Just as Latinos were over-represented among essential workers during the COVID-19 era, they are today at the forefront of the confrontation against climate change and environmental degradation.
Whether working in the fields, fighting forest fires, living in close proximity to toxic chemicals, renting substandard housing contaminated with lead paint, they continue to face the most dangerous consequences.
Recently, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new annual report, which elaborates crucial recommendations to reduce the damage to the environment caused by global warming. The report is the result of the joint efforts of hundreds of scientists and was approved by 195 countries. The document warns that without radical changes the world will cross this point of no return in global warming in less than 10 years.
In the United States, the consequences of climate change are already here. We live through torrential rains and floods, or droughts. Heat waves, intense hurricanes, forest fires and other phenomena have intensified. And the worst is coming.
California faced its 12th atmospheric river storm of the winter. The rain hasn’t stopped. Initially, we welcomed the rains because it stopped the historic drought. Not anymore.
These rains may be the herald of an even harsher, more challenging reality, which we are going to experience in Los Angeles. In that bleak future, Latinos, Blacks and the poor, will all face upcoming disaster, because they are more exposed to the chaos that climate change brings.
“Black and Hispanic minorities bear a disproportionate burden from the air pollution caused mainly by non-Hispanic whites,” according to a 2019 study from the University of Washington.
“The total disparity is caused as much by how much people consume as by how much pollution they breathe,” the study found.
“Black and Hispanic people and people with low incomes are more likely to live in areas at high risk of flooding from natural disasters than white and Asian people,” according to another study by the University of Arizona.
This fall will mark the 25th anniversary of Hurricane Mitch, a Category Five hurricane– which devastated Central America, causing 7,000 fatalities in Nicaragua and 4,000 in Honduras. Another 10,000 victims were taken by the winds, never to be seen again. Mitch destroyed tens of thousands of homes. Winds of over 120 mph uprooted entire forests. Many towns simply disappeared.
In Honduras, Mitch left 1.5 million people homeless – about 20% of the total population. Four million lost access to drinking water. In Nicaragua, 800,000 lost their homes. Mitch also caused heavy damage in the Caribbean and in Colombia, and torrential rains in Florida. The hurricane hit the poorest, the people without resources, living in undeveloped areas. 92% of the crops were destroyed. Communities were victimized further, because generous international aid did not reach them, remaining in the pockets of the powerful.
Many migrated to the United States. Just in January 1999 the then-INS apprehended 4,000 survivors attempting to cross the Southern border. Their numbers stayed high and In the next two years, Mitch – plus two earthquakes – drove an increased amount of migrants to the U.S.
Climate change was not on the minds of the people of Central America 25 years ago.
But they already suffered from this as well as from environmental damage. Most water sources were contaminated because of mining or petrochemicals. The rural population – 35% of the total – lacks access to clean water. Many rivers dried up due to deforestation and land overuse.
And with each hurricane, earthquake, or war, the numbers of immigrants to the United States increased. More than 25% of them settled in California, especially in Los Angeles County.
Mitch remained in the popular consciousness as a symbol of disaster and despair.
That same December, I wrote a lengthy poem lamenting the destruction, honoring the fallen, and asking for hope for the survivors. Letralia, an online magazine, published it. Ten years later, a teacher wrote to me asking for permission to use the poem in her class in Los Angeles, where she taught the children of its survivors:
The men of Chilanguera tied their children to the treetops
with ropes and lianas so they wouldn’t fall
they dreamed that they were ripe fruit at noon
floating in the black river
that ran through the town for its life
Almost 25 years have passed since Mitch devastated the land. For the families who settled in Los Angeles, time has provided some healing, though not all, of the wounds, the memory of the horror and the sadness for those who were lost. They went through more hardships because of their immigration status, poverty, family separation, and the distance from their homeland. But time passed, healed. They had children and then children from those children. Tranquility settled in their homes.
Until now, when climate change affects our region and nature ravages us. What these victims ran from could be closing in once again. The climate conditions that brought them so much pain are now recurring here. We can still prevent another Mitch, whether in Honduras, Nicaragua or California.
But there isn’t much time left.