SACRAMENTO—Latino leaders are urging environmental activists to embrace the diversity of the state if the environmental movement is to succeed.
“No new legislation on environmental protection will be passed without the backing of Latino, Asian and black lawmakers,” says Irma R. Muñoz of Mujeres de la Tierra, a community organization that works with families to improve environmental conditions in the Los Angeles area.
Latino members of the state legislature and community activists said this week at the annual Green California Summit that if the environmental movement is to succeed, it must recognize the new electoral power of Latinos and other minorities.
“There are 18.5 million voters of color” in California, reports keynote speaker Assemblymember Anthony Rendon (D-Lynnwood). One-third of the members in the state legislature “representatives are of color,” he says, and the capitol’s Latino caucus is continuing to grow.
Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-33rd Dist.) reports that Latinos in the state legislature are now asserting themselves in discussions on environmental issues.
But Lara also warned environmental lobbyists not to go by generalizations that Latino legislators are “moderates, liberals or progressives.”
“Tackle an environmental issue on its own merit,” Lara explains, “because Latino advocates from small rural communities or their representatives may not necessarily have predictable positions on it.”
Legislators like himself, Lara says, often have to weigh issues with ground-level practicalities: “Will our constituents lose several jobs if we close an offending plant—what balance must we strike?”
The focus on the impact of the state’s changing demographics on environmental causes was largely triggered by the startling findings of a survey commissioned by the California League of Conservation Voters Education Fund.
Conducted by Tulchin Research, the first-ever survey on Latino attitudes toward environmental issues in California found that Latino voters had “higher levels of concern” about the state’s land, air and water quality than other voter groups. This makes Latinos “a core conservation constituency in California,” according to the researchers.
Up to 90 percent of Latino voters believe that the environment can be protected and jobs can be created at the same time. Some 83 percent also support a state law requiring one-third of the state’s electricity to come from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power by 2020. And a majority opposes offshore oil drilling.
Ben Tulchin of Tulchin Research, however, warns that there is a “rhetorical divide” between Latinos’ views of “conservation” and “environmentalism.” Latinos see themselves as conservationists, while many perceive environmentalists as “tree huggers,” often more concerned with wildlife than humans.
Rey Leon of the San Joaquin Valley Latino Environmental Advancement and Policy Project explains, “To us, environment is family, neighbors and neighborhoods.”
Muñoz agrees, advising the environmental movement to connect to “the people’s own issues.” For most Latinos, she says, the environment is a “health issue” of water quality, polluted soils and dirty air.
Toxic pollution runs high as a serious problem for 85 percent of Latinos, according to the survey findings. Moreover, 25 percent have at least one household member suffering from asthma.
But Lara warns environmentalists that simply “hiring a Latino activist” won’t make up for the movement’s lack of diversity. He says it must take up community-based fights for healthier surroundings. “The movement won’t survive if it doesn’t diversify.”