Los Promotores

Amid California’s toxic dumps, local activists go it alone.


| Winter 2017


One warm spring day a year ago, Griselda Barrera, a Mexican-born mother of three, went to a middle school auditorium in Thermal, California, an unincorporated community in the desert east of Los Angeles, to square off against a panel of regulators. Barrera, who is just 5 feet tall, wore a black pencil skirt and platform pumps, the kind of shoes she favors now that she no longer works in the fields. She was flanked by mothers like herself, there to give public comment to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

At issue was persistent air pollution. Since 2010, the agency had responded to more than 215 complaints about unpleasant odors in the nearby community of Mecca — smells that at times were so sickening that teachers and students called paramedics. Barrera waited patiently, microphone in hand, as regulators laid out their plans to help the school districts replace their old diesel school buses and install air filtration systems in the classrooms. When her turn came, she addressed the panel confidently in Spanish through an interpreter.

“There are so many needs in this community, it’s hard to know where to even begin,” she said. “Kids out here have to play on the street because there aren’t enough playgrounds. We have working-class families paying as much as $650 a month for water, gas, and garbage pickup because we have no municipal services.” Instead of investing in cleaner school buses, said Barrera, the county and state regulators should be doing more for local communities right where they live, too.

Riverside County Supervisor John J. Benoit replied that he was invested in cleaning up air pollution for the entire Eastern Coachella Valley, as well as protecting the local economy and jobs. “It is not always the county’s fault,” he said, expecting the kind of criticism he had gotten at public hearings before.

Barrera then passed her microphone to Noemí Castellanos, who was evicted from her trailer after she complained about living conditions; to Emma García, who described her granddaughter’s first asthma attack and how she had to drive for 30 minutes to get to the nearest hospital; and to Rita Galindo, who told the room: “The agricultural companies out here act like they own the place. They don’t tell us anything about the impact of their pesticides.”

After the two-hour meeting ended, Barrera was visibly frustrated by the lack of concrete action. She strode across the room, shaking hands and making plans with the other women, all Mexican former farmworkers in their 30s and 40s. “I’m tired of the agencies that come here asking us to bring people from the community as an audience for their presentations,” Barrera told me as she made her way out of the auditorium. “We have no idea what they do with the information we give them. Nothing changes.”