Alma Ortega (middle) and Jessica Tovar (right) make environmentally-safe house products.
This time there were no protest signs, nor protesting chants. Instead, over the course of three weeks a group of 30 community members, immigrants, and activists from West Long Beach convened to take part in a series of hands-on workshops sponsored by East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ), L.B. Alliance for Children with Asthma (LBACA), and the Coalition for a Safe Environment.
Ambiente de Mujer, translated to Women’s Environment, was a time for conscious-raising, camaraderie, and self-care for all these women as they explored the intersection between environmental and reproductive justice in their lives, the lives of their families, and community at large.
Workshop participant and Long Beach resident Alma Ortega was diagnosed with asthma three years ago. As someone who takes three medications to control her condition and who has a16 year-old who has lived with asthma since she was three, it has been a learning process.
“When my daughter was young she was really sick,” said Ortega. “It’s sad because she did not think she was normal– she would run and play but then start coughing and end up out of breath. When she was little I did not know much. I would let her play and give her the medication after, instead of doing before.”
Jessica Tovar, a project manager with Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma (LBACA) explains that Long Beach experiences one of the highest rates of asthma incidences amongst youth ages 5 to17 years old.
“Twenty-one percent of kids [in Long Beach] have asthma,” Tovar said. “For the nation it is around 10 percent so we are relatively high and it’s a lot of factors. It’s the fact that we have two ports right next to our home and the freeways. It’s the railyards that are in the back of people’s yards, and the refineries.”
It can get worse for the Latino community, according to Isella Ramirez, leadership coordinator with EYCEJ. Latinas in California are disproportionally uninsured. With 39 percent having no access to crucial health resources like reproductive health services and rights. Today, Latinas in this country experience one of the highest rates of teen parenthood and breast cancer is one of the leading causes of death in this group.
Besides these system’s challenges, the dialogues that happened within this space also spoke to the differences in perspectives that these women hold about how to manage topics such as sexuality and reproductive health in their homes.
“I come from a conservative family,” Ortega said. “A lady here said that having sex is normal. But for me, that is not true; it’s normal for a committed couple. With my daughter, I will teach her the dangers [and tell her] that she has to take care of herself. But at the same time I am not going to take her where she can find contraceptives. She is going to think I am okay with her having sex.”
Women of color have historically been exposed to environmental threats including toxics in their workplace due in part to environmental racism, the participants echoed during the workshops. EYCEJ’s presentations highlighted how working-class communities like West Long Beach have been historically discriminated against and disregarded in discussions around where to erect building projects that pose health and environmental risks.
To target this problem in their immediate environment the women were taught how to create environment and health friendly products– like hair gel with the use of unflavored gelatin and body exfoliator made out of coffee grounds and sea salt.
Despite the great turn out, Elena Rodriguez, an organizer with EYCEJ who brought these workshops to West Long Beach, there are still challenges ahead.
“More than anything people work,” Rodriguez said. “If people work for $8 an hour and come home really tired and they have to cook for their kids, this poses an obstacle to getting them involved. Plus, we do not have the resources to provide food and child care at every event compared to the big corporations that are doing the damage. They have the money to bring people in.”
But for those present throughout these three weeks there was much to take with them and bring back as they continue to organize for better environmental conditions in their neighborhoods.
“In the advocacy work we do we don’t really get to know each other or interact so I really appreciated personal stories,” Tovar said. “To be open minded to something like sexuality– that is something we are not supposed to talk about in the communities that we come from. It was awesome to see how these dialogues can make a difference.”