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Los Verdes are the Greenest: Latinos are the next generation of environmentalists in the U.S.

Linda Escalante

Posted October 18, 2012 in Curbing Pollution, Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment, Living Sustainably, Moving Beyond Oil, Reviving the World's Oceans, Saving Wildlife and WIld Places, Solving Global Warming

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This year was the year of Cesar Chavez.  Decades ago Senator Robert F. Kennedy called him "one of the heroic figures of our time."  In 2012, the Obama Administration honored his memory and legacy with a day of national observance to be celebrated on every 31st of March from here on forward.  And last week, his family home in Keene, California was designated as a National Monument by the President.  Yet Chavez was not only a humanitarian, labor organizer or civil rights leader.  He was also an environmental leader.  He bequeathed upon generations of Latinos, especially in California, a legacy of empowerment and leadership in the struggle for environmental justice. 

These days it’s hard to ignore the speed with which the Latino population in the U.S is growing both in size and influence. Latinos make up 38% of the population in California and account for 51% of all new births.  Nationally, 1 out of every 6 Americans is of Latino origin.   The community is expanding its political muscle in places like Virginia, Colorado and Nevada.  So it is as good a time as ever for the environmental movement in the United States to embrace the empirical evidence that proves 21st Century environmentalists are indeed… Latino.

A recent California poll demonstrates once again that Latinos are Green.  As a matter of fact,  California League of Conservation Voter Education Fund’s poll of Latino voters about their attitude toward environmental issues found that ”Latino voters showed higher levels of concern about California’s land, air and quarter quality than other voter groups.”   Most importantly, this poll reveals that a whopping 90% of Latinos in California—like most Americans—believe we can protect the environment AND create jobs.

The poll found tremendous support for clean energy as well, with 83% of Latino voters in California supporting the 2011 state law that requires one-third of the state’s electricity come from renewable energy sources.

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Is this news? Not really. These results mirror those in past studies done by NRDC, Sierra Club, and Yale University, among others, which have consistently shown that Latinos are the greenest among non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic blacks, and Asians. 

The reasons why Latinos are so green are complex and have not been studied thoroughly, but as a Latina environmentalist who has worked in the field for years, I speculate that it’s due in large part to powerful values of “conservation” in the collective Latino identity. This would explain why two thirds of Latinos in the CLCV poll consider themselves “conservationists.”Our ancestors passed down the values of “don’t take more than you need” and “nature is the mother of life.”  Mix that with the immigrant experience, which forces families to do more with less and to work the land, and it stands to reason that a strong majority of Latinos develop a deep appreciation for our environment. 

Latinos living in Latin America know firsthand that resources like clean water and reliable electricity are not always there—even when you can afford them.  Their experience creates an added layer of respect for our natural resources. Add to this the community’s disproportionate exposure to pollution (CLCV also found that 25% of Latinos in California have at least one household member suffering from asthma; while a CA Cancer Registry study shows that 50% of children with cancer are Latino)  and you end up with the new generation of environmentalists—Latinos, Los Verdes.

With this in mind it’s not surprising that 65% of California Latinos are seriously concerned about the destruction of fish and wildlife habitats and that 85% find toxic pollution to be a very serious problem while 80% feel the same about water pollution.  This table summarizes some of the most interesting findings of all the polls done to date:

Latinos & the Environment US CA POLLS.jpg

So what is the environmental movement in the US doing to embrace this new breed of true green environmentalists?  That depends who you ask.  At NRDC we have worked for years to inform, engage and cultivate Latino environmental engagement. In 2004, NRDC created its program on Latino outreach and advocacy and published the report Hidden Dangers: Environmental Health Threats in the Latino Community . At the time, the report’s leading author, senior attorney, and founding director of the Latino Outreach & Advocacy program at NRDC, Adrianna Quintero, concluded that “We have an information gap.  Latinos are not getting the information they need to protect themselves."  Eight years later, some progress has been made but much more remains to be done and more people need to get engaged.

Environmental justice groups have remained at the forefront throughout, carrying the voices of the most impacted to decision makers. Groups of Latino leaders have begun to unite forces to call for environmental action that protects our community.

It is time for younger Latinos to step into their role as the next generation of American environmental stewards because despite the passing of time, generations and borders, our respect and love for “mother earth” is a value that we share wholeheartedly.  The planet and all of the living species on it need more of this kind of love, manifested with great tenacity. 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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