First Latino President in Sierra Club’s History Calls on Young People to Get Engaged

Jul 14, 2020
12:04 PM

Ramón Cruz, President at Sierra Club. Photo courtesy of Sierra Club’s website.

By Josephine Balzac and Philip Arroyo

Amid the worldwide spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and the heightened intenseness of the political climate due to it, historical news and accomplishments by Latinos may tend to take a back seat within mainstream media. However, such was not the case with Mr. Ramón Cruz, the first Latino in 128 years to have recently been elected President of Sierra Club, founded in 1892 and the oldest grassroots environmental organization in the United States.

Originally from Puerto Rico, Cruz has a long history of involvement within the environmental movement. He was appointed Deputy Director of the Environmental Quality Board during the term of former Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro García Padilla and has served in many roles within Sierra Club and the environmental movement in the United States, Puerto Rico and worldwide. 

Latino Rebels had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Cruz to discuss his historic election as President-Elect of Sierra Club, his top priorities of moving Sierra Club towards equity and justice, defeating the anti-environmental and racist agenda of the Trump administration, and the role of the younger generations of Latinos within the fight for a better environment, among other topics. 

Latino Rebels: You are the first Latino to have been elected as President of the Sierra Club. We were wondering if we can get your thoughts and feelings about this truly historic achievement? 

Ramón Cruz: Well, it’s obviously a big achievement, but I don’t think it speaks so much to me but it is a symbol to how relevant and important the Latino constituency is becoming in the United States. So, I think Latinos are a growing demographic that represent the future of the country. 

LR: Tell us a bit about your background. You were active in Puerto Rico and were appointed as the Deputy Director of the Board of Environmental Quality on the island. 

RC: Yes, that was part of my government experience; a difficult one I must say, due to the political climate in Puerto Rico. I’m interested in public service and was not interested in becoming involved in any of the political parties there that have done so much disservice in the last couple of decades. So, I couldn’t do much there. However, most of my career has been within non-profit mainstream environmental groups, so I guess I am a beneficiary of the struggles of many environmental justice leaders that came before me in the 60s, 70s and 80s who basically fought to have room within mainstream progressive organizations.

Within the history of this country, many mainstream organizations have been complacent with so much inequalities in the system. So activating those groups in that regard throughout my career has been important. A few decades ago, there were not that many people of color in these groups. I think that is changing, although not as fast as many would like to see and as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”, so I think this is part of that change and it’s up to many of us to change it, but sometimes it just takes time.”

LR: Is it your vision as President of Sierra Club to increase diversity and make those most vulnerable at the forefront of the environmental agenda? 

RC: Definitely, I must say that this doesn’t start that much with me only, you know? We had, I guess like 10 years ago, the first black President of the organization, Aaron Mair, so it is a process that we have started for more than 10 years, I would say. It’s just that in the last 5 years the amount of resources that the Sierra Club has put forward in this effort of justice and equity front and center with everything that we do, I think is remarkable. Again, some people would like to see this move faster, but when I think comparatively with organizations as big as ours, I am pleased to see us at the forefront. For example, our entire staff and many of our volunteers went through a retreat or training called “Growing for Change” where you actually faced not only major issues like racism and prejudice, but how to deal with it on the personal and staff level. 

Those conversations take time and are difficult because you face your own demons and many people have been tokenized within many organizations. Dealing with that takes time, but the Sierra Club is definitely committed to it and it is a journey. It’s an ongoing journey that will never get everything completely right, but will certainly be doing as much as we can at the moment. Its only through having those conversations and exposing things that we can get better. We are in the middle of that journey right now. And when you have a lot of your membership coming from privileged parts of society and a lot of baby boomers, it’s not going to change overnight but we are up to the challenge.

LR: What was the moment that inspired you to become focused on a career centered on the environment? 

RC: Well, back in the 1980s my mother started an ecology club at the school I was in and recycled back when nobody was recycling. I was a social activist back in college, but I think my defining moment when I remembered thinking, ok, this is what I am going to focus my career on, was when I was president of a Latino club at American University.

There was a reception after a film festival and there was a woman who had been a guerilla fighter in Uruguay. I was a big fan of all the 20th century Latin American social movements and many of them back then advocated for armed struggle. But I remember talking with her about how frustrated she was with the fact that many of those struggles were corrupted by political egos and repeated many of the problems they saw on the right. She was frustrated by how many within the left had become familiarized with this basis rather than just values. I remember her telling me that if she had to do it again, she would have focused on the environment because for the most part it was a faceless movement and you fight for things much bigger than any individual.   

That really inspired me and I thought at that moment that I was going to dedicate my life and my career to the environment. I was also very active with the movement in Puerto Rico to get the Navy out of Vieques—I was arrested at the civil disobedience camps. So, moments like that greatly define your career.

LR: In 2013, for the first time in Sierra Club’s history, the executive board approved the use of civil disobedience within the climate justice movement to stop the tar sands. Is this still a continued practice of Sierra Club to recognize the urgency of climate change? 

RC: It has certainly come up further and different activists and board members have taken part of it as recent as Jane Fonda’s efforts in Washington D.C. Civil disobedience is a very important tool in Sierra Club. Actually, within our rules, it has to be approved by the board of directors when things escalate. Of course, we cannot control what 3.8 million of our supporters do, but in terms of the club, we have approved it several times since 2013 as an effective tool.

LR: Following up on your participation in the struggle to get the U.S. Navy out of Vieques, what do you feel right now are the biggest social and environmental threats in Puerto Rico?

RC: There are many that are long-term and some that are short-term, but they are all interconnected. If you ask me today, I would say they are in the middle of making huge mistakes with betting the future of the island and that of our next generations on fracking and so called “natural gas”. Also, you see the same mistakes of the patterns of corruption and clientelism permeating right now. Basically, the public service commission in Puerto Rico is debating whether to go forward with this huge investment in basically what they say is modernizing the infrastructure, but what for me is a digression. If you think of natural gas back in the late 1990s as a transition fuel, 20 years later there is no excuse to be thinking of any type of investment in anything that has something to do with fossil fuels. It’s corrupt and lead by corrupt officials in charge of these agencies in Puerto Rico. We can name, for example, New Fortress Energy as one of the private companies behind this. Right now, the Puerto Rico Electric Authority, also known as PREPA, is planning on leasing temporary equipment at the cost of $70 million a month for this initiative, so it’s a huge amount of around $1.2 billion. 

Right now, I would say that this is one of the main problems. People are thirsty for a cheaper and efficient electric system and therefore they would welcome efforts to break up the monopoly of PREPA by privatization and what we are seeing is that they are going to fall into the same problems. The only thing worse than a public monopoly, which is PREPA right now, would be a private monopoly. There is no doubt that we have to change PREPA, but the way to do it is through rooftop solar systems and smaller systems. You know, they say they have a few renewable energy projects, but then its solar energy farms in control of the same hands and in the same places so we have the same problem in terms of transmission. 

LR: In Puerto Rico, the environmental movement has been demonized as pro-independence supporters, communists or anti-Americans. How do you think environmental supporters in Puerto Rico, from all political spectrums on the island, can get around that? 

RC: Well, all movements go through different processes to mature. I definitely support and admire the efforts of Misión Industrial, Villa Sin Miedo, Casa Pueblo and the Vieques movement that came before I became more politically active. So, I think it’s a process that is generational and the generation of activists now is not the same as from the 1970s. I came from the generation of activists that were involved in the Vieques movement and the struggle to protect the northeast ecological corridor. While it is true that the movement has been demonized as pro-independence people masked under the environmental banner, things have changed, and many of those activists now head the office of the EPA in Puerto Rico. Carmen Guerrero was one of the key voices in the struggle of the northeast ecological corridor, and who was also the prior Secretary of Natural Resources of the island under Governor Garcia Padilla. 

So, I think the new generation of activists is much broader and they link this movement with all other social movements. And for them it is not an issue of tokenizing and I am very hopeful of so many people right now working on this, which is very inspiring. 

One of the important points that I wouldn’t like to miss as well is that after Hurricane Maria, there was such a huge opportunity and we’re seeing, even though it has taken forever, a lot of federal funds coming in. And so you know, to the extent that we can use those funds to prepare the island to be more resilient for all these events that are going to happen more often the better. Unfortunately we’re not seeing that…and we can talk about so many instances. For example, the canalization of rivers—the drought problem is going to be a huge one in the upcoming years, especially the way that things are being dealt with, like dealing with the erosion of the coast.

There are some people that are more committed to public service in all the parties in Puerto Rico, but unfortunately the political machinery is difficult to deal with.

LR: What impacts has COVID-19 had on Sierra Club? 

RC: It has been huge of course, because everything that we had planned is going through the same problems as many of the other organizations; adapting ourselves to this new reality, you know? We’re seeing that while it is very difficult, and of course my heart goes to all the people that have been affected by this, not only in changing their lifestyles, but many of them with debt in their family, so there’s a share of that and I need to say that first. 

But then we’re seeing how we’re able to do certain things, that before we weren’t able to do. You know, before we were traveling too much, and now we’re figuring out, wow, we can deal with many things without contributing so much to our [chuckles] carbon footprint! However, what I’m worried the most about, and one of the biggest challenges that we have, is organizing to defeat Donald Trump in November. Today we’re having a letter writing party, to incentivize people to do that. So we’re going to be seeing a lot of that. There’s going to be a lot of activists that now are switching gears and adapting to this. A lot of the traditional ways of organizing is something that we’re thinking through right now and trying to come up with ideas. But we’re definitely committed, and we need as many people to become as active as possible. Be sure to enlist yourself now from home where you can be texting or writing letters to other people to incentivize them to vote in November.

LR: What are some ways that young people can get involved in Sierra Club? Any campaigns and initiatives?

RC: Definitely sign up to our campaigns and get out the vote. We will need so much help on that. It is by far the most important election in our lifetime. If you care about the environment and climate change, this is the biggest threat in the modern environmental movement, you know in the last 50 years. So we will need all the help we can get, not only again to become active and incentivize others to be vocal and to vote, but to also show us, show the Sierra Club, the new way that things need to be done. We’re definitely going to be having virtual parties and rallies, etc., but I think the newer generation is much more in touch with all these possibilities, whether that is through Zoom parties, Tik Tok challenges and all those, we’re all in and we’re all ears. Future generations are the inspiration.


Josephine Balzac, Esq. is a licensed environmental attorney, Assistant Professor at Rollins College, teaching Law and Environmental Sustainability and Law & Ethics of Social Entrepreneurship. In 2017, Professor Balzac was recognized on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives as a community leader during Hispanic Heritage month. She was also appointed to serve on the Green Works Task Force by the Mayor of Orlando. While attending George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C. she interned at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). You can follow her on Facebook.

Phillip Arroyo Esq. is a licensed trial and appellate attorney, writer, and political analyst. He served in the Puerto Rico Department of State and was selected as the only Puerto Rican to serve in the 2012 White House Internship, having worked in the office of then Vice President Joe Biden. He is on record at the United Nations, where he has testified against Puerto Rico’s colonial political relationship with the United States.  He currently serves within the Office of the Public Defender of the 7th Judicial Circuit of Florida where he represents the indigent within the state’s criminal justice system. You can follow him on Twitter @PhillipArroyo.