The communities on the outskirts of Fresno are hard to find on any standard map. But if you look beyond the city limits, you see strong communities blooming amid hardship.
In order to have a voice, though, they need to be able to breathe.
"On hot days, you can't sleep with the windows open, as they'll spray the pesticides through the night and though the planes will skip our house, the air carries the fumes everywhere,” said Blanca, a twenty year resident of Cantua Creek, one of the region's so-called unincorporated communities. The industrial pesticides that feed the rest of the world have been choking her family for years, she told CultureStrike on a recent field visit.
“About 10 years ago, the elementary school down the street where my daughter went had a teacher who would tell all the children under her supervision that they were all going to die of cancer. She would walk outside during recess and lunch wearing a big gas mask."
The Central Valley of California is supposed to be the region’s breadbasket, but its outlying territories have long resided in an environmental blindspot of the state's political establishment. Here, generations of transformation, from industrialization to Mexican migration, have reshaped the social and environmental ecology from a land of bounty to a terrain of contamination and poverty. The air has been poisoned to the extent that the families who have long lived off the land cannot let their children safely play outside. Despite being on the fringes of a booming city, such “unincorporated” areas remain some of the most underresourced communities in the country. A combination of environmental and social injustices intersect here, from global climate change to the very localized pollution that disproportionately harms the most disenfranchised inhabitants.
Much of the local pollution stems from agrochemicals that have blanketed the region through the decades, overshadowing downwind communities, who are often exposed daily through farm labor, with respiratory illness and chronic disease risk. Meanwhile, the families are often the last to receive relief for this environmental erosion, lacking protective infrastructure, environmental remediation, and basic help with meeting nutritional and housing needs.
In addition to foul air, families like Blanca’s are burdened by undrinkable water. They’ve been relying on bottled water as a costly alternative to local supplies. “Chunks of your hair will fall out. The water comes from the canals, so all the pesticides get in it. In the mornings, when you first open the faucet, it smells terrible."
Marginal legal status undergirds the area’s overlapping ecological challenges: they tend to be economically precarious, suffer worse public health, and are linguistically as well as geographically isolated, many of them from Spanish-speaking households who are underrepresented in local politics. And while the city is surrounded by concentric rings of deprivation, county and municipal authorities have latitude to deny vital services like basic sanitation and equitable transportation networks.
Without a sustainable public transit system or walkable infrastructure to connect them with jobs and services, peripheral communities struggle to secure nutritious food, decent medical facilities, childcare centers and other critical resources families need to thrive.
These marginalized communities represent a microcosm of the global environmental justice struggle, coping with the long-term costs of climate change driven by fossil fuel industries as well as the acute local impacts of agricultural and industrial waste. And they reside on the frontlines of a crisis of democracy, their families underrepresented in the political arenas that determine our economic futures.
Yet the families living in these areas today remain, despite the hardship, and they are committed to making their communities safer, healthier places for future generations to grow up. They have been campaigning for transportation justice, equitable housing opportunities, and family-sustaining jobs that can restore their communities and the local ecology.
An outside observer might wonder why they stay, but if you understand the human undercurrent that binds generations to the land, and to each other in migrant communities, their struggle to stand their ground becomes clear.
On a field visit with our partners, Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability, CultureStrike’s team spoke with locals about their grievances and hopes.
Alberto Sanchez perseveres in the face of harsh memories: "I am turning 80 years old this August, I don't know if I'll live longer...I came here when I was 22 , and went straight to work, and married, had my family, and never got a chance to learn English. Here , the government doesn't help you if you don't know English. Because I don't know English they don't come and pick our garbage... Well, I don’t know if I'll live any longer if things are like this.”
Aracelia reflected on why she still felt rooted in her neighborhood: "It’s not easy to leave, here is where my children are, my grandchildren. We know every child in the community."
As for Blanca, she’s committed to staying put, and working with other community members to petition local lawmakers for fair treatment and environmental justice.
"Here is where I arrived, here is where I have been,” she said. For communities on the frontline, they don’t have the choice of staying or going to pursue a better life. Their fight for justice comes down to the choice between staying silent and speaking out.
(With additional field reporting by Layel Camargo, Sonia Guinansaca and Jesús Iñiguez)
--April 14, 2017