PHOENIX — Students at a largely Hispanic elementary school in Phoenix have long lined up for morning classes on a dusty patch of dirt under a broiling sun.
So when Tony Mada learned of plans to plant 75 young trees at Borman Elementary School, the 30-year-old and his daughter Lilyth, 10, joined scores of volunteers to increase shade on campus.
Desert willows, oaks and mesquites just a few feet tall were among trees planted at the event organized by the local nonprofit Trees Matter and the environmental organization The Nature Conservancy, which is expanding its focus beyond the wildlands to urban areas impacted by climate-fueled heat.
” “I’ll do whatever it takes to cool down my children in this hot neighbourhood,” Mada, a school student, said as they freed an acacia from its wooden roots. After experiencing the firsthand impacts of global warming, U.S. Latinos have taken up climate activism, often drawing from traditions from their homelands.
“There has been a real national uprising in Latino activism in environmentalism in recent years,” said Juan Roberto Madrid, an environmental science and public health specialist based in Colorado for the national nonprofit GreenLatinos. “Climate change may be impacting everyone, but it is impacting Latinos more.”
U.S. Latinos often live in ignored, lower income neighborhoods that are degrees hotter than nearby areas because they have a higher population density and limited tree canopy. Hispanics are also disproportionately affected by chronic health conditions aggravated by extreme heat, like diabetes and heart and kidney disease.
Latino activists are now sounding the alarm about the risks of global warming for their neighborhoods and the world. One of them is a teenager who demonstrated every Friday outside U.N. Headquarters in New York for several weeks. Another activist in Phoenix, who was born in Mexico and wants to see more grassroots involvement in climate advocacy.
“Many Latinx members have Indigenous roots,” Masavi Perea (organizing director of Chispa Arizona), a League of Conservation Voters program, said. “A lot of us grew up on ranches, so many of us already have a relationship with nature.”
Walking through rows of kale, corn and squash at Chispa’s plot in a south Phoenix garden, the 47-year-old said he works to increase the group’s base and educate young members about environmental issues like climate change.
Perea, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Mexico, said Chispa members include Central Americans he calls “climate refugees” who fled countries battered by hurricanes and droughts. Recent research has shown that most Latinos living in the U.S. view climate change as a serious concern.
A Pew Research Center study released last fall showed about seven in 10 Latinos say climate change affects their communities at least some, while only 54% of non-Latinos said it affects their neighborhoods. The self-administered web survey of 13,749 respondents had a margin of error of plus or minus 1. 4 percentage points.
Colorado College’s Conservation in the West Poll published this year showed notably higher percentages of Latino, Black and Indigenous voters in eight western states concerned about climate change, pollution and the impact of fossil fuels.
Latino and other communities of color are disproportionately affected by climate change, such as more frequent, intense and longer heat waves in Phoenix, Las Vegas, Palm Springs and other arid western communities.
A study by researchers from the University of California, Davis and the American University of Beirut concluded last year that poor and Latino neighborhoods in 20 metro regions around the Southwest endure temperatures several degrees higher on the hottest days, creating greater risks for heat-related illness.
Phoenix, the hottest big city in the U.S., in recent years has seen some of its hottest summers, with a heat wave a year ago pushing temperatures up to 118 degrees (48 Celsius).
The city earlier this year worked with the conservation nonprofit American Forests to create the first of 100 “cool corridors” by planting shade trees for pedestrians and cyclists alongside a south Phoenix park named for the late Latino activist Cesar Chavez.
“It’s much hotter here now than when I first moved here,” Democratic U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, who lives nearby, said as he toured the 259 newly planted drought resistant elm, ash, sissoo and Chinese pistache trees.
Gallego, who was born in Chicago and raised there by his Colombian mother, said segregation in Phoenix once forced Blacks and Latino residents to live in the city’s south, which meant fewer trees and other investments there.
He has teamed up with fellow Democrat U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, of New Jersey, on a bill to create $30 million in federal grants annually for several years to ease the effects of urban heat, especially in low-income communities of color. While many Latino activists are focused on the issues in their local communities, Alexandria Villasenor is taking climate activism global.
Inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, Villasenor spent many Fridays outside United Nations headquarters in New York in 2019, protesting global inaction on climate change.
Now 17, she is a co-founder of Earth Uprising, a climate change education group.
Climate scholar Michael Mendez (author of the book “Climate Change from the Streets”) said that grassroots organizing is just as important.
Mendez grew up the son of Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles County’s Fernando Valley, where he saw Latino neighbors fight against air pollution and dumping of toxic waste.
“It’s not an abstract idea for us,” said Mendez, who teaches at the University of California, Irvine. “For Latinos, climate change is about how to protect our families, our children.”
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