Growing up in a small town in Mexico, I was delighted to be surrounded by the beauty of nature, and to always be able to enjoy clean air. Only a few people had the privilege of owning a car, and so we were able to breathe without worrying about pollution. As a child I spent my days working the fields with my parents or taking care of our animals. This was how I learned to appreciate what Mother Earth gives us, and began to believe that there is more beauty in nature than the materialistic life that many people in cities value.
Our family’s life changed when we decided to come to the US. When we arrived in Oxnard, CA, everything was different. Most people had cars; there were barely any animals, and the air was disgusting. All I could smell was the exhaust from the cars, a stench that most people didn’t even seem to care about. I was sad to have left behind our beautiful farm and all of our animals.
I soon started having difficulty breathing whenever I played or exercised. My parents took me to the doctor, who said that I had asthma. I was given an inhaler, which helped a little bit, but I was still affected emotionally, because every time I played sports I worried that I would have an asthma attack. Sometimes I was so afraid of having an asthma attack that I didn’t even want to leave the house.
It was then that I realized that instead of being scared, I should do something to change the way I lived. I realized that I needed to make people aware of how much the environment affects us. With God’s help, I started to control my asthma, and at the same time saw that my asthma offered me an opportunity to teach people about why we need to value the environment.
Even as I kept playing soccer, I joined different clubs that inform the community about the impacts pollutants have on our daily lives. I was inspired by the words of Cesar Chavez, who said, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned how to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. And you cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”
I soon became very involved in a campaign to stop the efforts of an Australian corporation, BHP Billiton, to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility off the coast of Oxnard and Malibu. It seemed obvious to me that the LNG plant was dangerous, dirty, and unnecessary. The plant’s 36-inch pipeline would have stretched 15 miles through low-income communities. The LNG facility would emit more than 280 tons of harmful pollutants into our air each year. And it would have put our community at risk of a terrorist attack. What inspired me most to stop the project was that a foreign corporation was putting money and profit above our community’s health and safety.
My goal was to organize people to halt the LNG plant. I worked with the Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy and the Sierra Club to organize protests in front of the BHP Billiton offices in Oxnard. We did presentations at local churches, hung up leaflets at laundromats and restaurants, made phone calls, and organized neighborhood walks. We went to our high school’s track meets and asked parents to sign a petition against the plant. I focused particularly on the Latino community, because its members were not aware of what was being done, and they did not know that they could have a say in the decision by raising their voices and speaking their minds.
The biggest moment of our campaign happened when about 2,000 people came to a rally outside a hearing of the California State Lands Commission. Everyone was chanting and carrying signs that read “NO BHP BILLITON LNG.” Representing the voice of young people, I was one of five people to go inside the meeting and speak out against the project. That day the Commission voted 2-1 against the LNG plant.
I believe that money is not more important than people, but unfortunately not everyone agrees. That’s why I believe it’s important to keep educating others about the environment, and to help them find a voice to start the social change that will allow us to enjoy the beauty of nature at its best.
Erica Fernandez, 16, is one of the winners of the 2007 Brower Youth Awards.
Playing for Keeps
courtesy of Erica Fernandez