To Be A Mother Is To Fight - The Margin
To Be A Mother Is To Fight
Resisting Toxic Air in Los Angeles
On an evening in 1969, a mother carefully prepares dinner in the kitchen. Six siblings drape themselves over schoolwork downstairs, and a grandmother tends to her garden next door. The mother cries out, “¡La cena está lista! dinner is ready.” In minutes, 18-year-old Jesse Marquez and his five younger siblings are preparing to eat dinner at the table when an explosion pushes him and his family to the floor.
Jesse shakily stands up and notices an incessant ringing in his ears. The smell of burning ash wafts through the kitchen. Jesse’s father pulls his wife up, gathers all six kids with haste, and runs to assist his mother in the yard. He leads everyone to the driveway where he packs them into the station wagon. As soon as his father starts the ignition, a second explosion rattles them all.
Jesse’s father yells for everyone to exit the vehicle quickly, commanding them to hold hands and run. Their home, pressed together with the many other homes in the South Bay neighborhood, is clouded by a red-orange sky. As they continue to run, a third explosion interrupts their route, and they all fall to the ground, hitting the concrete unforgivingly. When asked later, Jesse did not remember how they managed to escape and arrive at his aunt’s house, but they did. They arrived with first-, second-, and third-degree burns.
Four tanks of oil in the Fletcher Oil and Refining Co. plant had exploded. The plant was stationed across from Jesse’s family home in Carson, California. To live in Carson, in Wilmington, in West Long Beach is to live a few blocks down, right across, or directly next to an oil refinery. The bodies of Jesse and his family served as evidence of the violence oil refineries inflict on the communities they surround — a violence that continues to this day.
Thirty-two years after the explosion, Jesse founded the organization Coalition For A Safe Environment (CFASE) and has served as its executive director since its inception. He works to hold oil refineries and governmental institutions accountable, demanding basic rights for his community of Wilmington.
I knock gently on the steel security screen door that guards the CFASE office, located across the Wilmington Middle School and 6 miles from the Phillips 66 Refinery. Jesse greets me at the door with an excited and sturdy handshake, motioning me to take a seat. After speaking with Jesse about the organization and its activist efforts, he offered me a tour of the office space. I was shown a densely packed media room equipped with various monitors, speakers, impressive software, and a working space with walls adorned by towering, off-white file cabinets. Jesse later insisted that I take at-home antigen rapid COVID-19 tests to distribute to community members. Jesse carries one of the many cardboard boxes overflowing with tests to my car before warmly wishing me well on my drive back.
Big Oil arrived in Wilmington and the Los Angeles area in the early 1900s, spurring economic and population growth in the region. Following the Chevron El Segundo Refinery in 1911, Union Oil opened the first refinery in Wilmington, which began operations in 1919. Over the past century, more refineries and hundreds of their operations have popped up in the region, asserting the oil industry as a powerful employer in the neighborhood.
Carson, West Long Beach, and Wilmington are heavily polluted port communities that carry the oil and shipping economy of the area. As home to oil refineries, smokestacks, major highways, chemical facilities, and the third largest oilfield in the nation, the residents of these communities are left with an unjust burden: to breathe in the diesel from the cargo containers, trucks, and trains that transport refined oil, among other goods, purchased and consumed by the rest of the country. It is estimated that 37% of all American imports and 21.7% of all exports are transported through these very ports.
There are about 300,000 residents, the majority of whom are Latino, who live alongside these ports, freeways, warehouses, smokestacks, and refineries. These are the people who carry the dusty air in their bodies.
The Mothers Who Lead the Fight
The day I first called Dulce Altamirano, she answered distractedly. I had caught her at the airport, and she was minutes from catching her flight back to Wilmington from Sacramento. She had been invited to California’s capital for an organizing event to protest oil refineries and the harm inflicted on her community.
In 1997, Dulce moved to Wilmington. She formerly lived in Compton as an 18-year-old trying to make ends meet in a domestic violence shelter for women. She was a single mother looking for the most affordable place to live, and Wilmington was it.
“No sabia de refinerías, de essas industrias. Ni las veía, no prestaba atención en eso entonces.” She did not know of the five refineries that would neighbor her home, darken the sky to a hazy gray, and pollute the air she breathes so much so that she now carries a respiratory illness.
In 2015, she began asking questions: What are these buildings? Smokestacks? She thought them to be “fabricas,” factories, at first. It was not until she found herself attending workshops and taking classes at Communities for a Better Environment that she could name what she saw.
“Me meti mucho, mucho, fuerte, a luchar por un medio ambiente mejor porque me di cuenta como las refinerías afectan el medio ambiente, cómo afecta la tierra, cómo afecta el agua y el aire que uno respira, y se lo come cuando uno habla.”
“I got heavily involved fighting for a clean environment. The refineries affect the earth, the water, and the air we breathe. We eat the toxic air when we speak,” she says. Dulce, now a mother of five, founded an organization of her own where she and other community members clean the streets and storm drains, ridding them of garbage. She works part-time while her husband, who is primarily responsible for paying the bills, lays hardwood floors in apartments and homes. The money Dulce earns in her part-time job goes toward buying brooms and trash bags to clean the neighborhood.
The volunteers who help Dulce clean are mostly women and, more specifically, mothers. These are mothers who have children with asthma, eczema, and Asperger’s syndrome. With air pollution also linked with an increased risk of autism in children, one of Dulce’s own has Asperger’s. Dulce tells me that motherhood, “tiene mucho que ver,” has much to do with environmental justice work.
“Sí, eso es lo que más me impulsa a querer poner algo de mi parte, a limpiar algo, luchar, abogar por algo mejor, contra la discriminación ambiental en la que estamos viviendo. Siendo madre, abuela, eso me empuja más Eso es lo que me impulsa con más, más rabia, más fuerza, con más. Este ser es constante … estar ahí al pie del cañón, luchando por un medio ambiente mejor, contra esa discriminación ambiental que vivimos nosotros.”
“Motherhood has much to do with this work because to see my son as he is, my grandchildren, my family — this is what most drives me to put in my part, to clean, to fight, to plead for something better against the environmental discrimination in which we are living. Being mother, grandmother, this is what drives me with more rage, more force, more. This being is constant ... to be there at the foot of the canyon, fighting for a better environment, against the environmental injustice that we experience.”
Dulce’s work in the community as a woman and mother is an ancestral iteration of those before her who have fought environmental injustice, whether it be in their every day or through organized protests.
Los Angeles is not shy in its activism. The 1968 East Los Angeles Walkouts, the 1992 Rodney King protests, and the 2006 Immigration Rights protests all took place on Los Angeles streets. It is in this history that the Mothers of East Los Angeles, or MELA, was founded in 1984 to protest the state’s plan to build a prison in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights. The neighborhood, inhabited mostly by Mexican and Mexican Americans, has already felt the development and displacement of the 5, 10, 60, 710, and 101 state highways. These are freeways that car dependent Angelenos know well, but to Boyle Heights, these are racist monuments that misshaped and severed the neighborhood.
In the 1980s and 90s, Republican Governor George Deukmejian, known for his pro-law enforcement policies, oversaw the largest expansion of the statewide prison system, which led to a 263% increase in the state’s prison population, more than double the national average at the time. Part of the expansion included the building of eight new penitentiaries, one of which was to be located near Boyle Heights. Its location in East Los Angeles was considered ideal for the prison, given its proximity to the courthouse downtown. “It would provide necessary jobs to the surrounding communities, and could house inmates closer to their families,” argued Governor Deukmejian.
Assemblywoman Gloria Molina disagreed, arguing that the history of Boyle Heights is one of displacement. The prison’s proposed location was in close proximity to homes and schools; therefore, its impact would be visceral and harmful to the community. In response, Molina met with Boyle Heights residents. This meeting would later be considered MELA’s first meeting, resulting in a years-long grassroots campaign mobilizing against the prison. During the evenings, Latina mothers met and organized in the basement of a Catholic church, planning their next action to take to the streets alongside hundreds of mothers, children, and their supporters. It took 8 years of protesting and organizing before officials decided not to build the prison in Boyle Heights.
MELA’s fight did not stop with the prison. In 1987, MELA began protesting a waste incinerator planned for its neighboring city of Vernon. Black and Latino neighborhoods in the area would be most affected by the toxins that would be released if the plan succeeded. MELA challenged the project in court and succeeded in putting an end to the company’s efforts. Next, MELA turned its efforts toward a planned oil pipeline.
The mothers of MELA witnessed violence imposed upon their community firsthand: the highways that interrupt their neighborhoods, the prison, and oil pipeline. Activism was not a choice; it was a responsibility to protect their families and their neighbors.
Today, to be a Latina mother in Los Angeles looks the same as it did then. It is to love and care for children who are targets of environmental injustice, police brutality, and institutionalized harm. It is to know suffering and faith.
Dulce takes Freddy, her youngest at 13, to the doctor. He was born with a respiratory illness and eczema.
At the appointment, she is met with apathy from the attending doctor — a passivity developed from years of appointments with families who are burdened by asthma, eczema, and cancer risk. The doctor hands Dulce a cream that is not strong enough to help with the itching, bleeding, and scratching. Her son and niece scratch so much their “pielcito,” little skin, bleeds. Dulce does not have health insurance, so the appointments and medications must be paid out of pocket. She primarily orders medication from Tijuana, telling me it’s stronger and with the right luck, it works. However, sometimes there is no medication that can relieve the itching. The health issues Dulce's family faces as a result of the refinery pollution are incredibly common for residents of their community.
It is well known that pollution affects the quality of the air we breathe. Experts connected a steep rise in childhood asthma cases to the pollution that haunts the region. Nationwide, asthma rates are especially high in communities of color, and this is the case for the rising rates in the predominantly Latino communities of Wilmington, Carson, and West Long Beach.
Research also suggests that pollution can damage our skin. In 2015, toxicological research from Dankook University in Korea found that toxic chemicals and air quality can trigger eczema. The polluted air damages the skin’s protective layer, resulting in inflammation, dry skin, and itching. Extreme temperatures and dry air worsen the symptoms. The same study links higher rates of eczema to urban areas with high levels of pollution.
Despite the grossly high asthma rates and sicknesses that follow the Latino community, 20% of Latinos are uninsured, more than double that of white people nationwide. Their lack of health insurance discourages the community from visiting a doctor for annual checkups and cancer screenings, which are highly recommended for those who live within 30 miles of refineries. Dulce and her family live less than one mile from the Phillips 66 Refinery in Wilmington. The refinery spans 424 acres with a linked facility located 5 miles east in Carson. Close proximity to these refineries often results in frequent visits to the emergency room for asthma attacks and other ailments.
In September 2020, Jesse was driven to Kaiser Permanente South Bay Medical Center in Harbor City. He was having an acute asthma attack triggered by high rates of air pollution. The attack took place after Governor Newsom issued an executive order that did not require ships berthing in California ports to use shore power. Shore power, an alternative to diesel fuel, is used by marine vessels to plug into the local electricity grid for power while the ship is docked. In this process, the ships turn off their auxiliary engines, greatly reducing emissions and the consumption of fuel.
The order, issued on Aug. 17, 2020, was intended to free up the energy supply in California as the state was experiencing extreme heat and raging wildfires. The order halted the antipollution measure that, since 2007, mandated all container, cruise, and refrigerated cargo ships to use shore power to reduce pollution. Ships are the heaviest polluters in the seaborne trade, accounting for about half of all port-related pollution. Although little was known of this order in other coastal California cities, for residents in Wilmington, this order took shape in the form of acute asthma attacks and visits to the hospital.
This year, Jesse’s grandson was rushed to the hospital where he was handed an inhaler at 3 years old and diagnosed with asthma. “Now the things he can do are limited,” Jesse says.
I sit across from Dulce in her living room, her son’s music shyly playing around us. The wall behind her is dressed up with a portrait of the “Virgen María,” the Virgin Mary, extending her arms out to those of us in the room. Soon, Flor, 30, walks in. In seconds, Flor’s eight-year-old daughter runs from the bedroom and tightly hugs her mother. Inside the house that is bordered by a metal steel gate, I meet a mother, a daughter, and a granddaughter who call Wilmington home.
Flor talks about the changes she has seen in Wilmington. “Wilmington has gotten better than before from when I was a child. I know you still hear a lot of shootings. It’s a normal thing, hearing ambulances and sirens when you wake up. But now there are communities with people who help out other people, people who are volunteering out there. Now there’s an ‘I love Wilmington’ thing, and before, we weren’t so proud. It’s slowly progressing,” she says.
Of Dulce’s five children, four remain in the neighborhood. Her oldest has moved to Long Beach, and Flor dreams of doing the same.
“I don’t see myself in Wilmington much longer. We’re thinking of moving to another state. A lot of friends I grew up with in high school, they don’t want to stay here. There’s a few of us that are still here, but we’re all thinking the same thing: of moving out of the ghetto, getting a better place for our kids because most of us are parents now. We’re looking at Torrance in California, and if not, we’re thinking of moving to Colorado.”
Of Flor’s two daughters, 8 and 6, the oldest was diagnosed with eczema at 4 years old. Flor blamed herself for her daughter’s eczema at first, debating if it could be caused by something that she did. Now, despite having health insurance as an optometrist’s assistant, Flor does not often take her oldest to the doctor. “I’m told it’s normal. It’s not something they take seriously,” she says quietly.
Eczema tends to worsen in the summer in Wilmington. With the high heat and poor air quality, her daughter’s skin flakes and oozes. She scratches and scratches, leaving scars and scabs as remnants from the incessant itching. Eczema burns her skin, and the lotions prescribed do the same. It bleeds. “She cries a lot. It looks like she has burn marks. She can’t sleep. I have to use bandages so she won’t get to it because she can’t help herself,” Flor says.
As for the poor air quality, Flor does not have the time to think about it. From getting her daughters ready for school, working a full-time job, and returning home to cook and clean, it feels impossible to dwell on the air quality. She only considers it when there are ashes outside. “Ashes falling down all over the city, ashes all over your car. It’s hard to breathe sometimes.”
I ask her about growing up with a mother who gives so much to those around her. “It’s a little bit overwhelming for her because she takes on all these tasks, and she wants to help everybody, even when she’s tired. It gets to her, you know? It gets to her health,” Flor says.
Dulce remains busy, involved, and committed to her neighborhood. She notes that most of the volunteers she works with are mothers whose children suffer from an illness caused by the air they breathe, the air that touches their skin and infiltrates their bodies. Community members meet in her living room and are served coffee from the kitchen, asking one another how to best take care of their neighborhood. This is where it always starts: in the home.
Dulce also works as a volunteer for Communities for a Better Environment, a nonprofit with a chapter in ‘the heart of the harbor’ Wilmington that supports the fight for environmental justice.
When Dulce told me about her involvement with CBE, I knew I wanted to find out more about the organization. I met Alicia Rivera on a Thursday afternoon; the sun bore down on me as I walked over to the office. CBE is located on a busy street, decorated generously with signs and posters that read “beds not sidewalks” and “Governor Newsom: Our future or fossil fuels?” Alicia is a Wilmington community organizer at CBE. She is often out on the streets, in schools, and in the churches of Wilmington, talking, leafleting, and inviting residents to meetings where they can learn about the refinery issues. “When people have information, they make the connection between the level of pollution they are exposed to and what they can do about it.” Her job is to identify the most pressing concerns of the community. “In communities of color that are low-income, people notice the refineries, the flaring, and the smoke. They are concerned by how that might be affecting them. They tell you that they think that the asthma or respiratory illnesses or cancer are associated with what they are breathing,” Alicia says. Alicia’s oldest daughter has asthma.
I ask Alicia who attends the meetings. “Parents are involved. They are all mothers, some with young children,” Alicia says. Babies, pacified by the arms of their mothers, peep in on the Zoom meetings. They are introduced to Alicia over a laptop monitor. Alicia laughs when recounting a volunteer experience at a door-to-door knocking campaign for getting out the vote. Of the few community members who participated, one was a young mother who brought her two daughters to volunteer. The 7- and 10-year-old daughters were overjoyed to knock on the doors. The mother was not able to vote yet herself, but this did not stop her from asking others to do so.
Traditional displays of gender are practiced often in Wilmington. Alicia tells me that the fathers act as the breadwinners while the mothers work odd jobs, such as cleaning homes. On occasion, mothers attend volunteer meetings. They take care of the home and children, and here, they also take care of the neighborhood. “It’s important for the male to trust where the wife or partner is participating. They can also be very protective and “machistas,” chauvinists, as well. I want them to know how important it is for their partner or wife to be doing what they are doing,” says Alicia.
It is the activism of women, Latina women, Black women, Asian women, and Indigenous women that gives this community a chance. They are the ones who witness and experience toxic air as a matter of existence in their neighborhoods, so they must act as warriors to take on the fight against pollution. In Wilmington, women are tasked with fighting for their breath.
What's To Come
On a muggy Thursday in June, I meet with Jesse at the office of Coalition For A Safe Environment, a few blocks from the 1 and the 110 Freeway. When Jesse speaks of Wilmington and the injustices his community confronts, his every word is filled with enthusiasm and feeling. We discuss the latest bills from the California Legislature including Assembly Bill (AB) 617, and its predecessor AB 32, or the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, a program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sources throughout the state.
The most recent and major bill, AB 617, signed by Governor Brown in 2017, resulted in the founding of a community-focused program, the Community Air Protection Program. The program’s purpose is to reduce exposure in communities most affected by air pollution. In 2018, the Wilmington, Carson, West Long Beach community was nominated by the district and selected as an AB 617 monitoring community.
“Without key environmental justice organizations, [AB 617] will be a failure because the people that would be involved do not have the experience, knowledge, resources, and connections that we have,” Jesse says.
“Two people got appointed to the AB 617 advisory committee, and we never heard of them. We never saw them anywhere before, doing anything, and they sit at the meetings not saying anything because they don’t know anything, but they work at the petroleum industries,” Jesse says, with frustration and impatience wrapped around each word.
The Green Port Policy was passed in 2005 in response to the diesel emissions that perimeter the ports and the adverse health effects that follow. This policy promises San Pedro Bay residents a “cleaner harbor, soil and skies.” I ask Jesse about the green initiatives conducted by the Port of Los Angeles. “Well, ports don’t create initiatives. It’s us, activists, that force them to consider green projects. If I did not start my organization in 2001, we would have a six-lane highway right there. The train track and railroad would be closer to us. Our organization stopped that.” He continues, “United, our community fought it, despite the fact that many organizations did not support me … YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club did not support me because their multi-million-dollar facilities are funded by the oil refineries.”
This is not uncommon. In fact, it's the rule. When speaking with Alicia at CBE, she conveyed the same concerns. “Refineries try to co-opt public participation in every way by donating to schools, churches, the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA. Every local community organization is approached by the refineries for funding. That’s the way they co-opt people from speaking about how they are harmed by the activities of the refineries and the pollution,” says Alicia.
“Catholic Churches have been difficult to work with. They do not allow us to pass out flyers because they say it does not go with the practices of the church, even when we explain that it’s about the wellbeing of the community.” Despite these challenges, Alicia and CBE volunteers, including members of the Church, continue to leaflet on the sidewalks.
“The schools, the libraries, the churches, do not have the resources, otherwise, to continue doing their work without the funding received by the refineries,” Alicia says. In a low-income community and with limited funding from the city, schools and churches look to the refineries as one of the only financial backers for their work. These very same refineries donate money to the reading programs in the library, alongside other community events. In recent years, Dulce organized a local toy drive and received a bulk of toys that were assumed to be from local community members. It was not until after appointments were made with families for toy delivery that Dulce discovered the toys were donated by employees of the Phillips Refinery. “They tricked me,” Dulce says.
Alicia shares similar woes from the community. “Some school principals have told me, ‘Look, if I allow you to pass out flyers, it’s going to affect me. We need that funding to send the kids on field trips, and that funding comes from refineries.’” According to Alicia, the refineries should be providing funding, ideally in the form of a clinic where community members can go to get treated for the various illnesses and diseases directly caused by the refinery. “But what the refineries do is deny that their activities cause any harm to the environment and to the people,” Alicia says.
In Wilmington, the women who work with, for, and beside community organizations act on the politics of feeling: they choose to feel, and what they feel is love for those they know intimately and anger for those who do not care. They attend neighborhood council meetings and host community events in their homes. They continue to be harmed by the refineries and the state, yet they continue to act in their motherhood, caring for the bodies that are cast aside.
As women, mothers know their own bodies and the bodies of their loved ones. This knowledge is drawn from their gendered expectations: to take care of the home and those who live there. Women who reside in Los Angeles communities polluted with toxins that target the lungs and skin are often tasked with the responsibility to act against the refineries. While continuing to fight for clean air, they must find the medication required to relieve the pain of their loved ones. The activism these women and mothers carry is tied to care. It is embodied; it is not a choice.
For Flor, to fight for her husband and two daughters means leaving Wilmington. It means moving to a place where the air is clean and homes are affordable — homes with backyards that her daughters can run around in without their young bodies breathing in hazardous particles. To leave is a privilege, and it is one Flor continues to work hard for.
To Dulce, to fight for her family and her neighbors means staying. Dulce does not see past Wilmington, and she does not wish to. Wilmington is home: she dreams of seeing the toxins that circle her home leave before she does.
- Written by Eliza Moreno
- Produced and Edited by Bryce Cracknell
- Photography by Devyn Galindo
- Data Storytelling by EJ Fox
- Art Direction by Stephen Downs
- Fact-checking by Najwa Jamal
Additional contributions by Megan Ahearn, Ed Boyda, Maria Edwards, Kacper Faligowski, Martyna Gołębiewska, Mason Grimshaw, Magdalena Kęsik, Łukasz Knasiecki, Ada Makowska, Scott Quill, Arek Romański, Mikołaj Szczepkowski, Jose Valenzuela, Michał Zagojski
Data + Resources
Air quality guidelines were provided by the World Health Organization (WHO)
PM2.5 Data for Wilmington was sourced from the CalEnviroScreen 4.0
Broader USA PM2.5 estimates came directly from the U.S. E.P.A.
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