I’m happy to share my digital essay “The Environmental Justice Legacy of the United Farm Workers of America: Stories from the Birthplace of Industrial Agriculture.” It is published on the new “Humanities for the Environment” web platform funded by the Mellon Foundation, the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes and by Arizona State University’s Institute for Humanities Research. I’m particularly excited to share the reflections of activists Lupe Martinez, Mary Lou Mares, Sarah Sharpe and Enrique Martinez in it. Thank you also to Zachary Singer for allowing me to use his photos of environmental justice activism in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Today I released a new digital project to honor the memory of California pesticides activist Teresa De Anda, and to help educate the public about the problem of pesticide drift. In Her Own Words is an expansion of the blog post I wrote the day before Teresa’s memorial service last fall. It includes photography, new and previously published oral history, suggestions for readings to use with the website in college classrooms, links to resources to help address the problem of pesticide drift in community settings, and a short essay I wrote about Teresa.
Thank you, Valerie Gorospe, for allowing me to continue to work with your mother’s stories, and to share them with others so they might learn from everything she accomplished. Thank you also for your support Linda MacKay, Lauren Richter, Tracey Brieger, Sarah Aird, Tracey Osborne, Rachel Deblinger, Zoe Stricker and Evelyn Torres Arellano.
I first met Teresa DeAnda in 2007 when I sat in on one of the monthly meetings of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment’s Delano Advisory Board. I was there to describe my master’s research and ask the community leaders on the advisory board if they would be willing to participate in it. At that time Teresa was the group’s president, and she was quick to say yes. I learned over time that this generosity of spirit was core to who she was.
As she has done for so many others, Teresa invited me into her home to tell me about her life and her work. Over the years I continued to get to know Teresa through photographing her, through her participation in Voices from the Valley (formerly called 25 Stories from the Central Valley), and through the many other environmental justice events that led our paths to regularly cross. I came to know her as generous, fierce, and a lot of fun.
Teresa lived next to vast fields of industrial agriculture. When we first met she told me about the regular pesticide drift she experienced in her home in Earlimart. She told me about how many people in her community had cancer.
She later got cancer herself. Her death at 55 is made doubly tragic by the fact that it is hard to think of her illness as random, rather than as part of a consistent pattern of toxic exposure in politically marginalized communities. Much of her life’s work involved changing this pattern. Her efforts helped put protections into place that limit the drift of pesticides into residential areas in a number of San Joaquin Valley counties, and that improve emergency response to pesticide drift incidents statewide. She was a bright light whose loss will be deeply felt.
So others might also know of her life and her legacy, I have collected below previously published excerpts from my 2007 interview with Teresa, along with some of my favorite photos of her. I have also included links to other testaments to her life, as well as information for her memorial service in Delano tomorrow morning.
- Sunday Memorial Set for Advocate, Loving Mother, Grandmother
- Honoring Teresa DeAnda – Community Water Center
- Earlimart Anti-Pesticide Advocate Teresa DeAnda Remembered As Fearless Leader – Valley Public Radio
- Earlimart Pesticide Warrior Honored for Advocacy – Valley Public Radio
Our street was the first street to get evacuated [after the pesticide drifted off the fields and into our neighborhood]. I’d driven to Delano, and when I came back there was a sheriff standing at our gate. It had just gotten dark, and my husband said, “We need to get out, because there’s something happening.” I smelled it a little bit, but I didn’t smell it that strong. But I was still very disturbed. It’s a horrible feeling, getting told you’ve got to get out, that there’s something that you shouldn’t be smelling. I got the kids, and we left in the van. My husband got my blind uncle and my 87-year-old compadre, and then we drove. But I was just so fearful for the people that were staying.
Days later, we found out what happened to everybody. I had read the newspaper, but it didn’t mention what happened to the people that Saturday night, November 13, 1999. On Wednesday the UFW [United Farm Workers] had a meeting and they had all the agencies there: the county air commissioner, the fire department, an expert on pesticides, Pesticide Watch. It was just packed with mad, angry people. That night, I found out what had happened when we left.
[When the pesticide drifted over the town] the people who were the sickest, they were told to go to the middle school. And at the middle school they told the men, women, and children to take off their clothes and go down the decontamination line. Keep in mind: these people were vomiting and had burning eyes, just coughing and coughing, and so they were scared to death. They were given no privacy, just two tarps on either side, and they were told to take off their clothes. And the people didn’t want to.
One lady said, “Where’s my rights? Where’s my rights?” They told her, “Listen, you have no rights tonight; you’ve lost your rights.” And so she took off her clothes, and she said that that was the worst feeling in the world, because her kids had never seen her without her clothes, and they could see her. This is indicative of how they did the decon [decontamination]. She took off everything, absolutely everything, but she wouldn’t take off her underwear, so they yanked it off. They yanked off her Nikes, and so there she goes through the decontamination line, which was a fire-department water hose, on a cold November night. A fire-department water hose with a guy standing there holding it. She went through one line and then the other, but they didn’t wet her hair. At the end of the decon line they were supposed to have ambulances waiting, but the ambulances weren’t there yet, so they just gave them little covers and told them to sit on the ground.
So I’m finding all this stuff out at the meeting. All these mad people are just yelling at the agencies, telling them, “How could you do this to us?” And then they told us what had happened at the hospital. The people did get transported to the hospital. Some went to Tulare Hospital, some went to Porterville Hospital, some went to Delano Hospital. Well, the lady with a lot of kids, she was baby-sitting kids too, they couldn’t take all of her kids to the same place, so they wrote their phone numbers on their stomachs, like they were animals. At the hospitals, they took their information, their names, their number, their address, but they didn’t even triage them. The doctor called poison control, and poison control said, “There’s nothing happening to them, just tell them to go back home but to try not to get re-exposed.” That’s all poison control told them. So they were sent on their way and they were given the clothes that they had been in before they got decontaminated. They just gave them back to them. Didn’t have them cleaned.
So I started learning more and getting more and more angry. I couldn’t sleep at night, ’cause I was so upset at how it had changed my kids’ health and my health. When I was growing up, my dad had always said, “Trust the government. The government’s never going to lie; the government’s good,” and all that. And I thought, “No, they’re not,” because they really let us down that night, they really, really let us down. So much for trusting the government. I couldn’t sleep at night because it bothered me so much that it happened and that still nothing was being done about the people who had gotten sick. I learned a lot about pesticides. And then at press conferences they would always ask me to speak. Even though I wasn’t one of the victims that got deconned, I was one of the ones speaking all the time. They were calling me for meetings and conferences and stuff to talk about what had happened.
The next day was a Saturday, and they applied the pesticide again. This time instead of going west, it went south. And south, there was a low income housing complex, I guess about 100 people live there. They began smelling it, and they began getting sick, a bunch of kids out on the lawn vomiting. A bunch of people from that place were calling 911, calling for help. And basically, this is what happened from Flores’ point of view, Flores Baptista. She said she was baby-sitting her nine month old nephew. She was holding him in her arms. She has a lot of kids, all of her kids were outside, vomiting. And the baby was in her arms, and she was on the phone with 911, and she told them, “My kids are outside vomiting, there’s something going on here, we think it’s the spray. You need to come do something about it. Everybody’s kids are outside vomiting, and we just need some help out here.” And the operator told her, “Just hold on, we’re trying to figure out what’s going on. Just calm down. I think your being calm will have a big impact on your kids, and you need to just calm down.” And so Flores said, “OK, well I’m trying to relax, but my kids are out here, and they’re getting sicker and sicker. And the baby I’m baby-sitting is breathing really weird, and I’m really worried about him. I don’t know if he’s going to make it or not. And my nephew’s looking real bad.” And the operator kept telling her, “Look, you’re hysterical. You need to calm down.” This went on for 45 minutes. They kept them on the phone for 45 minutes. And so after 45 minutes, Flores said, you know what, and she said some bad words, and she said “I’m just going to get out of here. I’m not going to wait for your guys. You guys obviously aren’t coming, and I don’t know what you’re doing, but everybody’s about to die here. We need to get out of here. It smells so bad.”
So she got in her van, and she drove out. And at that time, other people slammed the phone down. When they saw people leaving, they slammed their phone down, and they got out, and they were leaving too. And so there was a caravan of vans. They drove out to Sunset and Weed Patch. And on the corner, it was barricaded. It’s called a stop and freeze, or freeze and keep whatever is contaminated in. They were telling people “Go back, go back, you can’t come out.” And they’re like “No, we’re sick, and need our kids to get to the doctor. We’re going to drive them ourselves, cause we’re not going to wait for you any more. We were on the phone for close to an hour with that lady, and she was just telling us to sit down, to calm down, and that we were talking crazy and stuff, but no, we’re going to get out.” And there was a lot of people that spoke Spanish. So one of the men just went on the dirt and drove off. Broke the barricade.
– Source: Voices from the Valley
Teresa describing visiting residents of Arvin, CA, after a pesticide poisoning incident there in 2002:
I wanted to talk to the people and let them know that when the doctors and the agencies, like the fire department or whatever, tells you it’s nothing… because they will, they’ll tell you it’s nothing. They’ll say “Oh, it’s mass hysteria, you’re hung over,” or, “It’s just something you ate that’s making you nauseous.” No, it’s the pesticides, and don’t doubt it. It’s the pesticides. Then I always want to tell them that they need to report drift. It’s state law, drift is illegal, it shouldn’t happen. The farmers spray the field, it leaves the field, goes on your car, goes on your property, goes on the park when you’re there. You need to report it. I’m trying to get it across, but people still don’t call. The numbers are so low for reports.
Kettleman City, California
November 8, 2014
I received my free copy of the recently published Sociologists in Action on Inequalities: Race, Class and Gender in the mail this week, and turned immediately to the short essay I contributed. My piece, “On Becoming a Public Sociologist: Amplifying Women’s Voices in the Quest for Environmental Justice” describes my process of becoming a public sociologist through the Voices from the Valley multi-media project on environmental justice activism in California’s agricultural San Joaquin Valley. The chapter is meant to show undergrads some of where sociology might take them. It was a fun project, and I’m looking forward to reading the other contributions in the book.
Here’s the full citation for my piece:
- Perkins, Tracy. 2015. “On Becoming a Public Sociologist: Amplifying Women’s Voices in the Quest for Environmental Justice.” Pp. 88-92 in Sociologists in Action on Inequalities: Race, Class and Gender edited by S. K. White, J. M. White and K. O. Korgen. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.
And here’s a citation to the scholarly article that grew out of the same set of interviews that formed the basis of Voices from the Valley:
- Perkins, Tracy. 2012. “Women’s Pathways Into Activism: Rethinking the Women’s Environmental Justice Narrative in California’s San Joaquin Valley.” Organization & Environment, 25(1):76-94.
As part of my second research trip to Los Angeles, on Saturday I attended a hearing at the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). At issue was the Exide Technologies battery recycling facility in Vernon, and the lead and arsenic it is emitting into the air. The decision-makers heard from lawyers on both sides of the case, and then opened the hearing up for testimony by residents and other interested parties.
Public participation is a key part of much environmental decision-making, and over time advocates have convinced many decision-making bodies to provide translation services. This helps the many Spanish-speaking residents who live near polluting facilities to participate in the environmental decisions that profoundly affect their lives. Being able to participate in environmental descision-making does not necessarily mean that that their voices will actually influence decisions, but it is an important first step.
On Wednesday night I got back from a week spent visiting some of the most polluted parts of southern California, and in some cases the country. These are communities surrounded by ports, refineries, freeways, train tracks, warehouses and other industrial facilities. They live with air pollution, asthma, cancer, dust, flares, the constant rumbling of machinery and trucks, and bright lights at night. Over the course of the week I heard stories of what it is like to live in these communities. I heard about explosions, fires, police checkpoints, and the not-so-distant history of the Klu Klux Klan. But I also heard stories of improvements made, lawsuits won and protections put in place.
My dissertation research covers the growth and changing nature of environmental justice advocacy in California over the past three decades. Although I’ve been working loosely in this field for much of the past 14 years, my prior work has focused on the San Joaquin Valley and the international arena. And as a dedicated northern Californian, I find I have little knowledge of the southern half of my home state. So, this trip was an important opportunity to expand my understanding of environmental justice advocacy, and to connect across the gentle rivalry that sometimes divides north from south.
I’ve included photos and a description of my trip here in the hopes that through my eyes you too might better understand my state and the problems we face.
Day 1: Instead of driving south over the I-5, I went up and over the mountains that divide the Central Valley from Los Angeles through Cajon Pass. I wanted to visit the César Chávez National Monument in Keene, which President Obama dedicated just last year. Environmental justice advocates in the San Joaquin Valley have rich ties to the United Farmworkers of America, and César Chávez continues to be a potent political symbol there. The national monument houses his grave, a garden, and a visitor’s center that was showing a photo exhibit of the 1965 Delano grape strike the day I visited.
National monuments are administered by the National Park Service. Because I associate the park service with national forests and camping trips, it was jarring to see their familiar signage next to images of César Chávez, farmworkers, and artifacts from the picket line. I’m pleased to see César Chávez and the farmworkers’ movement get this level of attention and legitimacy, but also uneasy to see a memorializing process that makes it easy to think the problems they worked on are things of the past.
The drive through the rest of the mountains was beautiful. The Santa Ana winds had blown the air pollution away so I had an uncommon view of the stunning desert vistas around me. I wouldn’t see them again for the rest of the trip.
I ended the day happily in Riverside at a 35th Anniversary Gala Event for the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ). CCAEJ got its start through a fight against the Stringfellow Acid Pits above Glen Avon. The site contaminated local groundwater, and on several occasions released liquid hazardous waste into a canyon that carried it into the streets of Glen Avon. Activism around the site led to the creation of the California State Superfund Program and to the birth of CCAEJ. It is still being cleaned up.
Day 2: On Friday I woke up to soak in the beauty of a nearby desert rock formation visible from my motel. Then I drove to the Los Angeles Port to attend the Harbor Community Benefit Foundation‘s public meeting in San Pedro. The LA Port is the largest industrial port in the country, and the diesel exhaust from the ships, equipment and trucks that operate there are the largest source of air pollution in the region. The Foundation was funded by the port after years of activism by local residents and a lawsuit over the negative impacts of the port on the surrounding communities. The day I visited the board was discussing the $506,000 worth of grants they were giving to support local community initiatives.
After leaving the port I drove north to Pacoima, where I had a great time interviewing Veronica Padilla and Yvette Lopez from Pacoima Beautiful. They’ve offered to drive me around Pacoima to see their work in person, so I’m looking forward to seeing them again on my next visit!
Day 3: Saturday was a welcome day of rest. I organized my notes and audio files, scheduled more interviews, and hung out with my cousin at his office in Glendale (where I slept for the majority of the trip). I had it on my list to clean out my car too, but didn’t quite get to it. You know you’re a Ph.D. student when you open the car door and books fall out!
Day 4: On Sunday I headed back to the area around the Los Angeles Port to interview Jesse Marquez from Coalition for a Safe Environment. Jesse grew up in Wilmington and works to protect his community from the pollution released by its neighboring ports, refineries and other industrial operations. While he printed out reports and campaign materials for me, I poked around his office. There were water samples and soot in jars, maps of the area with callouts pointing to the various projects of industrial expansion, and lots of books. I always find it instructive to peruse people’s bookshelves, and Jesse’s were no exception. The vast quantities of highly technical environmental impact reports spoke volumes about the maze of government regulations and science that he navigates in his day-to-day work.
After leaving Wilmington, I headed to Maywood to sit in on a meeting between residents and their lawyers at the local Denny’s. Maywood residents have been engaged in a long battle against a polluting battery recycling plant run by Exide Technologies. The plant has been repeatedly cited for releasing lead and arsenic into the air above legal limits. See coverage by the Los Angeles Times here.
Day 5: On Monday I made my first trip to Huntington Park and strolled through the downtown, which was bustling with activity. I met with Strela Cervas from the California Environmental Justice Alliance, a coalition of six California environmental justice groups. We discussed the challenges and opportunities of scaling up local battles into statewide policy work in Sacramento. I heard more about their campaign to pass a Green Zones initiative and their support of AB 1330, which would increase enforcement of environmental law in communities overburdened with pollution, and also channel more resources to them. I also learned more about about their “Solar for All” campaign to provide clean energy and jobs in low-income communities through investment in rooftop solar energy production. The need for environmental clean up as well as jobs in the communities in which environmental justice advocates work was poignantly underscored when I passed by long lines of people outside the Social Security Administration building on my walk back to the car.
I had a bit of free time before my next meeting, so I drove by the Los Angeles River to take a few photos. It looks more like an industrial flood channel than a river, but I found it strangely attractive nonetheless and enjoyed taking photos of it. Check out long-term plans to revitalize an 11-mile stretch of the river here.
My next interview was with Felipe Aguirre from the Comité Pro Uno in Maywood. Over the din of the trucks passing outside, we spoke about his many years of activism, his role on the Maywood city council, and the air pollution and contaminated drinking water faced by Maywood residents. Felipe told me that he first got involved in environmental justice advocacy when he found out that pollution where he lived was so bad that an administrator at a local school made a habit of referring the kindergarteners from his neighborhood to doctors who screened them for lead poisoning.
Day 6: On Tuesday I joined a visiting group of environmental justice activists from Houston on a tour of the ports, railroads, freeways and warehouses in Los Angeles and the Inland Empire. This transportation system moves a vast quantity of goods every day. The neighboring communities suffer the consequences through air pollution, asthma, cancer and sometimes even fires and explosions. Over the course of the day we:
- Visited the Los Angeles Port and learned about ongoing advocacy there from Andrea Hricko and Jesse Marquez.
- Stopped by a picket line to support a truckers’ strike at Green Fleet Systems.
- Learned about the 710 corridor and the Southern California International Gateway railyard from Angelo Logan and Mark Lopez.
- Had lunch at the offices of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice in Commerce.
- Drove by the warehouses and railyards in Loma Linda and West San Bernadino where Penny Newman explained the impact on local residents of the heavy truck traffic servicing the warehouses.
- Wrapped up the day with a visit to the office of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice in Jurupa Valley.
Tracing the infrastructure of the global “logistics industry” from sea to mountain was daunting. I already knew that environmental injustices are deeply embedded in global commerce, but watching the massive quantities of goods moving through the area brought it home in a concrete way I’ve never felt before. These lists of exports and imports through the area give a taste of just how deeply entrenched our society is in the international flows of goods:
Top imports coming through the LA and Long Beach ports:
- Auto parts
- Crude oil
Top exports exiting through the LA and Long Beach ports:
- Scrap metal
- Scrap paper
- Animal feeds
- Petroleum coke and other petroleum products
Over the course of the day we used the buddy system to make sure nobody got left behind when we got back on the bus after each stop. My buddy for the day was Juan Parra of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services. We discovered we had a few friends in common, and I enjoyed hearing about the early days of environmental justice advocacy in Texas and the Southwest from him. We also spent part of the drive looking at the Google Map on my smart phone. We used the satellite view to zoom in on the port of Houston and the neighborhood of Manchester where some of his group lives. Juan pointed out a house that we could see was surrounded on three sides by oil tanks and other industrial facilities.
The irony of spending the day driving and using electronics to learn more about environmental justice problems that result in part from pollution due to driving and electronics manufacturing was not lost on me. But although we’re all implicated in the planet’s environmental crisis, some of us are less implicated than others. Low-income communities of color usually contribute less to the problem while suffering its impacts more. And like all advocates, we do the best we can with the tools at hand while working towards something better.
Day 7: On Wednesday I joined the group from Houston again as they met with an array of local environmental justice advocates and scholars. After our morning meetings concluded, we went on one final “tour.” Alicia Rivera from Communities for a Better Environment drove us through Wilmington, mostly to parts of the town I had not seen before. At one of our stops Francisco Vargas saw us and came out of his home to talk with us. He lives next to the Warren E & P urban oil-drilling site we were looking at. Francisco described how the drilling shakes the earth and has cracked his home’s windows and foundation. He told us that in response to his requests for financial help fixing the damage the company offered him vouchers to get his car washed instead. In spite of his hardships, Francisco shared a few laughs with us before we went on our way. See page 6 of this report for background information on the drilling site.
The immensity of the powers arrayed against communities trying to protect themselves from the pollution I saw in LA and the Inland Empire was staggering. That’s why it was so inspiring to learn about the issues alongside the group of advocates from Houston, who are anticipating port expansion projects of their own. They were here to get a sense of port expansion can mean, trade ideas, and learn from what California advocates have been able to accomplish. Although I’ve lived in California since I was five, the fact that I was born in Houston made me feel a special kinship with this group. I’m grateful to them for sharing their learning experience with me, and to the Los Angeles environmental justice community for their hospitality and warm welcome.