Desert Activist for Clean Air

Missed the bus, found a calling

By Wendy Becktold

December 7, 2015

Cynthia Portillo organized high school students to combat air pollution in the Coachella Valley.

Cynthia Portillo | Photo by Rodrigo Pena

Name: Cynthia Portillo
Location: North Shore, California
Contribution: Organizes high school students to combat air pollution in the Coachella Valley

What's the Great/Sierra Alliance?

It's a coalition between my school—the GrEAT (Green Energy and Technology) Academy at Desert Mirage High School—and the San Gorgonio Chapter of the Sierra Club. I used to hear about their meetings, but I wouldn't go because I wanted to get home after school and do my stuff. One day my friend and I missed the bus, and I was like, "There's a meeting today. We can just walk in there and be part of that." And we're still a part of it even though we both graduated last spring.

How did you become one of the student leaders?

When I was a junior, the alliance brought a bunch of students to San Francisco for a California Public Utilities Commission meeting. We were advocating for renewable energy to replace the defunct San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Diego. On the bus on the way there, one of the organizers asked me to speak to the commission. I was like, "What? Oh gosh, I'm nervous now. Very nervous." But then he handed me some information to look over, and I thought, "Oh wait. I know this." At the meeting, I represented my school and the entire Coachella Valley.

What's your biggest success story as an activist?

My senior year, we heard that the EPA was going to hold a hearing—one of only three in the country—in Sacramento about its ground-level ozone standards. At school, we set up a booth at lunch with forms for students to fill out if they wanted to attend. We went through 200 copies in 15 minutes.

A week before the trip, the school administration decided students wouldn't be allowed to go. We got teachers and students to send tweets to the superintendent, and he eventually interceded. Two minutes before the bell rang on Friday, the principal announced over the intercom that the trip had been approved. We spent the entire weekend collecting permission slips from parents. We got 107 students to attend the meeting, and every one of us spoke. A lot of students talked about how the air quality affected them personally. One kid recited a rap that he had written. 

How bad is the pollution in your town?

The nearby Salton Sea is drying up, and wind kicks up toxins in the exposed playa. Also, the Coachella Valley is a basin surrounded by mountains, so smog collects there. 

What do you do when you aren't being an activist?

I love to stargaze. Where I live now, outside of Mecca, there's no light pollution and it's just gorgeous. When I go out of town for a meeting or a rally, no matter where I am, I have to look up at the night sky at least once.


This article appeared as "Desert Activist" in the January/February 2016 print edition of Sierra.