Why Environmental Issues are Personal for Many Latino Americans

Everyone is impacted by pollution, but pollution doesn’t impact everyone equally. For instance, a 2011 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that half of Latinos in the U.S live in counties that frequently violate air pollution standards. But leaders in Latino communities are fighting back. In 2009, the Latino arm of the NRDC launched a new initiative called Voces Verdes. The idea was to leverage the power of Latino business and community leaders to push for climate and clean energy legislation, address health disparities, and spur economic growth. Recently, we caught up with Adrianna Quintero, founder and executive director of Voces Verdes, to talk about some of the unique perspectives Latino Americans bring to environmental issues. (Photo: Joe Piette via Flickr)

LISTEN: Why Environmental Issues are Personal for Many Latino Americans

The Allegheny Front:  So tell us about some of the experiences or perspectives that people have shared with you.

Adrianna Quintero: Well, what’s amazing is how people come to this issue. As environmentalists, we’re always wondering why people aren’t talking about this more. However, what we found with Latinos is that it was very personal. It was about not only a connection to nature, but it really hit home. It was, ‘We’ve worked hard for what we have, I want to preserve my home, I want a better future for my children’ — things that normally would seem general to the whole population. The difference with Latinos was that there was a clear connection between having a healthy environment and achieving those things. You know, I work closely with a lot of researchers who continue to try and figure out why it is that Latinos think differently on this issue. And what we’ve found is that there is still a memory and heritage there of how ‘my home country or parents’ home country or grandparents’ home country could have been much better managed, and we don’t want that to happen here.’

Adrianna Quintero

Adrianna Quintero (Photo courtesy Voces Verdes)

AF: And your organization has opposed many of the actions that have come out of the Trump administration, including the choice of Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Why is he the wrong choice?

AQ: For us, it’s very simple: Anybody who has dedicated a large part of their career to defeating the work of an agency should not be leading that agency. His overt and clear actions while he was attorney general of Oklahoma, where he took verbatim letters from oil and gas industry executives and sent them in as his own, [show] he’s clearly extremely closely tied to fossil fuel interests and polluters. And we feel that puts us all in danger, whether you’re a fisherman who is counting on having a clean catch or you’re a mom who’s worried about children being sick due to increased air pollution. This does not discriminate by who you voted for. In fact, it may discriminate against many who have in the past rejected environmental protections, because some of those places are going to be hit the hardest under the type of proposals that Scott Pruitt has — [namely], to send [regulation] back to the states. The only reason that a lot of these laws work is because the federal government manages them and supports states that may not have the money to implement them. I mean, let’s face it: We all suffer if we get rid of fuel-efficiency standards. The only people who don’t suffer are the big oil companies, because they get to sell us more gas for our cars that are no longer required to be efficient.

AF: During his confirmation hearings, Scott Pruitt did acknowledge that he thought climate change was a real phenomenon, but said he wasn’t sure how much human activity was to blame. What are some of the ways that climate change disproportionately impacts Latino communities?

AQ: Well, whenever I hear that, I feel that it’s slightly irrelevant — whether or not people believe it’s happening. We can look at the Arctic and look at the change in glaciers; and for Latinos, they can look around. For example, a very large and influential Latino community in Florida can look right outside and see the flooding whenever the tide rises; how cities are having to invest tremendous amounts of money to adapt to rising sea levels. Additionally, if you work in agriculture or landscaping, you are very directly impacted. The health impacts are tremendous, not only in air quality, but also heat exposure. I think what resonates with a lot of Latinos, though, is that if you look outside the United States — and not just Latin American, but really anywhere — climate change has not been as much a political issue as it has in the United States. And so because we still have a large segment of the population that gets some of its news internationally due to language barriers, you do have a situation where people are not as politicized on climate issues.

AF: Voces Verdes has also come out against Trump’s immigration policies. What’s the connection between environmental issues and immigration?

AQ: Immigration policies and the environment, especially when it comes to climate change, are very closely tied. Obviously, if weather is unpredictable and you’re losing your home, as so many islanders have, you’re going to become a climate refugee or climate immigrant. And that’s something that I doubt will have much recognition under the current administration. But in addition to that, for us, it’s really about people. It’s about recognizing that while we don’t necessarily say this should be a free-for-all, we think that justice starts at home. And if we can’t have just immigration policies, then we’re not likely to have just policies on the environment — or vice versa. And in all of the work that a government leader does, it should be about the people. Not about businesses, not about sound bites, but truly about what’s going to be best for our people. And if the argument can be made that their policies are better for people, then we’re willing to listen. But what we’ve seen is simply policy that’s designed to discriminate masked as something other than that.

AF: And Trump’s proposed border wall presents some environmental questions as well.

AQ: Absolutely. I was asked what we think of the border wall and it’s tough to say. All we know is that it’s going to be a “big, beautiful wall”; there are no details. But we can assume that it’s going to be a massive wall. It’s going to have incredibly destructive impacts, not only on human beings but also on many individuals’ lands and farms and on our water and wildlife. Wildlife doesn’t recognize that this is the United States, but ten steps over it’s Mexico. We could be causing a tremendous amount of destruction, both socially and environmentally. And without some basis to justify that level of destructiveness, it’s hard to even contemplate how it would make any sense.

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Adrianna Quintero is the founder and executive director of Voces Verdes, a network of Latino community leaders pushing to amplify Latino voices on environmental issues.