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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mothers Fight Pollution in East LA

Air Date: Week of

Stephanie O'Neill profiles the activist group known as the Mothers of East L.A. (This report is part of our 2nd anniversary series on people and groups that are making a difference in the environment.)


CURWOOD: In East Los Angeles, a group of activists with small pocketbooks has been making a name for itself fighting some big environmental battles. They're women, with low incomes and children. They call themselves the Mothers of East L-A, and they're determined to save the neighborhood they call home. As part of our series this month on people who are making a difference for the environment, Stephanie O'Neill reports from Los Angeles.

(Sound of conversation in Spanish)

O'NEILL: It's almost noon, and this modest residential street in the heart of East Los Angeles echoes with the sound of breaking porcelain as workers smash up dozens of toilets. Since August, residents from throughout this urban Latino neighborhood have traded in more than 4500 water-guzzling toilets for new low-flow models that are free. It's all part of a successful inner-city water conservation program run by the Mothers of East L-A. The group buys the toilets and then is reimbursed for them through a city rebate program. Rafael Garcia, a Mothers of East L-A employee, breaks up the toilets in the driveway of the group's headquarters and prepares them for recycling.

GARCIA: When we get the old toilets, we put them in the container and then we put them inside and we start separating all the metal and plastic and bolts and everything.

(Sound of toilets, then fade)

O'NEILL: The program is the latest high-profile success story for the social and environmental group that focuses on land-use issues in this mixed residential and industrial community. In 1990, the Mothers of East L-A claimed a large victory against a Pennsylvania-based company that wanted to build a hazardous-chemical treatment plant across the street from a high school here. A year earlier, they fought off plans for a prototype toxic waste incinerator in east L-A. In 1988, the Mothers helped defeat an oil company pipeline that would have crossed through the community, and just months before that, they helped fight a municipal waste incinerator targeted for the area. Elsa Lopez, a young mother of three, is environmental director for the Mothers of East L-A.

LOPEZ: A lot of people think that because they were homemakers, they were quiet at home, never heard from them. then they came out and spoke their mind, they were able to really get, you know, close to the people and said you know what, let's take our neighborhood back, let's take our community back, let's fight for our neighborhood and protect our kids.

O'NEILL: The Mothers first came together in 1984, after founder Juana Gutierrez, a homemaker and mother of 9 children, got fed up with watching her neighborhood decay. Since then they've taken on most any issue that affects their environment and quality of life. Rosa Disenor, a mother of three adult children, was among the first to join the now 400-member group.

DISENOR: We're involved because we love this community. We've been living here for so long and, you know, like everything they throw here in East L-A. The freeway cuts through the middle of East L-A. When they made the Dodgers Stadium , they didn't ask anybody. You know, people got tired of that, so this is the reason people now are involved. People are more forward now than they used to be in the Fifties.

O'NEILL: The Mothers started with the development of a successful neighborhood watch program, but they soon got statewide recognition when they led a visible, aggressive campaign against a state prison slated for East L-A. Their victory in that battle and many others has earned them international acclaim from as far away as England and Russia and powerful credibility among California policy-makers. Los Angeles Supervisor Gloria Molina says the Mothers of East L-A have found a way to get support for environmental issues among people usually overwhelmed by concerns about gangs, crime and unemployment. What's more, the supervisor says, the group has called attention to issues long neglected by mainstream environmental groups.

MOLINA: The environmental issues within the inner city community are not treated as seriously as some of the wilderness issues, a lot of, you know, the issues of beaches and so on. So to have this group of people lends an awful lot of credibility to, I think a movement that sometimes seems very avant-garde, very out of touch with what's going on in everyday lives.

O'NEILL: Eric Mann is head of another multi-racial environmental group in East Los Angeles, called Watchdog, which works closely with the Mothers of East L-A. Mann considers such groups forerunners of a developing "environmental justice" movement that he predicts will eventually transform the entire environmental movement nationwide.

MANN: It's about community control over corporate decision-making. This is not NIMBYism. This is fundamental democracy at work, which is a big threat to a corporation that believes that what you own includes the lives of everybody around you. So their work to challenge corporate prerogatives has tremendous implications in communities of color, working class communities from the South Bronx to Chicago.

O'NEILL: The Mothers have been called on to help lead similar efforts in other cities, out of state and even out of country, in Mexico's Baja California, where they helped fight off a toxic incinerator. The money for these battles comes mainly from fundraisers and donations. Environmental director Elsa Lopez says the mothers are happy to go wherever they're needed.

O'NEILL: Why do you care what happens in Berkeley, why do you care what happens in Baja?
LOPEZ: Because there's children out there, the future's out there. They're people too, we're all human and we think we should fight together so there won't be all these disasters going around that there are.

O'NEILL: And Elsa Lopez says if that means fighting City Hall, battling corporate America or urging residents to trade in water guzzling toilets, the Mothers of East Los Angeles will be there. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.



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