From Panama to Colorado: A Path to Environmental Justice

Hispanic heritage is American heritage. Period.

By Emelie Frojen

During Hispanic Heritage Month, we sat down with Juan Pérez Sáez, our Protégete Organizing Manager, to discuss how his heritage led him to work in Environmental Justice.

Juan hiking in Snowmass, Colorado

How about we start off talking about your background and what led you to where you are today?

Juan: Well, I come from a very humble background. My parents were the first generation of my family to get an education. Looking further back, only one of my four grandparents ever attended any form of school. So, my grandparents, for the most part, were illiterate. But they were hard-working people who believed in the power of knowledge. Both of my parents were teachers, so I am the first person of my family to graduate from an engineering degree.

I think I always had a connection to nature. I was born and raised in Panama. I am from the driest part of Panama, which is kind of like the Midwest, with a lot of agriculture. The people there respect their traditions, their passion for music, dancing and celebrations. Amongst this, I witnessed a lot of the impacts of drought. The part of Panama where I am from is called El Arco Seco, which means the dry arc. It is almost like an arch shape on the map that gets the least amount of precipitation in the country, but it is also really agriculturally active. There you need water. The economy of the whole region is attached to the access of water.

Growing up, we would run out of water on a daily basis. This meant that we would have to spend a part of every day filling up our water tanks. This meant going to the well and picking up the water and bringing it back to the house. As a kid, it was the best part of my day because splashing water is fun, but I also started valuing the importance of managing natural resources without even knowing it.

Fast forward a few years, I signed up for an environmental club at school. It was kind of like an environmental youth leadership program. But to be clear, I honestly didn’t sign up because I cared about the environment, I just signed up because I wanted the free t-shirts. One of the first events we did was a camping trip to the Panama Canal watershed. Panama Canal was run by the US government for many years, so not everybody was allowed to go within the Panama Canal limits, especially if you were a person of color and from the rural areas. I will never forget my visit there. It was my first time ever walking through tropical forest. I’ve never seen trees so big.

“I was 12 years old, and that was the moment where I chose to pursue a career in conservation.”

That was the day I decided I wanted to study environmental engineering and go for a career in conservation. I think it’s important for everyone to get access to see natural resources in a way that other people have. So, I think the work we do at Conservation Colorado helps empower people to protect their natural resources, to protect their earth, their forests, their water, their land, but it also empowers them to take actions and not just for them but for others. It kind of gives us a sense of community that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Juan in Juneau, Alaska, where he spent time doing conservation work.

What was the path the brought you to Colorado after that?

J: Well, I got my first “official job” right after college. I was doing management work for a this very small nonprofit in Panama, and we got funding to do some youth leadership. That was the same nonprofit that I joined in high school. After that, I went to do a training program called EarthCorps in Seattle, Washington. Each year they choose 12 young leaders from across the globe to bring to the United States to do ecological restoration. While I was there, some of the biggest lessons were about the environmental justice movement — understanding the importance of social justice within the environmental movement and how we link those two together.

After that, I worked with the Peace Corps, which kind of was like the other way around. Instead of bringing international leaders to the U.S., they send U.S. citizens to international locations. So, after doing both, I really began to value the exchange of knowledge, skills, and experiences. I learned that we can build a global community and build a better world, if we as humans are more connected. I then came back to the U.S. and to get my master’s degree. After having gone through my life split within both countries, I had the opportunity to work in either US or Panama. But after I started a family in the United States, I wanted to actually set base in one city and not move around anymore. I chose here because I think Colorado is a place that has so much nature and so much to protect; but, with that said, there is just so much work that needs to be done. If we love the mountains, we should live our lives in a way that ensures that those mountains, those forests, the wildlife, and the earth that we have around is protected; and is there not only for us today but is also there for future generations.

I agree, I feel like there is a curse put on beautiful places. Because some of us see them and think ‘oh it’s so beautiful, how could something so pristine-looking be polluted or degraded?’

J: Or they say let’s build a mall, or a casino on top of it…. But I think in the US and Colorado, this is a place where you have a lot of diversity. There’s a strong Latino community, and I feel like the work we do is so relevant.

Juan at his favorite spot in Colorado- Guanella Pass.

We want to provide that space to the Latino, Hispanic, whatever you call it, community and make sure that we are represented. Not just in the skull masks around Halloween, Cinco de Mayo, or the song “Despacito,” but that we are also represented in the decision-making process. It’s the fact that we are truly represented for the diversity that we are and for the power that we have as community in this country.

Can you talk more about the value in the work you’re doing in environmental justice?

J: It’s interesting because there are different kinds of environmentalists. Caring about the environment doesn’t necessarily mean you need to own the newest gear, you need to have the coolest boot, and that you have done all the 14ers. That doesn’t make you an environmentalist. Yes, you love the environment, and that’s great, but there are simple ways that you can take action to preserve nature. And I feel the work we do is providing that alternative space for people in our community. We want to make sure that Latino people, people of color, minorities, working families, people who don’t necessarily have the means to buy a season ski pass, have the space to be environmentalists. Those who love to go to the park, who love to have clean air and clean water. When I go to a hearing and hear the people that come and talk, they are leaders that we have engaged, that we have empowered and now they have the tools to go out and make sure their voices are heard. That, to me, is all the motivation I need.

Looking back, do you have any role models that influenced who you are today?

J: Yes, yes I do, and the funny thing is that I am not like most kinds of people. I don’t really have a role model who is like a Nobel prize winner or a president or a writer. My role model was my grandmother. My grandmother was in a wheelchair for more than 20 years in which she raised four kids, on her own, and she was never upset or unhappy. She always gave life and the people around her the best that she’s got. And that, to me, is like the best role model that I can look up to. Even through the hardest, most difficult times, she was able to put out the best of her.

Does that attitude factor into your life?

J: Of course, of course. Every time I feel like “I hate this” or “I can’t do it”, I think “Really? You can’t do it?” If a single mother was able to raise four kids who are all professional, good active citizens and while she did that, against all the odds, she was able to keep a happy face and a positive life view. I think that is priceless. I feel like we all have normal peers and mentors in our life and those are the ones that really impact our life in a really good way. Those are everywhere.

What issues do you see as the major obstacles facing your community?

J: I think the biggest issue is that there are forces in this country that are trying to divide us. There are forces in this country that are trying to make us fight amongst each other. I feel, as a member of many minority communities, we need to understand that we are stronger and better together. I think that if we are able to overcome that barrier, we will be unstoppable. But that’s a really hard thing to do. I think that will be the biggest challenge — understanding that we can do so much more together.

Juan in Coloado Springs’s Garden of Gods Park

Along those lines, how do you celebrate Hispanic heritage?

J: We should be very loud about it. We should make noise. We should make our community very visible because we are here and we are not going anywhere. We are not new to this country. Hispanic heritage is American heritage. Period. And we should celebrate it.

Agreed. If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

J: That’s an easy one. I want everyone to know that we are citizens of the same house. We are citizens of the world. We’re sharing the same house, and if the bedroom is a mess, it doesn’t matter how much you clean the living room. We have created boundaries, we have created limits, we have created countries. But at the end of the day, we breathe the same air.

I feel like if I could change something in this world, it would be the understanding that we can and should focus more on our similarities than on our differences. I think that then things might start getting better.

Juan hiking Bight Angel trail in the Grand Canyon

Yeah, right. My final question would be, what advice would you give to someone who wants to be a changemaker in environmental justice?

J: Find something that you’re really good at. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, and don’t try to be like someone else. That’s easy to say, but hard to do. If you’re passionate about something, I think you are likely to get where you want to be. I think one of the biggest challenges is people trying too hard to change who they are, and I think we all have been guilty of that. But I think the moment that you are okay with who you are and you know yourself inside out, you can then start making a difference in the world.