Oliver Bernstein is the deputy press secretary for diversity programs for the Sierra Club. He represented the Sierra Club at the Latino Congreso in Los Angeles.

Friday, 8 Sep 2006

LOS ANGELES, Calif.

“The environment? What’s up with that?” This used to be the reaction of many Latinos to hearing about environmental issues, says Roger Rivera, president of the National Hispanic Environmental Council. They considered the environment a concern “for rich white folks with time on their hands.”

But this perception is changing, as evidenced at the Latino Congreso in Los Angeles on Friday. More than 1,300 Latino leaders, public officials, and activists came together at the Congreso, the most comprehensive gathering of its kind in nearly 30 years. Issues like voting power, migration policy, and education reform were high on the agenda, but there was also an entire day dedicated to the environment, with well-attended sessions on such topics as climate change, community parks, and environmental justice.

The response from the attendees — most of whom could tell stories about neighborhood sewage spills, dwindling fish supplies, unprecedented heat waves, and other problems they had experienced — suggested that the country’s largest “minority” group certainly understands the importance of environmental issues. While the environment still does not rank as highly for many Latinos as immigration or other issues, Latinos affected by the air they breathe, the fish they catch, or the water they drink are paying more attention than ever.

“We don’t always talk about the environment, but we should,” John Trasviña, interim president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told the assembled crowd. Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D), and numerous others echoed this sentiment, imploring fellow Latinos to become leaders on the environment.

Rivera called the environment “the single biggest issue frontier that remains for Latinos.” Having applied significant pressure nationally on issues like immigration reform, voting rights, and affirmative action, Latinos are now in a position to use their collective power to demand better environmental protections for their communities.

Why should Latinos in particular talk about the environment? Because, like other communities of color in the United States, Latino communities get picked as sites for polluting factories while wealthier, predominately white communities are left alone.

According to a 2004 report [PDF] by the League of United Latin American Citizens, more than half of Latinos in the U.S. live in areas that violate federal air-pollution standards for ozone. This ozone pollution contributes to the 2.5-to-1 ratio of asthma incidence in Latino children compared to non-Latino white children. Environmental-health issues like these can affect other aspects of children’s lives, such as their education. According to Luis Arteaga, executive director of the Latino Issues Forum, a California-based nonprofit policy and advocacy institute, asthma is the leading cause of absenteeism for schoolkids in California’s heavily Latino Central Valley.

Just down the road from the site of the Congreso is another example of disproportionate environmental burdens on Latinos. The enormous Port of Los Angeles is the entryway for about 42 percent of U.S. imports, and the neighboring community of Wilmington is home to the largest port and refinery cluster in the United States. Wilmington is 85 percent Latino, and its residents are five times more likely to develop cancer than the average American.

The theme of the Congreso was “Marcha Hoy; Vota Mañana” (March Today; Vote Tomorrow). Indeed, one of the questions for this election season and those that follow is whether the record numbers of immigrant-rights marchers earlier this year will translate into record numbers of voters in November and beyond.

With approximately 43 million Latinos in the United States and a projected 100 million by 2050, the potential for nationwide Latino political dominance is certainly there. As several experts at the Latino Congreso pointed out, however, many Latinos are not registered to vote, and turnout can be a big problem. California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (D) lamented that there are 4 million Latinos in the state who are eligible to vote but are not registered.

Sustained energy from the massive immigration rallies earlier this year has led to a spike in citizenship applications this summer, according to Antonio González, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and the main organizer of the Congreso. This is a good sign leading up to September and October, typically the busiest times for voter registration. González projects that 6.5 million Latinos will vote in November 2006, an increase of 1 million over 2002 levels. González added that Latinos are younger on average than the overall U.S. population, and that Latino students will play an important role in voter registration and turnout this fall.

Assuming that more Latinos do turn out, however, the environment is not necessarily going to be the top issue on their minds. Rivera of the National Hispanic Environmental Council admits that Latino leaders “have had challenges getting our community to understand that the environment is not a backburner issue.” According to a 2004 exit poll by the William C. Velazquez Institute, only 1.2 percent of Latino voters in Florida rated the environment as the most important issue in deciding on candidates. More pressing issues were the economy and jobs (22.2 percent), the war in Iraq (20.8), and abortion (14.7), among others.

The Latino Congreso sought to elevate voter concern for environmental issues by broadening the notion of “environment” to include health care, safe and healthy jobs, drinking water, and more. It also highlighted the importance of climate change with a showing of Al Gore‘s An Inconvenient Truth and a speech by California Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, cosponsor of the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.

“If nothing is done on global warming and climate change,” Rivera cautioned, “then look at your familia and figure out what you are going to do.” Many Latinos in coastal areas will not be able to run to their second homes in the mountains or retrofit their houses, he half-joked. The message at the Congreso was that climate change — like air pollution — may affect Latinos even more than non-Latinos, and that they must work together to protect themselves.

The lofty goal of the environmental section of the Latino Congreso, according to organizers, was to develop a broad-based, accepted Latino agenda on the environment. This was perhaps asking too much, but the attendees did pass several resolutions, including ones calling for action on climate change, increased green space, and a focus on environmental health.

As Celeste Cantú, executive director of the California State Water Resources Control Board, said, “The United States is a Latino community.” For this reason, we all have a stake in how Latino leaders, public officials, and activists confront environmental challenges, and we must all stand together to achieve success. ¡Sí se puede! Yes we can.