Latinos Need to Demand Environmental Justice (OPINION)

Oct 15, 2021
10:07 AM

Emissions from a coal-fired power plant are silhouetted against the setting sun in Independence, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

By Dr. Elena Ríos

Hispanic Heritage Month is about celebrating all things Hispanic, which includes food, music, and the culture in general. But this year, I want to draw attention to an issue a little less joyful, yet important for us to discuss: the overwhelming impact of pollution on our community. Given that 15 percent of Latinos live within 10 miles of a power plant, we are three times more likely to be negatively affected by air pollution. And to top it all off, close to 67 percent of Latinos live in nature-deprived areas. The effect that this could have on ourselves and our family’s health is devastating.

The problem with addressing the issue of climate change is that we refuse to see it through the lens of justice. During Hispanic Heritage Month we should be asking ourselves how climate affects current situations for many Hispanics in the country today. Environmental justice needs to be brought to the forefront.

I grew up in Pico Rivera, a working-class industrial community in Los Angeles, which meant being exposed to unhealthy and polluted air. Today is no different. California has some of the most polluted air in the country, and not enough is being done about it. Los Angeles, a city where more than half of the population are people of color, is on the top of the list. This is why I support President Biden’s Build Back Better Act because it looks to remedy many of the injustices we see today.

The Build Back Better Act would protect our communities and environment, create good-paying clean energy jobs and boost local economies, as well as cut dangerous pollution levels. This plan will also bring about positive change to our community in multiple ways, like lowering electricity bills; extending tax incentives that make electric cars and trucks more affordable, available, and accessible to all buyers; and providing funding to support community-driven environmental justice efforts.

However, this plan is in jeopardy. As Congress continues to debate the legislation —and powerful industries like Big Oil lobby against it —it is up to us, the citizens, to ensure our representatives address the issue of climate change immediately by supporting the Build Back Better Act. Therefore, the National Hispanic Medical Association is partnering with Green Latinos to call on Congress to address the climate crisis and improve environmental conditions for all, particularly the Latino community.

This is not a partisan issue, rather one that requires the collaboration of all citizens, regardless of ideology or party line. Seventy-five percent of voters support Congress going further than the bipartisan infrastructure agreement to take climate action and make additional investments in our clean energy future.

This year’s theme for Hispanic Heritage Month is “Esperanza” or hope, a reminder that with hard work and perseverance we can build a better tomorrow. But in order to do that, we need to do the work today. This starts with making our society more just, and to accomplish that, we must mitigate climate change while also advocating environmental justice for all.


Dr. Elena V. Ríos serves as President & CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association, representing 50,000 Hispanic physicians in the United States. The mission of the organization is to improve the health of Hispanics. Twitter: @ElenaRiosMD