process, we hope to expand perceptions of environmentalism and validate those stories that fall outside the mainstream to encourage broader and empowered participation. For the success of the movement, we need wider recognition that true environmental justice cannot exist without a foundation of inclusion. The threats posed by a Trump presidency only compound the urgency of our mission.
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