PHOENIX — Students at a mostly Hispanic elementary school in Phoenix have long lined up for morning classes on dusty dirt under the scorching sun.
So when Tony Mada learned of plans to plant 75 saplings at Borman Elementary School, the 30-year-old and his 10-year-old daughter Lilyth joined dozens of volunteers to increase the shade on the campus.
Meter-tall desert willows, oaks and mesquites were among the trees planted at the event organized by local nonprofit Trees Matter and environmental organization The Nature Conservancy, which is expanding its focus beyond wild lands to climate-fueled heat-affected urban areas. .
“I would do anything to freshen things up for my kids in this red-light district,” Mada said on a Saturday this spring as he and Lilyth, a student at the school, freed an acacia tree from the wooden box containing its roots.
After experiencing the direct effects of global warming, Latinos in America are leading the way in climate change activism, often drawing inspiration from the traditions of their ancestral lands.
“There has been a real national uprising of Latin American environmental activism in recent years,” said Colorado-based environmental science and public health specialist Juan Roberto Madrid. for the national nonprofit GreenLatinos. “Climate change can impact everyone, but it impacts Latinos more.”
American Latinos often live in overlooked, low-income neighborhoods that are degrees warmer than nearby areas because they have higher population density and limited tree cover. Hispanics are also disproportionately affected by chronic health conditions made worse by extreme heat, such as diabetes and heart and kidney disease.
Latino activists are now sounding the alarm about the risks of global warming to their neighborhoods and the world. Among them are a teenager who has been protesting every Friday for weeks outside UN headquarters in New York, a Southern California scholar who wants more grassroots efforts to be included in the world climate organization and a Mexican-born advocate in Phoenix who teaches young Hispanics the importance of protecting the Earth for the future. generations.
“Many members of the Latinx community have Indigenous roots,” said Masavi Perea, organizing director of Chispa Arizona, a program of the League of Conservation Voters. “A lot of us grew up on ranches, so a lot of us already have a relationship with nature.”
Walking through rows of kale, corn and squash on Chispa’s patch in a garden in South Phoenix, the 47-year-old said he was working to increase the group’s base and educate younger members. on environmental issues such as climate change.
Perea, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico, said Chispa members include Central Americans he calls “climate refugees” who fled countries hit by hurricanes and droughts.
Recent research shows that most Latinos in the United States see climate change as an important concern.
A Pew Research Center study released last fall showed about seven in 10 Latinos say climate change is affecting at least some of their communities, while only 54% of non-Latinos said it’s affecting their neighborhoods. . The self-administered online 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 released this year showed significantly higher percentages of Latino, Black and Indigenous voters in eight Western states concerned about climate change, pollution and the impact of fossil fuels.
Latinos 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 at the University of California, Davis and the American University of Beirut concluded last year that poor, Latino neighborhoods in 20 southwestern metropolitan areas endure temperatures several degrees higher. on the hottest days, creating increased risks of heat-related illnesses. .
Phoenix, the hottest major city in the United States, has had some of its hottest summers in recent years, with a heat wave a year ago pushing temperatures up to 118 degrees (48 degrees Celsius) .
Earlier this year, the city worked with conservation nonprofit American Forests to create the first of 100 ‘cool corridors’ by planting shade trees for pedestrians and cyclists along a park of South Phoenix named in honor of the late Latino activist Cesar Chavez.
“It’s a lot warmer here now than when I moved here,” said Democratic U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego, who lives nearby, as he toured the 259 newly planted, ash, sissoo and Chinese pistachio trees that were hardy. drought.
Gallego, who was born in Chicago and raised there by his Colombian mother, said segregation in Phoenix once forced black and Latino residents to live in the city’s south side, which meant fewer trees and other investments there.
He has joined fellow U.S. Democrat Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey on a bill to create $30 million in federal grants a year for several years to mitigate the effects of urban heat, especially in low-income communities of color.
While many Latino activists focus their climate advocacy in their own neighborhoods, teenager Alexandria Villaseñor is propelling activism onto the world stage.
Inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, Villaseñor spent many Fridays outside the United Nations headquarters in New York in 2019, protesting global inaction on climate change.
Now 17, she is the co-founder of Earth Uprising, a climate change education group.
Climate policy expert Michael Méndez, author of the book “Climate Change from the Streets,” said grassroots organizing is equally important.
Méndez grew up as the son of Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles County’s Fernando Valley, where he watched Latino neighbors struggle with air pollution and the dumping of toxic waste.
“It’s not an abstract idea for us,” said Méndez, who teaches at the University of California, Irvine. “For Latinos, climate change is about protecting our families, our children.”