It was in the middle of a sociology class that I came to the realization: environmental racism was not just happening “out there,” but was happening to me and my loved ones. I remember my mind racing, connecting the dots, and feeling angry that my lived experience was so negatively portrayed in a textbook. Living on a ranch, so close to where we worked, and helping my parents in the fields was not so simple or good; it was no longer the beautiful nostalgic scene it once had been.
I have many fond memories of the place, and one of those memories was watching the big tractors my dad would drive up and down the rows of walnut trees, spraying crops with thick, billowing puffs. Sadness filled me as I realized that the pretty, fluffy white clouds I remember were actually the smog of pesticides and fertilizers filling the air around. That produce fresh off the vines and trees were now tainted, poisonous. My family and I were exposed to toxic chemicals that would inevitably impact our health. Feelings of anger, fear, and sadness soldered to this memory of awakening have been the most powerful motivators as I take on environmental racism day by day, in my own way.
My family migrated to the United States from Mexico seasonally and for different lengths of time depending on crop schedules and the amount of work needed to harvest them. Finally settling in Hollister, CA in the 80’s, my parents soon had my two sisters and I was their first-born male child. And of course, being their son and living where we worked, much of my time outside of school was spent toiling alongside them in the fields. This work involved irrigation, pruning, growing, picking, packing, and shipping all sorts of produce. We worked among chemical toxins regularly encountering processes I had no idea were bad for our health.
Even after leaving the ranch and moving into low- income housing, we still couldn’t escape it.
No matter where we lived, we were still eating the produce grown on the ranch. Produce grown with toxic chemicals on and in them. We didn’t know better and couldn't afford better, either. Becoming aware of the many ways farmworking and low-income Latinx communities experience environmental racism was painful as I learned about the correlations between that work and higher rates of asthma, cancer, and other illnesses. This moved me to stop buying, eating, and supporting conventional produce -- a decision fraught with compounding issues of class, ethnicity, community, and social mobility.
Not only was I now deemed bougie because of this, but it wasn’t long before I also came out to my family as a gay man which only added a further layer of rejection and separation. These new identifications were perceived as my trying to be white. Why else would I be eating and buying organic produce when I could be saving money better to support my parents instead? They couldn’t see that by making this choice, I was doing what I could to help support them, to advocate for better farming practices that would in turn help all Latinx farm working communities. But there is still so much work to be done.
The road hasn’t been easy, nor did I ever expect it to be. I am privileged, I know that. I am a light skin Latino. I am formally educated. I have a job that pays me almost twice what my parents make combined. It is these privileges that have given me capital within the spaces I need to navigate. Even with these social and financial gains, I can’t afford to forget where I come from!
Which brings me to ask, how can we as previously or still low-income, first generation, QTPoC (with our newly attained privileges) help elevate the collective well-being of our communities? How might we deploy our resources as a way of fighting environmental racism which is a significant and insidious form of oppression? In what ways can we prioritize protecting and caring for our communities, as well as ourselves as individuals who may also be at conflict within them? How do we, with or without certain forms of privilege, make small, everyday decisions to help dismantle the harmful institutions that benefit from environmental racism?
Every day I make the conscious choice that when I go grocery shopping, I will use what little purchasing power that I have to make choices that support the entire farmworking community. Although slowly and painfully, I am glad to see the shift to healthier eating habits take effect within my immediate family. They now purchase and consume as much organic produce as possible. They’ll even call me to ask questions about other things they purchase and how good they really are or aren’t for the body. Because yes, Latinx and low-income communities deserve better. We deserve to live healthy lives. We deserve to have life expectancies at least equal to our white counterparts. We deserve to be happy!
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