The University of California at Berkeley’s Hispanic-Serving Institutions Initiative began in 2018 with aims to get more Latinx students into the University of California’s system. This allowed Latinx programs to prosper, such as UC Berkeley’s program, Latinx and the Environment.
The program was founded in 2018 by Frederico Castillo, an Environmental/Agricultural economist professor at UC Berkeley. Castillo said that in 2016, he saw a lack of students of color within his courses and was approached by one Latinx student who pointed out that Castillo was among a few professors at Cal who was Latino. That’s when Castillo began to question why the number of Latinx faculty or students was so small. Eventually, he started to devise plans to remedy the issue. Castillo was met with many roadblocks.
“I started asking around to fellow faculty members how many students are in similar classes such as environmental classes, environmental health, ecosystem management, environmental economics, and so on, and the answers varied,” Castillo said. “Some people said, ‘Latino students are not interested,’‘ It’s not something they pursue’ or ‘We don’t have enough Latino students, so that explains the low numbers in the classes,’ which was not satisfactory for me”
At academic conferences and panels regarding the environmental change, Castillo saw the need for more presence of people of color. This motivated him to start developing his own initiative to increase the number of students in undergrad and graduate courses revolving around the environment. He began working with Lupe Gallegos Diaz, the Director of Chicanx Latinx Student Development at UC Berkeley. Despite having no funding, the two were able to form Latinx and the Environment.
“Once we started making the initiative, that’s when we received funders and support to evolve it into a program, though it’s been a little bit of an uphill battle. We have great partners at Berkeley, while others don’t show interest in the program,” Castillo said. “Berkeley has a reputation of being one of the top public universities and sometimes that seems to get in the way of people thinking outside the box, because they may be afraid to take chances in a new program.”
Castillo has worked to prove the program was worth taking a chance on by finding partners to help fund student research, which is a resource many Latinx students did not have before. One of the first fellows to take the opportunities in 2019 was Alexandra Acevedo Grave, a sophomore at the time who was an environmental earth science major.
“I first heard about the initiative through a friend. At the time I was feeling kind of lost because a lot of my classes were mostly non-Latinx students,” Grave said. “So I joined the seminar and I just noticed how everyone was very community-based and they were all very passionate about environmental issues and were working as a team together on their 2019 event. So I stayed on the initiative since then.”
By the time Grave was a junior, Latinx and the Environment grew and became a bridge for her in doing research for Mayor Rey Leon in Huron, California. Her research involved examining the environment of Huron and why it would benefit from a wilderness park. She concluded and made a proposal that explained how Huron consists of many immigrants who come and create thriving communities and deserve to utilize their land to build a community park. It allowed her to learn from her field, benefit her community, and earn money to support herself.
“It was really cool because I was in my third year of college and at the time all I had was work-study jobs. Being first-gen and low-income, I needed work-study jobs so that I can be able to support myself through college,” Grave said. “For the first time, I was able to have a real internship experience that was paid. And it was very helpful because I worked with the mayor and it was part of the LEAP Institute. So I was able to gain that professional experience and build connections with Latinx professionals.”
Now, Grave is the program coordinator for Latinx and the Environment, supporting Latinx students on their academic journey. The program now consists of 28 students, each receiving a $5,000 research stipend, along with mentorship opportunities. One of those students is Mariana Chavez-Aleman, a 20-year-old junior who is majoring in history and Spanish.
A first-gen Chicana student raised in Palm Springs, Chavez-Aleman was studying abroad in Spain for her research in transnational justice when she was emailed by the program about the opportunity of the fellowship. The approach she has to the environmental issue is through a historical point of view in studying current issues.
“The fellowship involves an environmental narrative. So I thought if I could somehow include the environment in my history-based research and focus on Latinx communities in the border, then that could translate into looking into border policies that involve the environmental impact and view,” Chavez-Aleman said. “I wanted to understand the voices of border narratives and activist communities at the border, as well as examine the hyper policing and militarization of the land.”
Chavez-Aleman dove into how the cities in the desert were seen in an unfavorable light due to the border. One city she is focusing on is Nogales, Arizona also referred to as Ambos Nogales meaning “both Nogales,” due to the original city being split in the middle by a border. She wanted to showcase the thriving urban centers in the location, as well as, highlight the city’s history and the growing tension between border patrol and the residents. Chavez-Aleman traveled to Nogales last October to participate in “On the Line: Border Convening 2022,” hosted by an activist group called School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch). During her stay, she participated in marches and protests and discovered more about the activist communities in Nogales and how they maneuver the environment.
“Being there, I engaged with the residents, because I wanted my research to empower voices that were there,” Chavez-Aleman said. “I wanted to get to know the people from the SOA Watch organization and also the communities that were already there to highlight that Nogales is a part of a larger pattern of people against the US and against border policies.”
Chavez-Aleman aims to use her Latinx history approach to the environment in order to amplify voices for the Latinx community all over the country and highlight the environmental impact of policies towards her communities.
Programs such as the Latinx and the Environment are ones that showcase the importance of giving the tools to Latinx individuals to excel in an academic field of study with inadequate representation.
“People often ask me what topics do you have in your program for students to do research on? And the answer is whatever the student thinks is relevant. Why do I say this? Because oftentimes our stories are taught in the great majority. Our students of color will find our outlet to being a fertile ground for them to try,” said Castillo.
“So they choose a topic that matters to them. For example, in a lot of them, their parents are farm workers and they just choose to research chemical exposure at the farm level or at home,” Castillo said. “Some of them are the children of people who work in the informal recycling sector and they are interested in that aspect of the environment. Why is this relevant? Because obviously the moment they choose a topic that matters to them, it is relevant to their lives and to the Latinx communities. That’s it.”