As a first generation Mexican American growing up in South East Los Angeles County (also known as “SELA”), there’s an understanding that certain things “just happen” in our communities. Numerous times I’ve heard a neighbor, friend, or family member say, “so and so” died of a certain type of cancer or lung disease – then the comment “qué raro (el/ella) ni fumaba. Se miraba saludable!” (“How weird he/she didn’t even smoke, they looked healthy”). Some in our community trace their family trees to find out why their 6 year-old has a severe case of asthma.
When I was only a few years old my family moved from Huntington Park to what seemed a better space to call home in the City of Bell Gardens. While Bell Gardens was recently named one of the worst smallest cities to live in by WalletHub, attributing poor quality of life among reasons, I have nothing but fond memories.
Sacrifice Zones and Toxic Exposure
Why are SELA’s cities on the “worst small cities” list? Surely, it is not because of its residents! No, we can thank a long history of fiscal mishandling, coupled with years of environmental injustices. By definition, the region is a “sacrifice zone” — a term author Steve Lerner uses in his book, Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States, to refer to low-income and minority communities where health is sacrificed due to close proximity to toxic contamination. Lerner also calls Sacrifice Zones, “Fenceline” communities because they are “hot spots” of chemical pollution.”
According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Environmental Defense Fund, nearly 40% of Latino children are more likely to die from asthma than non-Latino whites. According to a more recent study conducted by Raoul Liévanos at Washington State University, non-English speaking, immigrant Latinos tend to live in polluted industrial and overpopulated areas.
When I initially read the study, I felt I was missing a revolutionary piece of information. Not because Dr. Lievanos hadn’t done a phenomenal job explaining various theories on the correlation between spatial proximity to contaminated sources and health risks, but because I felt this was something I already knew. This is just how things were, or as my father explained, “que íbamos a hacer sino no teniamos dinero para movernos?” (“What were we supposed to do if we had no money to move anywhere else?”). We had no choice.
Sacrifice Zones and Access to Information
For three decades, environmental justice activists have tried to challenge the courts by providing research on environmental inequality to prove that not all neighborhoods are polluted equally. Several studies use poverty as the only factor of why Latinos and other low-income minorities live in these sacrifice zones. However, other factors affect the inability for Latinos to move to areas with better air quality. Dr Liévanos highlights that foreign-born populations traditionally have lower awareness of the environmental health risk alerts and the regulatory system under which they can report environmental violations. This is not only because the information and processes are extremely convoluted and confusing, but also because, in the past, information was only available in English.
This brings me to my next issue, an issue that is endemic throughout our various levels of government – true access to information and true community engagement and outreach. Whether it’s fear of change, innovation, or perhaps fear of unpleasant complaints from community members – when issues arise, specifically those having to do with environmental contamination – regulatory agencies tend to function under an “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” mentality.
Why “If-You-Build-It-They-Will-Come” doesn’t work:
Community hearings on carcinogenic emitting industries take place for months, and tend to fall under the radar of community members most closely impacted by the emissions. Hiding the mechanism under a complex web of agency jurisdiction assessments. – Do we call EPA? DTSC? AQMD? There can be hundreds of pages of Environmental Impact Reports (EIR’s) and outside commissioned studies of internal studies… etc. etc. etc. While much of the information is now available in Spanish, the technical jargon used in these wonky studies, even if provided in Spanish, my Abuelita Pina (short for Grandma Josefina), could not begin to digest.
The best way to involve the “fenceline communities” in “Sacrifice Zones” is to be inclusive. To understand what our priorities are, meet us halfway at targeted community events, centers, planning sessions…and please engage parent leaders to help us overcome the heavy burden of air pollution our children have come to bear.