A few weeks ago, my esteemed colleague at Moms Clean Air Force, Roxana Soto, wrote a memorable piece titled, “Does the Latino Community Care About Clean Air?” It’s something I have mulled over ever since. Anecdotally, I have also noticed apathy among Latinos, who more than any other demographic group have been hammered in the present economy.
However, actual poll results suggest just the opposite: Latinos more than any other demographic group in the country care about environmental issues because we are most likely to toil in jobs with toxic chemicals and live in areas with poor air and water quality.
So what’s the reason for the disconnect? Why aren’t more vendors at the environmental conferences Latino? Perhaps, a more appropriate question would be, why aren’t more people taking action to clean our air? After all, the above poll did show that at least three-quarters of all people care about the environment. Yet, bashing the EPA and dismantling clean air regulations is actually a platform of a certain political party with a large number of Caucasian people. (Please check out any of the Republican debates this year to see what I mean.)
After thinking about it, and doing a little bit of research, I am convinced that the reasons American people, in general, seem not to give a hoot about clean air, is that there is a disconnect in our political system. Schools that still offer civics classes like they did when I was a kid, always teach students the importance of voting. I remember my 10th grade American history teacher telling us that if we wanted to change the system, we could – it was called voting.
But I am not convinced this is true today. From what I have seen in grassroots organizing – whether it is the rise of the religious right, or the Obama campaign – those votes have to be accompanied by energy…and money. If you have one group of people who only votes, and another group with the same amount of people who donate money and knocks on doors to get other people to join them, who do you think is going to win in our political system?
Many Cubans Vote and Donate
I know of one Latino group we can all learn from: Cubans in Florida. Growing up in Miami, I remember a lot of grumbling from other ethnic and racial groups – including Caucasians – about how the Cubans were “taking over Florida.” Some of the criticism I suspect was fueled by racism, as more Cubans were running businesses, “taking” jobs, “not assimilating,” and climbing into leadership positions. But there was also this envy, or at best, a grudging respect, in how Cubans were able to thrive in the United States and dictate, for example, national policy towards Cuba. And while it is partly true that Cubans who came to our shores in the 1950’s and 1960’s were educated and already knew how to run businesses, it isn’t true that they were all rich. My family certainly wasn’t.
Many years later, when I came to California and worked as a reporter, I looked into the finances of a prominent Cuban American group that donated to elections of both Democrats and Republicans. What struck me was that the donations were small – no more than $50 a year, typically around $20. But, tens of thousands of people were donating.
When you have 100,000 Cubans come together over a single cause and donate even a little bit, that is enough to influence an election in Florida, and the rest of the country. That is real political power, folks.
And that is something those of us who care about clean air could learn. Rather than begrudge other political groups their successes, or wait for them to do the heavy lifting of democracy for us, we should get off our laurels. Or at the very least, take one action outside of the voting booth that everyone needs to survive – clean air.