It’s election season and the news is full of headlines about the issues most on the minds of voters. And for candidates trying to woo Latino voters, there’s nothing more important than immigration, right? Wrong.
Poll after poll shows Latinos are more concerned about the effects of climate change than voters overall and that reducing smog and air pollution, conserving water, and protecting waterways and clean drinking water, scored higher than immigration reform.
Why? First of all, Latinos, like everyone, are complex and not single-issue voters, contrary to myth and stereotype. And second, seeing is believing. They’re feeling the effects in their daily lives—sea level rise, extreme weather, severe drought, and heat waves. So, for that reason, protecting the environment has political consequences. In recent polls, an overwhelming majority of Latinos said they were somewhat to much more likely
to support candidates who commit to protecting the environment.
Frani: When Mark Magaña was 6 years old he remembers not being able to go out and play. And when he could go outside his southern California home to play soccer or tag, he would find it hard to breathe, even on days that seemed perfectly fine.
Having “Air Quality Warnings” in the Los Angeles area was nothing out of the ordinary. No one was shocked. No one panicked. Brown skies are part of the scenery. And kids just knew to make sure they had inhalers in their pockets.
Mark Magaña: It wasn’t something that we recognized was odd—that shouldn’t happen.
Frani: Mark’s the founder of a group called Green Latinos and he’s speaking at the Americas Latino Eco Festival here in Denver.
Mark: We adapted. We would go out and play even on the days when it wasn’t bad. And we’d come back home and we’d have a hard time breathing. Sometimes we’d vomit for relief. But that just became normal.
Frani: He’s telling the audience of scientists, educators, policy makers and advocates that once he grew up, he came to recognize that the polluters—for the sake of cheap energy—were fouling air and water where he lived. But that wasn’t the pivotal time when he became active in the “environmental” movement.
Mark: My moment when I’d had enough came about three years ago.
Frani: He had brought his then baby daughter to his mother’s bedside in the hospital.
Mark: She sat with my mother and blessed my daughter and sang to her and told her she’d always be there for her. A couple days later my mother passed from leukemia. It was a leukemia that stems from industrial pollutants, from benzene and other industrial pollutants.
Everyone here has their moment when they’ve said this is enough. I’m not going to adapt anymore. I’m not going to accept the way things are.
Frani: It’s well documented that low-income communities of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental toxins. Just this month a new study found that in metropolitan areas of the U.S., one in three economically disadvantaged Latino immigrant neighborhoods is exposed to cancer-causing air pollution—coming from refineries, factories, car exhaust, and other sources.
So even though Mark knew there was an environmental justice issue at play—and even though he went on to found Green Latinos, he says he never thought of himself as an eco-warrior.
Mark: If someone had asked me, “Are you an environmentalist?” “Are you an conservationist?” I would have given them a blank stare.
Frani: Indeed the mainstream looks at the environmental movement as something you join. You pay your dues and you’re a card-carrying member—even if you do nothing else.
Mark: They don’t consider that our environmentalism is cultural. Our environmentalism is internal. It’s within our family. It’s our daily life.
Mark: I believe that Latinos have a cultural connection to preserving and caring for mi tierra, the land. To eat every part of the animal. To conserve, re-use, repurpose everything that you have.
Frani: Talking with Mark outside the auditorium, he says caring for the earth is something that’s passed down from generation to generation.
Mark: I think of going into our refrigerator and not knowing what’s in the butter container. It could be beans. It could be butter. It could be rice. It could be chile. It could be who knows what. Eating menudo which is intestines, lengua, tongue, sesos, brains. Conserving everything that you had and not being wasteful. That was part of our culture. It wasn’t the issue of, are you an environmentalist? It was an issue of, are you living in symbiosis with the land and with the air and the water?
Frani: And it’s that legacy of caring for the planet and being good stewards of natural resources that those attending this conference want to validate. They want to dispel myths that Latinos are a single-issue block, focused only on immigration—because nothing could be further from the truth—and they have the numbers to prove it.
Mark: We did some polling recently. We did it with Earthjustice and a polling firm called Latino Decisions.
Frani: They surveyed Latinos to gauge their concern about various environmental issues.
Mark: When they did their analysis and asked the question, “How concerned are you about climate change?” They found that the percentile of people who said yes, highly concerned or greatly concerned, was higher than it was for immigration or education. And that shocked them.
Frani: So much so, that they considered not releasing the findings. Even though poll after poll found the same results.
Mark: There was almost a concern that maybe we should suppress this findings so as to not offend Latinos who do have a historic interest in immigration.
Nicole Hernandez Hammer: We are not a monolithic group.
Frani: That’s Nicole Hernandez Hammer, a biologist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Nicole: We come from different countries. Our Spanish is different. We have a variety of cultures within the Latino community. But there are certain things that we all have in common, and one of those things is our concern for the environment.
Frani: Hernandez came all the way from south Florida to attend this conference because to her, climate change is very much a Latino issue.
Nicole: It really is a Latino issue because we are so disproportionately vulnerable. According to NOAA, about 39% of the U.S. population lives in coastal counties, but 49% of the Latino population lives in coastal counties. So we’re going to be feeling the brunt of sea level rise impacts, but also more intense storms because of climate change.
Frani: And no where is that more obvious than the part of Florida where she lives.
Nicole: So Miami is almost 70% Latino.
Frani: And because it sits pretty close to sea level the city has seen an increase in what Hernandez says are called “Sunny Day Floods.”
Nicole: So flooding when there hasn’t been any rain. It’s because of the King Tides. When we get the highest tides of the year because we’re so flat, that extra saltwater comes up through our storm system.
Frani: She says it’s hard to put solutions together because canals that were built to let water drain out during storms are now letting saltwater in.
Nicole: You can’t really build sea walls the way you might in New Orleans or in the Netherlands because the water just comes up from underneath them.
Frani: The solution at present is pumping but that’s extremely expensive—and the energy to remove that water comes mostly from fossil fuels—not renewables. An irony that’s not lost on Hernandez.
Nicole: So we’re actually contributing more to climate change in order to save our little part of the world, or at least to just keep it around a little bit longer. As since we are one of the first major cities that are dealing with this degree of sea level rise and climate change impacts, then I think we have the moral obligation to set the standard for how adaptation should work and about how that should absolutely come from renewable energy.
Frani: Is this a sleeper issue that politicians should wake up to? From what we’ve heard today, the candidates who protect the environment will do better with Latino voters.
Nicole: I think politicians are starting to pay attention to issues that we’re most concerned about and climate change is right at the top of that list.
Frani: But perhaps, more to the point...
Nicole: Folks are starting to realize that we are a political powerhouse and that the issues that matter to us are important. So it’s a great opportunity for us to help make the country more sustainable and lead us towards a clean energy economy. 💧