By Javier Sierra
Check your calendar. It's Hispanic Heritage Month. And to celebrate it, I invite you to meet or remember three Latino heroes of the environment.
This is Austin, Texas, 1991. Like hundreds of communities throughout the country, East Austin residents, overwhelmingly Hispanic or African-American, have no idea that one of their neighbors is a monster called pollution. The monster lives on 54 acres, among enormous oil storage tanks, and its tentacles reach out to nearby homes.
But the monster's days are numbered. One morning, Susana Herrera, whose home is next door to the facility, reading a public notice, finds out to her horror that the six oil companies who own the tanks have been spewing benzene and xylene -two powerful carcinogens- into the air and that they have requested a permit to continue doing so.
Herrera mobilizes immediately, calling her partner Susana Almanza -with whom she'd founded PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources) a few months earlier- to warn her that something smelled rotten in East Austin.
They decide to alert the community but soon realize that their enemy is a two-headed beast, pollution and many neighbors' fear of defending themselves and not without reason, either. The facility's owners are some of the world's largest oil companies.
"All we asked is that they step aside (those who had doubts) and let those that wanted to change the racist conditions they were living under to move forward," recalls Almanza, PODER's current executive director.
Indeed, these two ladies, born and raised in poverty, of proud Mexican Indian heritage and unbreakable courage, are about to make history in the Hispanic environmental justice movement.
"We mobilized the community, leaders from 11 different barrios and a number of state and local officials," Herrera remembers. "Two hundred people came to one of our meetings. Keeping the community informed was key."
Next, PODER launches a media campaign that attracts CBS and CNN. The Austin American-Statesman publishes more than 300 articles about the controversial facility. And after 18 months of intense fight, "We relocated the oil giants of the world from our barrio!" Almanza proudly proclaims.
A feat of this magnitude takes an extraordinary amount of courage and perseverance. Herrera and Almanza found inspiration in the founder of the Hispanic environmental justice movement, César Chávez, whose heroic victories to protect farm workers from pesticide poisons sometimes are overshadowed by other chapters of his monumental biography.
"Like Cesar, I've worked hard all my life for what I believe in", Almanza confesses. "His strength in personal conviction, and the power of patience, determination to never, never, never give up is the strength the carries me forward."
This fight for justice has rewarded them both personally and spiritually. Herrera earned a PhD in health education from the University of Texas. Almanza has served in Austin's Planning Commission and the Environmental Board. And both have won several awards, including being selected for the Ford Foundation's Leadership for a Changing World program, a highly competitive honor.
"Protecting Mother Earth is respecting and recognizing the spirituality that lives within all things," Almanza says. "As indigenous peoples, we must always be thankful to the Creator and Earth Mother."
Since their victory over the oil companies, PODER has also been able to force the relocation of a massive recycling plant, which had become and endless source of rodents, noise and trash. Likewise, PODER has downzoned more than 600 properties.
"As Poderistas, we do not seek the pursuit of power but the pursuit of justice -and justice is the universal shared power," Almanza says.
Battles keep piling up. East Austin still suffers the legacy of one of the country's most racist zoning regulations, with three times as many industrial sites as the rest of the city.
But polluters tread lightly in East Austin, now, because they know they face two Latinas who know very well how to defend themselves.
For more information about PODER's campaigns and how to continue César Chávez's legacy in this Hispanic Heritage Month, write the Sierra Club to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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