Their Dreams, Our Journeys

During Hispanic Heritage Month, staff members of NRDC reflect on how their ancestors’ dreams guide their paths today.

It’s National Hispanic Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the achievements of generations of Latinos and honor their contributions to our nation.

Leaders have emerged from among their ranks―icons like Cesar Chavez, who led the grape workers’ strike aimed at gaining basic rights for farm laborers, and Dolores Huerta, who fought by his side and continues to lead the fight to protect the environment today. Leaders like those in the California statehouse who have fought to transform the state into a global trendsetter on climate and clean energy. Local leaders in cities and towns across the country, like NRDC’s very own Adrianna Quintero, who have fought to keep polluters in check and create a better, brighter future for us all. Adrianna’s work as cofounder and director of Voces Verdes has helped to connect Latino businesses, community leaders, and organizations with government decision-makers calling for action on climate change and clean energy.

While President Trump focuses on building walls and dividing families, Latinos will continue building healthier communities. At NRDC, we honor their efforts and are proud to work alongside so many Latino leaders as partners, allies, and friends. We stand together with our Latino brothers and sisters in Houston, Miami, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere in these times of need. We stand together in confronting the environmental challenges of our time, from the pollution and contamination that threaten our waters and air to the climate change that increases the devastation from storms and floods. And we stand together in defending our fundamental right to build a better life for all.

It’s a belief that the vast majority of Americans take pride in. And for those whose families have immigrated to this country — as members of NRDC’s Latino community attest to in the essays they share below — the pursuit of a better life takes on heightened meaning. During National Hispanic Heritage Month, my colleagues describe their pride in their ancestors, whose challenging, humbling, and deeply ambitious goals shape their work today.

— Rhea Suh, NRDC president

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Gina Ramirez 
Program Assistant, Midwest program

Gina Ramirez and her son, Evan, at Steelworkers Park in Chicago, the former site of the U.S. Steel SouthWorks factory, which once employed 20,000 workers, including Ramirez’s father, grandparents, and great-grandparents

On any ordinary day, a text-message warning may light up my phone: “Caution: Petcoke Wind Advisory. Please limit outdoor activity.” It’s a regular occurrence for residents of the East Side, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Chicago that once housed one of the largest steel industries in the country. Today, as in many other communities of color, my neighborhood is overburdened with heavy manufacturing and serves as a dumping ground for toxins.

I’ve never lived anywhere else; it’s just not the norm in my community to leave. I was raised to take great pride in my neighborhood and its history. It is amazing to think that my great-grandparents, who immigrated from Michoacán, Mexico, in 1933, helped produce steel that was used to construct countless buildings in Chicago. As immigrants, they overcame social, political, and economic burdens and helped build a strong, unified Latino community — one that has persisted for generations and has been a guiding light in my life. Although I find myself facing similar struggles as a Latina today, I feel fortunate to work alongside a community of colleagues at NRDC who appreciate the significance of diverse voices and share some of the same dreams for the future.

After all, those text messages carry a sign of hope. I receive them because residents in my community worked with NRDC to enforce the use of local air monitors. They symbolize the importance of standing up for what you believe in: the right to clean air for future generations, and justice for all.

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Luis G. Martinez 
Senior Attorney, Director of Southeast Energy

Luis with his son, Leandro Cristian Martinez, in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

As I write this from our adopted home in North Carolina, my island of Puerto Rico has been devastated by Hurricane Maria, possibly the worst natural disaster it has ever faced. I’ve been able to contact my family and they are safe, but everyone is in awe of the wrath Mother Nature unleashed. In the words of many, the Puerto Rico we knew is gone, and rebuilding something new will take a very long time.

Lately it seems like Hispanics, whether in Texas, Florida, or the Caribbean, just can’t seem to stay out of the way of these supercharged storms. Just a few weeks ago, my cousins in Houston lost their homes in the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. A bit after that, I was momentarily relieved that Puerto Rico had largely dodged a bullet called Hurricane Irma, only to realize in dread that my brother in Miami and family across Florida were now in its crosshairs. Indeed, it is now painfully obvious that with a rapidly changing climate, none of us can stay out of harm’s way for very long.

Over a decade ago, I came to NRDC from Puerto Rico to push for climate solutions and clean energy. And although we’ve had many successes, they have not been enough. We must now also fight to improve the resiliency of infrastructure and communities. For me, this fight is very personal.

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Vanessa Rivas Villanueva
RAY Fellow, Oceans program

Vanessa and her classmate, dancing Baile Folklorico in Guanajuato, Mexico, 2000

Years ago, I was told that I needed to fit everything I wanted into one bag and leave the rest behind in Mexico. I was expected to act like an adult and understand the severity of my family’s situation, when other kids my age were focusing on the latest Nintendo game.

Arriving in the United States was supposed to represent the end of our suffering, but the American dream proved difficult to obtain for undocumented immigrants. I grew up knowing what “illegal alien” meant and how dangerous it could be if someone found out I was not from here. So our family stayed in continual hiding, couldn’t ask for help, and suppressed any injustices we faced. My mom was left with the task of raising a family in an unfriendly land.

Seeing my community live in fear in the “land of the free” had a great influence on my life. Everyday things such as dating, making friends, and working could potentially become dangerous. However, the resiliency of my immigrant community made it possible for me to work on a future for myself and my family.

Environmental degradation and the privatization of natural resources often result in economic and social conditions that force people to leave home. I know firsthand what that feels like. Environmental conservation can prevent the displacement of families like mine.

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Linda Escalante
Western States Advocate

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Ariana Gonzalez
Energy Policy Analyst

Ariana Gonzalez with her parents and brother

Forty-one years ago, my parents met on a basketball court in Bogota, Colombia. My mom, the sole but feisty girl referee, caught the eye of my dad, an Afroed, hook-shot-hitting Nuyorican who was spending a year away from home. The tough exterior of the maid’s daughter was no match for the welder’s mischievous son. They fell in love.

After a whirlwind romance of only five months, they married and my mom moved to the United States with my dad as he finished college. My mom knew no one, yet she learned English and worked her way to a bachelor’s and law degrees. Grit and perseverance looked to her for definition. My dad was no slouch either, with a BA from Yale and an MA in economics.

My parents brought my brother and me up with the same thirst for knowledge and adventure. We traveled to hundreds of museums, parks, and countries soaking up all we could about different people, places, and cultures. It opened our eyes to a wide range of lifestyles and opportunities and instilled in us a compassion for all. The world was not fair and equal, but our parents taught us that we could and should do our part to make it better.

Most of all, my mom and dad passed on their intensity, creativity, and enthusiasm that were on display from the day they met during that pickup game. Their spirit flows through me and keeps me fighting for clean energy, climate action, and environmental justice. It reminds me that we’re all on the same team.

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Mona Avalos
Program Assistant, Health program and Climate & Clean Air program

Mona and her parents, Eldaa and Raul, in Huntsville, Texas, 1981

I come from a long line of revolutionaries who fought for equality and peace.

My great-grandfather Lorenzo Avalos was a military general who stood up to repression and dictatorship, fighting alongside Pancho Villa and Emilio Zapata in the Mexican Revolution. He passed down that spirit to my father, Raul Avalos, who risked his own life — more than once — to cross the dangerous border between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso. Laboring as a miner in Nevada or a migrant worker in the fields of California, he never lost faith in a better life. He taught me compassion, to work hard, and to believe in myself.

I come from a long line of risk-takers and survivors.

I’m named for my great-aunt San Juanita Trigo, known as Mona, a renowned artist and teacher from Rio Grande, Texas. The second of nine children, she earned her bachelor’s degree when she was 50 years old and lived to be 102.

I come from a long line of advocates for social and economic justice.

In 1966, my great-great uncle Severo Benavides marched across Texas alongside the visionary labor leader Cesar Chavez, bringing awareness to migrant working conditions. We are people who value education, are driven to succeed, and live for our dreams.

We are an American family. We come from Spain and Mexico and have been in the United States since 1791. We’ve proudly served our country. We are soldiers, farmers, lawyers, engineers, artists, and judges.

My ancestors paved a path that’s not easy to follow. They showed me the way. They modeled my role. That is why I’m here.

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Yerina Mugica
Managing Director, Center for Market Innovation

Yerina Mugica, 1994, photo taken from Certificate of U.S. Naturalization

My family and I moved to the United States when I was one year old. After my parents’ home country of Cuba was taken over by an oppressive political regime that took away their liberty and safety, my parents made the difficult decision to leave. They came to America with nothing, seeking political and religious freedom, and a chance at the American dream. Through hard work, good luck and dedication, they found it.

Growing up in America, I developed a deep respect and gratitude for the freedom, equality and opportunity here. I was raised to understand that America, though not perfect, is the greatest country on earth and that it is our responsibility to strive to make it better. I think that’s part of the reason I ultimately came to work in a field in which I have the privilege to strive every day to support solutions that help us shift to a healthier, more inclusive, and more prosperous economy for all. At NRDC, I focus on strategies that help people access clean energy and other solutions that save money, improve quality of life, and create durable economic opportunities.

As I think about the direction of my work, I feel that now more than ever, our job is to build on the strength of these interconnections between equity, opportunity and our environment. I see this as fundamental to protecting clean air and water and creating a world in which all people and communities can succeed and thrive.

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Pamela Rivera
Partnership Engagement Advocate, Center for Policy Advocacy

Pamela and her sister Evelyn, 1991

I am a first-generation American. I cannot describe how special that is to me, and I know it means even more to my parents. My mom and dad left Colombia during the mid-1980s (at the peak of the country’s criminal and political violence) and came to America in search of a better life. My sisters and I are a product of their courage and sacrifice. It’s an honor to get to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, knowing it represents so many stories like ours.
 
 As a child, I learned that everything in our home could be repurposed and reused. A lot of that behavior was reinforced by necessity — but it came from a desire to be less wasteful and more thoughtful about consumption and its impact on our world. My family also spent every waking moment possible outdoors. In Florida, where I grew up, that meant beach trips, visits to springs, or Girl Scout camping trips. Our favorite way to celebrate a birthday (or really any event) was at a local park. These are the memories and values that were imparted to me at a young age.

Deeply rooted in all this was a belief that our planet wasn’t ours. Rather, we grew up believing that this beautiful place was on loan to us, and it was our duty to protect it and leave it in the same shape, or better, for those to come. My dad always says, “Este planeta es una maravilla, una creación que todos deben cuidar.” (I’m going to let you try to remember your Spanish rather than translate it here.)

I am incredibly grateful to dedicate my work to protecting people and our environment, and I am always in awe of how my parents helped shape my values and goals from such a young age. As a new parent myself, I hope to do the same for my son.

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Cecilia Segal
Litigation Fellow

Cecilia Segal cheering on the Argentine national soccer team with her parents, Eduardo and Eleonora Pontoriero, in 2014

My parents emigrated from Argentina to Canada in 1976. The plan was to stay long enough for my dad to finish his master’s degree in engineering, and then move back. The unstable political climate in Argentina, however, convinced them to make the move a permanent one. It wasn’t easy by any means: Money was tight, and my parents had trouble finding work — potential employers hung up the phone as soon as they heard their thick accents. But they fought through it all (even those terrible Canadian winters), knowing that they were building a better future for their three children.

I’ve definitely inherited that fighting mentality. Ever since high school, my dream has been to join the environmental protection movement and help safeguard this planet. My parents’ dream was for me to go to a respectable college, earn a graduate degree, and pursue a traditional career path. Luckily, I’ve found a way to combine both those dreams: I get to spend my days litigating cases against polluters and pushing for stronger environmental regulations. I can’t think of a better way of honoring my parents’ sacrifices and carrying on their fight for a better future.