OPINION: How to Be Cultural Environmentalists in Our Community

Apr 9, 2021
1:49 PM

By Irene Franco Rubio and Michelle Hernandez

There’s a scene in the new Netflix Selena: The Series where Selena’s father Abraham repurposes peach cans and turns them into studio lights. Whether this is a true story or not, it demonstrates the lengths to which Latinx families can go to not only save money, but to be resourceful with the items we have available to us, without creating additional waste.

For us, two Latinx environmentalists whose parents came from Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic, Abraham’s inventiveness was deeply recognizable. Our mothers and grandmothers had a knack for repurposing worn items or packaging that seemed to have no limit. They turned the t-shirts we outgrew into cleaning rags. We’d open cookie tins only to find magnets or sewing kits. We were careful not to tear wrapping paper when opening gifts so they could be used again. Our elders’ abilities to re-purpose, upcycle, and allow little to go to waste were a constant throughout our upbringings.

With all these practices instilled from their upbringing, and with more and more Latinxs immigrating to the U.S. as environmental refugees, it comes as no surprise to us that Latinxs have been found to be the ethnic group that cares the most about climate change within the U.S.

Today, as young adults, we’ve come to reflect on the lessons of anti-consumerism learned from our grandmothers and parents. Despite our parents deriving from a variety of Latin American countries, we found a sense of commonality within the resource-conscious nature of our families. True, when we were kids we laughed at our parents’ behaviors and viewed them as extreme, but now we can see that our elders were making a significant contribution to preserve resources and shaping our consumption habits. We can see that our resourcefulness is rooted in intergenerational practices.

Roughly 85% of Latinxs in the U.S. are particularly concerned about pollution in large part due to the disproportionate impact Latinx communities face by being personally affected by climate change. Two environmental nonprofit groups, Earthjustice and Green Latinos, conducted a survey specifically on Latinxs, which revealed that we are very concerned about the environment and its impact on our families and communities. Similarly, 60% of Latinxs view our environmental challenges as a direct result of human activities.

Our Mexican and Colombian mothers are cultural environmentalists of their own generation by owning, reusing and recycling, they also practice the conservation of water, and invest in their own food systems of organic fruits and herbs in a backyard garden. To be sure, much of that was out of necessity: the lack of access to resources and limited financial freedom influenced them to conserve and limit the production of unnecessary waste.

We see it as our responsibility to continue these traditions. In our fast-paced and consumer-driven society, it is easy to fall into the trap of mindlessly buying and undervaluing our existing belongings. Many of us are guilty of filling our medicine cabinets with half-used skin or hair products. Our closets can barely fit all of our shoes and clothes. Perhaps our parents nag us to take briefer showers and use less hot water. Making the most of what we already possess, we must be resourceful and cognizant of limiting our use and straying away from an “always-wanting-more” mindset and instead of a minimalist mentality.

We, as young people, with the most at stake from the climate crisis, have no choice but to reflect on how our everyday consumerist actions contribute to a system that values profit over people in the fight for environmental justice. We know very well that in order for us to achieve a sustainable lifestyle, much of our current habits and activities must urgently change in the very near future. However, this doesn’t just happen by shifting our individual behaviors, these require systemic changes. By demanding corporations reduce their generating of waste, we can significantly reduce their catastrophic contribution to the global environmental crisis.

While organizing, mobilizing, and educating our diverse local Latinx and communities of color to recognize their power, we can advocate for bold environmental progressive actions, beginning at the dinner table with our families. We can tap into our communities’ concerns for the environment and encourage our relatives and neighbors to support and/or vote for pro-climate legislators and policies in every local and national election.

Though we can each take our individual approach to mitigate the detrimental impact we have on the environment by being resourceful, we can only do so much alone. This is a much larger systemic issue that requires shifting the ways systems and corporations function in our society. Our elders taught us how to preserve, limit consumption, reuse, and do our part. With this wisdom, we hope to inspire our fellow Latinx peers to recognize their individual and our collective power to preserve our planet and our future.


Irene Franco Rubio is committed to advocating for her Latinx community and historically oppressed populations. As a media professional, her passion for uplifting diverse voices has been recognized by ProPublica and the National Association of Broadcasters. She is a Public Voice Fellow of Yale Program on Climate Change Communication at the Op-Ed Project. Connect with Irene on Twitter: @IFrancoRubio.

Michelle Hernandez is co-founder and co-facilitator of the UNFCCC’s Official Youth Constituency’s Cities Working Group. She is a Public Voice Fellow of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication at the Op-Ed Project. Connect with Michelle on Twitter: @MichelleDianeH.