I argue that Latinx Environmental Resisters in the United States and in Latin America reflect shared values with South America’s Andean-based buen vivir social philosophy as both communities give primacy to harmonious relationships between humans and Nature. Each also shares a commitment to the physical and socio-economic wellness of all members in their respective communities. In these habitats, “material and spiritual well-being” are necessary to maintain equilibrium and balance in the communal spaces in which they inhabit. In this spirit, I will reflect on the Andean-based buen vivir philosophy in conversation with social justice and environmental justice movements in the U.S. Latinx community and in Latin America. As a Peruvian American educator, my aim is to identify parallels between the Andean-based buen vivir philosophy and the activist work of Latinx Environmental Resisters in the United States and in Latin America.
Buen Vivir as Social Philosophy
Buen vivir is a social philosophy that values the interrelatedness of all living and non-living entities in the world’s various ecosystems. Moreover, this “millennia-old cosmovision” advocates the environmental rights of the natural world as “[it] envisions a different way to build society.” In 2008, the Indigenous peoples of Ecuador successfully advocated to embed the buen vivir philosophy into their constitution. As a result, Ecuador’s constitution now officially recognizes that Nature has “inalienable rights.” This is a significant departure from “the Doctrine of Discovery-and the colonization and capitalism that accompany it,” which resulted in the commodification of Nature for capital profit through legislative measures, and which treat the natural world as property for any sanctioned use by individuals, corporations, and states. In the article, “Ecuador’s Buen vivir: A New Ideology for Development,” Sara Caria and Rafael Domínguez examine five principles that differentiate this philosophy from the Western viewpoint. They are: “[h]armony with Nature, respect for the values and principles of indigenous peoples, satisfaction of basic needs, social justice and equality as a responsibility of the state, and democracy.” In this essay, I will consider these five themes in light of social justice and environmental justice movements in the U.S. Latinx community and in Latin America.
Social Location: Personal Viewpoint
As a Peruvian-American scholar, I experienced the buen vivir philosophy and its five principles as elaborated by Caria and Domínguez while on a ten-day community-based learning immersion trip to the Sachamama Center for Biocultural Regeneration in the High Amazon in Lamas, Perú. I accompanied twelve Western students whose educational background was from an elite institution in the United States. Early on, it was evident to us that an Andean worldview differed in focus from a Western understanding of Nature and time. In contrast, a Western worldview was highly structured and androcentric.
During our stay, we experienced buen vivir in the lifestyle of the mestizos and the Kichwa-Lamista Indigenous people in the region. Daily, they taught us about the spiritual and medicinal properties of plants and agricultural methods they utilized, which dated to pre-Columbian Amazonian times. The Kichwa-Lamista people also introduced us to their worldview, which was cyclical rather than linear. Their worldview was apparent in their ritual-practices, which were intimately connected to the cyclical nature of both the natural world and their agricultural habitats. These experiences demonstrated to us that the Kichwa-Lamista people held a very high value of the natural world. When they participated in such transcendental rituals, it was apparent that they experienced a profound interconnectedness with Pachamama or Mother Earth. Through those rituals, the Kichwa-Lamista people became one with Mother Earth-Pachamama.
As a Peruvian scholar and paisana, participation in these rituals resulted in a deep feeling of interconnectedness with Nature, which is a primary tenant of buen vivir. I am grateful to the mestizos and the Kichwa-Lamista Indigenous people for sharing with us how the principles of buen vivir manifest in their daily lives. It was this experience that spurred me to consider buen vivir in light of Environmental Resisters in the U.S. Latinx community and within Latin America.
Buen Vivir and Latinx Environmental Resisters in the United States and Indigenous Peoples in Latin America
Latinx environmental resisters in the United States and indigenous peoples in Latin America are both addressing social justice and environmental justice issues in the spirit of buen vivir. Through a buen vivir lens, they are advocating for the “right[s] of [all] people to live in a healthy and ecologically balanced environment . . . .” The reality is that urban development is decimating social cohesion in both of these communities. In Latin America, we see the forceful removal of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands and the destruction of their natural habitats. Similarly, in the United States, minority communities are being forced out of their communities as a consequence of high-end redevelopment projects within their neighborhoods. The result is gentrification, a reduced quality of life, the breakdown of the social family unit, and the abandonment of their communal spaces such as their local traditional marketplaces.
Mary Pardo argues that “People living in Third World countries as well as in minority communities in the United States face an increasingly degraded environment. Recognizing the threat to the well-being of their families, residents have mobilized at the neighborhood level to fight for ‘quality of life’ issues. To complement this, James Rojas, a Chicanx urban planner points to the high value that U.S. Latinx communities place on their relationship to neighbor, the natural world in which they inhabit, and to social cohesion in their communities. He argues that a Latinx commitment to social cohesion is represented in Los Angeles pop-up markets, Olvera Street, Mariachi Plaza, and Exposition Park, where they gather daily in communal spaces. Juan Tavárez’s article “The Tianguis: Mexican Model of a Green Ideology and Philosophy” further highlights the importance of traditional marketplaces in the U.S. Latinx community and in Latin America. In his essay, Tavárez argues that Latinx communal markets in the United States commonly referred to in Latin America as tinguises, are communal spaces where social and familiar ties are solidified and cultural identities are affirmed. More specifically, the entire Amazonian ecosystem is the communal and sacred space where Indigenous peoples build their neighborhoods, social ties, and interrelatedness with Pachamama.
To date, Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope in South America, is prophetically advocating for the Amazonian region. His encyclicals resonate with buen vivir as he advocates to safeguard the Amazonian forest and the Indigenous people who inhabit it. In Laudato si’: On Care For Our Common Home, he elaborates on the importance of an “integral ecology” which recognizes that “everything is closely related,” including our current global crisis which is both environmental and social. Moreover, Pope Francis’ choice to host a historic Synod of Bishops for the Amazon last October (6th-27th, 2019) — with bishops and representatives from Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela, and the Suriname — was prophetic as he privileged a non-Western worldview in Rome, a major center in the Western world. At the end of the gathering, Pope Francis called on members within the Roman Catholic Church on a global-level to be an Amazonian people and an Amazonian Church. In his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis states:
[I]t is clear that the original peoples of the Amazon region, have a strong sense of community. It permeates ‘their work, their rest, their relationships, their rites and celebrations. Everything is shared; private areas – typical of modernity – are minimal. Life is a communal journey where tasks and responsibilities are apportioned and shared on the basis of the common good. There is no room for the notion of an individual detached from the community or from the land.’ Their relationships are steeped in the surrounding Nature, which they feel and think of as a reality that integrates society and culture, and the prolongations of their bodies, personal, familial and communal.
I believe that the Amazonian Synod was trying to offer the same teaching of buen vivir that “the Indigenous communities of the Americas are offering us a proyecto de vida — a “life project” — that runs on a different path from the pervasive structures of capitalism, commodification of life, and extraction of natural resources.” Moreover, in the past two months, Pope Francis has also published another important encyclical coined Fratelli Tutti, in English, All Brothers. Fratelli Tutti complements Laudato si’ because of its focus on how we engage with our neighbors on a local and global level. Again, like Rojas and Tavárez, Pope Francis is testifying to the importance of social cohesion, equilibrium, and balance in the creation of socio-economic societies that promote both material and spiritual wellness for all members of the community. Symbolically, Pope Francis signed Fratelli Tutti on October 3rd, during the celebration of Mass to honor St. Francis of Assisi, his patron saint of an “integral ecology.” Together, Laudato si’ and Fratelli Tutti implicitly affirm the spirit of the Andean-based buen vivir philosophy, and its cosmovision as reflected in how Indigenous peoples exist in the world.
Buen Vivir and Environmental Resisters in Latin America
Today, the Andean, Mayan, and Nahua value of the principles of Buen Vivir is apparent in the lives of Environmental Resisters throughout Latin America. Global Witness, an organization that documents environmental abuses resulting in the exploitation and death of indigenous peoples on a global level states:
[T]hey are all part of a global movement to protect the planet. They are on the frontline of fighting climate change, preserving ecosystems and safeguarding human rights. They stand up for causes that benefit us all: sustainability, biodiversity and justice.
The harsh reality is that Environmental Resisters in the United States, unlike those in Latin America, are guaranteed human rights by our Constitution. As a result, they may go to jail for safeguarding the natural world in which they inhabit but will rarely lose their life in a U.S. setting. On the contrary, Environmental Resisters in Latin America do not share these same rights. They thus are often persecuted and killed at the hands of government officials and global corporations that privilege the Western concept of development. Néstor Medina coins this Western concept as “the project of death” that “became the catalyst for the Western European military, genocidal, and colonizing project, through which Western Europeans (and eventually Americans) invaded and took possession of Indigenous lands around the world.” Unfortunately, as stated by Medina, the reality is that many of these corporations are American and headquartered in the USA and Canada. Paul Angelo continues in another article,
Latin America was the world’s most dangerous region for human rights activists in 2019, according to Amnesty International, with 208 people killed for their activism. This tally includes LGBTQ+ advocates, women’s rights defenders, and anticorruption champions.
In Latin America, among the individuals who have died for defending the natural world are Raquel Padilla Ramos and Samir Flores Soberanes from México; Chico Mendes, Raimundo Santos Rodrigues, José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva, and Maria de Espíritu Santo from Brazil; and Hernán Bedoya from Colombia. For myself, and her community, the death of Indigenous Honduran Environmental Resister Berta Cáceres is painful to remember because she was one of Latin America’s most prophetic ecological voices. On March 4, 2016, Berta’s voice was silenced as she was assassinated for her defense of the water system utilized by the Indigenous Lenca community. During her lifetime, Cáceres was the co-founder and coordinator of the organization Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). Upon her death, I argue that Cáceres transitioned into an ecological soldadera who like earlier women freedom fighters during the Mexican Revolution fought on the front lines for the basic rights of their people against abusive governments who privileged capital profit over the material and spiritual wellness of the inhabitants in their respective regions. Unfortunately, past and present, environmental resisters in Latin America continue to be killed by governments and multinational corporations who lack a buen vivir sensibility of universe-wellness.
In memory of the fallen ecological soldiers and soldaderas, I say Presente!
Environmental Resisters in the United States
In the United States, Latinx Environmental Resisters are ecological advocates who like myself are present in the fight to secure the principles of buen vivir in our local communities. Our struggles include equal access to community members most basic needs which are clean water, air, and land. Today, I am in solidarity with the following Latinx social justice and environmental justice movements that include César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in the U.S. Labor Movement, to Sal Castro and the Mexican American men and women who walked out with him, to the Brown Berets, to Los Four and ASCO, to El Pueblo para el Aire Limpio (Peoples for Clean Air and Water), and students and faculty at California State University, Los Angeles.
The U.S. Labor Movement Latinx Farmers Are “Essential Workers” in 2020
In the United States, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta are ecological icons for their protection of farmworkers, Mother Earth, and the symbolic monarch butterfly. Since the origins of the movement, Chávez and Huerta understood the interconnectedness between the farmer, the soil, and the insects that compose the fragile ecosystem of the farm fields. And because of this, they fought for both the occupational health and safety of farmworkers and the farm fields. As a result, they have waged war on the use of deadly pesticides that have harmed the farmers’ health and have contaminated the farm fields’ ecosystem. But their fight rages on. The continued use of pesticides is harmful for the farmers and the farm fields as it contaminates the soil, air, and water, and negatively affects the overall health of all central valley Californian communities. In addition, the use of pesticides is a major factor in the death and decline of the monarch butterfly. Still, their decade-long fight has inspired a nationwide Latinx movement that has transcended the borders of the central valley in California. Today, Chávez and Huerta are known as pioneer environmental resisters in the United States who led “the first nationally known effort by people of color to address an environmental justice issue.”
Currently, Dolores Huerta continues César Chávez’s legacy in her advocacy for farm workers to be recognized as “essential workers” by our U.S. government. On March 27, 2020, farmworkers were denied financial assistance through Congress’ life-saving CARES Act, which was legislated to financially assist U.S. citizens and U.S. residents through the coronavirus pandemic. Subsequently, Huerta spearheaded a letter-writing campaign to California Governor Gavin Newsom to advocate for farm workers to receive financial assistance in the State of California. In an interview with the organization Facing History and Ourselves, Huerta declared that farm workers are “essential workers” as they are keeping Americans fed, and thus should be financially subsidized. Francisco Lozano, a farm worker in Santa Maria, California insists “our situation is worse now than ever,” as our wages are minimal and harvests are dependent on seasonal conditions. As a result, farmworkers are struggling to meet their most basic needs. At the same time, farmworkers nationwide are being directly exposed to COVID-19 because they lack both personal protective equipment and preventative education by their employers. Moreover, these deficits are compounded by acts of governmental officials such as Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida who has publicly demonized Hispanic day laborers and agricultural workers by arguing that they are causing the spike in the spread of the coronavirus in his state.
Today, Huerta’s activist work is imperative as farm workers still lack full human rights by the U.S. government. I would argue that her political activism reflects a buen vivir focus of social justice and equality and calling the government to account for the satisfaction of basic needs of farm workers. Past and present, I argue that César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and members of the U.S. Labor Movement are modern-day U.S. Latinx environmental resisters.
The Walkouts/East Los Angeles School Blowouts, the Brown Berets and Chicano Moratorium
Sal Castro is a Mexican American educator and activist who is also a U.S. Latinx Environmental Resister. He mobilized “the first major mass protest against racism undertaken by Mexican-Americans in the history of the United States.” This mass Movement rallied in the streets of East Los Angeles on March 5, 1968. It is inspiring that the movement brought out an estimated 20,000-50,000 Mexican American men and women, many of whom were students. The day of the walkouts the natural habitat of East Los Angeles was not safe for Latinx individuals because the police were physically abusive in their tactics to suppress the protesters’ efforts. Still, they marched on the streets of East Los Angeles to demand that the Spanish language and Mexican culture be fully integrated into the educational school curriculum. On their own streets, they fought for the:
implementation of bilingual and bicultural training for teachers, elimination of tracking based on standardized tests, improvement and replacement of inferior school facilities, removal of racist teachers and administrators, and inclusion of Mexican history and culture into the curriculum.
Though the movement was situated in East Los Angeles, the vision it supported was broad in scope: they demanded that all Latinx students in the United States have equal access to a quality education.
It is important to note that this movement would not have been successful if not for Mexican American women who were also on the frontlines advocating for a focus akin to buen vivir based on social justice and equality as responsibilities of the state. Among these women were Celeste Baca, Vickie Castro, Paula Crisostomo, Mita Cuaron, Tanya Luna Mount, Rosalinda Mendez González, Rachael Ochoa Cervera, and Cassandra Zacarías. In her article “Grassroots Leadership Reconceptualized: Chicana Oral Histories and the 1968 East Los Angeles School Blowouts,” Dolores Delgado Bernal prophetically reclaims the legacy of these women as political organizers and actors who networked, engaged in consciousness raising, held elected or appointed office, and acted as official or unofficial spokespersons. Beyond that, these Mexican American women supported Latino political leaders who fought against police brutality in their communities and participated in organizing the antiwar Chicano Moratorium Movement. Delgado Bernal points out:
Their participation was vital to the Blowouts, yet because a traditional leadership paradigm does not acknowledge the importance of those who participate in organizing, developing consciousness, and networking, their leadership remains unrecognized and unappreciated by most historians.
I propose that Sal Castro and the Mexican American students who rallied on the unsafe streets of East Los Angeles for their U.S. constitutional right to a quality education are Environmental Resisters in the United States.
Similarly, I also argue that the Brown Berets, spearheaded by David Sánchez, were environmental resisters because of their focus on social justice and equality, as the responsibility of the state, resonated with buen vivir. More specifically, their political activist work centered on protesting the Vietnam War. At the time, they were demanding that the U.S. government enforce a Chicano Moratorium to inhibit the disproportionate numbers of Latinx individuals who were being recruited and killed, in Vietnam. Subsequently, on August 29, 1970, an estimated 30,000 Latinx individuals again took to the streets to say that the bodies of all Latinx were guaranteed equal protection by our U.S. Constitution. Similar to the East Los Angeles walkouts, in 1968, the streets were a war zone of activists confronting police officers who were leveraging their power using weapons and tear gas to suppress the movement. Sadly, Rubén Salazar, the first Mexican American journalist in mainstream media to address issues affecting the U.S. Latinx community, died that day. He died as a martyr, assassinated for the cause. Today, I argue that he is also a U.S. environmental resister.
Chicano Collaborative Art Movements: Los Four & ASCO
Los Four and ASCO were — two Chicanx art movements in the early ‘70s and ‘80s which can be considered Environmental Resisters in the United States as well. During these decades, both groups fully embodied principles of buen vivir of social justice and equality as a responsibility of the state, as they leveraged their artwork to address socioeconomic and political injustices faced by the Latinx community in East Los Angeles. Members of Los Four, were Carlos Almaraz, Beto de la Rocha, Judithe Hernández, Frank Romero, and Gilbert Luján, while members of ASCO, were Harry Gamboa Jr., Glugio “Gronk” Nicandro, Willie Herrón and Patssi Valdez. In each case, the landscape for their political activist work was the streets of East Los Angeles where they lived, worked, played, and prayed. More specifically, Los Four reclaimed “space” in their natural habitat by painting two-dimensional murals. Themes in their murals addressed the issue of gentrification that took the form of the displacement of Latinx communities by the development of urban freeways in Los Angeles. Today, their murals document a history of resistance in the U.S. Latinx community from soldiers in the Mexican Revolution, to the Bracero immigrants, to César Chávez and Dolores Huerta and the death of Rubén Salazar. For myself, the most striking mural was painted by Frank Romero. It is called “Dreamland.” In it, he situates the hybrid experience of the Latinx community in Los Angeles as a result of urban freeways. Distinct from Los Four, ASCO physically reclaimed “space” within East Los Angeles. Their Spanish name ASCO is most telling; it translates in English as “disgust.” At the time, they were disgusted by the way that the U.S. Latinx community was being treated. Thus, they protested on Whittier Boulevard which was/is deemed to be the heart of East Los Angeles. For example, on Christmas Eve in 1971, members of ASCO dressed up in costumes and carried huge cardboard crosses down Whittier Blvd in protest of the Vietnam War. It was their way of mocking the U.S. system that was negating their voice in the public sphere. In this spirit, I argue that members of both groups are U.S. Latinx environmental resisters, because in their art they sought to reclaim a more socially just and equitable world for all Latinx U.S. citizens.
El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpia
The activist work of the group El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpia (People for Clean Air and Water), focuses on the value of the satisfaction of basic needs which also resonates with buen vivir. In the early ‘80s, this group emerged in the Central Valley of California when the demographic make-up of the city was ninety-five percent Spanish-speaking Latino farmworkers. They discovered that they were living next to the largest toxic waste dump in the nation. The company involved was the Chemical Waste Management Company which created these waste sites without the community’s knowledge or consent. From the beginning, the Resisters’ concern was safeguarding their community and habitat, which had been exposed to these toxins since the early ‘70s. Like César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, their concern was not just the waste site but the toxins that were going into their water and soil. Their activist work paralleled an important research project entitled The Cerrell Report, published in California in 1984, which documented that “companies and localities” were intentionally targeting low-income communities with “fewer than 25,000 residents for toxic waste sites.” Ultimately, El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpia protested and in 1993, took the Chemical Waste Management group to court — and won! As a result, Chem Waste withdrew the construction of toxic waste incinerators from this targeted community.
In the words of Dolores Huerta, Sí, se puede!
Las Madres del Este de Los Ángeles
Meanwhile, Las Madres del Este de Los Ángeles (the Mothers of East Los Angeles [MELA]) reflect the spirit of buen vivir in their commitment to social justice and equality as a responsibility of the state. Their advocacy efforts focus on “quality of life” issues that affect the environmental well-being of their whole community, residents, and the natural world alike. The movement was spearheaded by a group of Latinx mothers in 1986, in collaboration with Gloria Molina, a former member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. They gathered to protest then Governor Deukmejian’s state initiative to build a prison in East Los Angeles. If built, it would be located in Boyle Heights which is already struggling with quality-of-life issues that include poor air quality as a result of being surrounded by freeways, in addition to gentrification and displacement as the result of invasion of corporations that have intentionally chosen the area because of its low-income status. Amidst these already serious challenges, a major concern for these mothers was that it would be built “within two miles of thirty-four schools.” This would mean that their children would be suffering in tangible ways from the presence of this prison in their community which, they argued, would bring increased violence.
Subsequently, in the summer of 1986, 2,000 community members rallied and marched in Boyle Heights to protest the construction of this prison in their community. Among these participants were 400 Mexican American Latinx women and mothers. Mary Pardo asserts that “[t]his march marked the beginning of one of the largest grassroots coalitions to emerge from the Latino community in the last decade.” Latinx mother, Marta Molinas-Avila comments “[we] were warriors . . . but . . . also peace activists.” She continues:
On a weekly basis, hundreds of mothers along with their children and husbands would march against the prison proposal, generating attention and traveling to the state capitol, Sacramento, to state their case. They wore white scarves on their heads, and they generated headlines and attention. The fight started in the church basement was ultimately successful; it took over a decade, but the prison was not built in Boyle Heights.
Pardo continues that their traditional roles as mothers spurred them to become grassroots activists because they desired their children to be educated and protected in “the surrounding community.” In the process, she states proudly that these Latinx mothers “have transformed social identity – ethnic identity, class identity, and gender identity – into an impetus as well as a basis for activism. And, in transforming their existing social networks into grassroots political networks, they have also transformed themselves.”
Today, these Latinx mothers continue to organize in opposition to projects “detrimental to the quality of life in the central city.” In 1987, they organized a protest and march against the construction of incinerators in the city of Vernon by the corporation California Thermal Treatment Systems. Ultimately, “after a six-year battle,” MELA sued the Environmental Protection Agency for their failure to provide an Environmental Impact Report to continue with the project. In 1991, because of their efforts, the incinerator project was abandoned. Currently, MELA’s focus are “health education programs, raising money for scholarships, informing the community about environmental injustice through mass demonstrations, community and legal hearings.” Since 2011, these Latinx mothers have focused on improving the air quality surrounding seven schools in Boyle Heights. To do this, they secured a million-dollar grant from the Reformulated Gasoline Fund. In the spirit of buen vivir, I argue that these Latinx mothers are also U.S. environmental resisters.
Buen Vivir: California State University, Los Angeles
Like each of the groups and movements discussed above, members of the California State University, Los Angeles have a rich history as U.S. Latinx Environmental Resisters because of their commitment to safeguard the political rights of members in the U.S. community particularly with regards to clean and safe water, air, and soil. Robert J. López confirms that we are fully engaged in the transformation of the social and political landscape of Southern California. In his article, “Pioneering Latino Leaders Trace Their Roots to Cal State LA” he states that “[i]t’s impossible to talk about Latino leadership in Southern California without discussing Cal State LA.” As such, many of our graduates are now elected officials or public servants including Richard Alatorre, Gloria Molina, Esteban Torres, Antonio Villaraigosa, Lucille Roybal-Allard and Lillian Roybal-Rose. Today, I am also proud to be a part of this community as a professor in the Chicana/o & Latina/o Studies department.
Of historical importance, in 1968 Cal State LA created the first Mexican American Studies Program in the United States in their efforts to provide a quality level of education to Latinx individuals within the United States. In 2018, our department celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of this program which is now called the Chicana/o & Latina/o Studies Department. Since the 1960s, Cal State LA has housed one of the first Educational Opportunity Programs in the State of California which provides a safety net for highly motivated Latinx students who lack mentorship and the financial support needed to successfully finish their degrees. Margaret Hart — faculty member at Cal State LA, and author of Educating the Excluded: What Led to the Mandate for Educational Opportunity at California State University — documents the early beginnings of the EOP program at Cal State LA. She comments that these students despite the challenges they faced, “had the courage of their convictions, continuing the struggles over time, even to the present day, despite setbacks.” She explains:
The evolution of EOP could be seen, simply, as a movement to stop the waste of human potential, to develop the hearts and minds of young people brimming with untapped talent, who may not have received the necessary preparation for college at their high school, but with a little extra help could achieve things that were previously beyond their ken.
These Latinx leaders “knew that making education more accessible could have a powerful impact on problems that needed to be addressed in their neighborhoods.” Felix Gutiérrez, student activist and member of the United Mexican American Students (UMAS) on campus asserts, “We were fighting for Chicano students.” As a result, “in 1968 a list of nonnegotiable demands from UMAS was presented to the administration, among them, an Educational Opportunity Program type of Admission Program.” He articulates that at the time, their ideas were radical because they were “diametrically opposed to the current train of thought… To say: ‘we should go out and find kids who don’t qualify to go to college and bring them here.'” He continues, “They were saying you don’t belong here, and we did belong here; we were going to school here, working here.”
Moreover, as of Fall 2020, Cal State University, Los Angeles will be one of two universities in the nation to have an Ethnic Studies College. The creation of this college reflects a buen vivir philosophy as it stipulates that communities of color have a voice within California’s educational system, and hopefully within the U.S. educational system. Current Chicana/o & Latina/o Studies Department Chair Dolores Delgado Bernal states:
[T]he effort to get a college was a collective one with PAS, AAAS, and CLS. It had been decades in the making but was really pushed after the 2016 CSU Task Force on the Advancement of Ethnic Studies. It will be the second in the nation, behind San Francisco State’s college which is 50+ years old.
In my own case, as a faculty member in the Chicana/o & Latina/o Studies Department my commitment to the buen vivir philosophy is evident in securing two grants to educate my students about social justice and environmental justice issues that are affecting communities of color in Los Angeles on a day-to-day basis. Together, both grants subsidized water-testing kits and a bus for 60 students in my Environmental Justice classes to participate in a four-hour Toxic Tour Trip in Los Angeles. The tour taught them about toxic industries in their communities and how it affects their families’ overall health. For my students, it was a transformational experience. Daisy Castaneda, who participated in it, commented that the trip “definitely changed my perception of the environment and encouraged me to want to make positive changes for my children’s future.”
Buen Vivir & Women Environmental Resisters in the Americas
In doing research for this essay, I was fascinated to find parallel commitments to the principles and values behind buen vivir in the following Latinx grassroot women’s movements in the United States and in Latin America. All of them reflect a shared value of physical and spiritual equilibrium between humans and Nature, social cohesion in the community, and reclaiming the ancestral heritage and wisdom rooted in indigenous knowledge systems, including medicinal practices and rituals. Equally important to these groups is the focus of a socially equitable world for all. These groups testify to my argument that buen vivir is part of an ecological sensibility of members in the U.S. Latinx community and in Indigenous populations in Latin America.
Con-spirando (Breathing Together)
In Latin America, Con-spirando is a colectivo, a collective of women Environmental Resisters. It was co-founded in 1991 by Judy Ress, Josefina Hurtado, Ute Seibert and Elena Aguila. In English, the term Con-spirando literally translates as con, meaning “with” and respirar, meaning “breathing.” The metaphor of breathing together intersects with buen vivir in its emphasis on harmony with Nature, respect for the values and principles of Indigenous peoples, and an affirmation of social cohesion and community. Con-spirando also shares with buen vivir the importance of the physical and spiritual health of women along with the ecological health of the universe. Since the early ‘90s, when the group began to organize, they have affirmed the ancestral heritage and wisdom of pre-Columbian original peoples in Latin America. Their mission states, “We seek a spirituality that will both heal and liberate, that will nourish our Christian tradition as well as take up the long-repressed roots of the native peoples of this continent.” In this respect, they have published 50+ journals that engage multiple themes that affirm the empowerment of women in the Christian and non-Christian traditions and Indigenous knowledge-system practices. In 2004, Con-spirando also co-authored a book with Red Latinoamericana, called Vírgenes y diosas en América Latina: La resignación de lo sagrado which examines the dual-role of Indigenous goddesses and Marian devotions in a modern-day Latin American context. Today, Ivone Gebara, an esteemed Brazilian ecofeminist theologian who has collaborated with the movement since its beginnings, affirms “that Con-spirando epitomizes a new cosmology, a new anthropology, a new epistemology, and a new ecology for our times.”
Mujeres de Maiz (Women of the Corn)
Like Con-spirando in Latin America, Mujeres de Maiz in East Los Angeles connects with the principles of buen vivir in its shared value of harmony with Nature and respect for the values and principles of Indigenous peoples, which includes pre-Columbian ideals and rituals. This colectivo of women privileges concern for the physical and spiritual health not only of Latinx women but of the communities they represent. They are also interested in reclaiming herbal remedies, healthy eating and cooking, writing, and women’s health. Their name is significant because it integrates the indigenous population’s value of corn, which has been both sacred and a staple food in the diet of “Indigenous peoples of the American continent” for millennia. The collective was founded in 1997, in Los Angeles, by Felicia “Fe” Montes and Claudia Mercado. Michelle López states,
As a collective they seek to empower women of all ages and ethnicities to find and use their voices whether it is through visual arts, poetry, healing arts, or political action. They do this by providing workshops, organizing conferences, giving guest lectures, collaborating on projects, and working with other local collectives and organizations in the East Los Angeles area.
Normally, in a non-Covid-19 world, they have monthly lunar moon rituals to remember Coyolxāuhqui, the Aztec goddess of fertility, often equated with Mother Earth. Though their rituals are symbolic and differ in their function and form from pre-Columbian times, they demonstrate their desire to affirm ancestral Indigenous wisdom. As artists, performers, healers, and community activists, the ultimate desire of members of Mujeres de Maiz is to create a more sustainable world where a focus on equilibrium and balance prevails. As I can gather, Mujeres de Maiz are also environmental resisters in the United States.
The Ovarian Psycos, East Los Angeles
The Ovarian Psycos in East Los Angeles is a colectivo of women founded in 2010, to protest the systemic violence that Latinx women were experiencing in the homes they inhabit daily. Like members of Mujeres de Maiz, they affirm the values and principles of Indigenous peoples in the Americas and in doing so intersect with buen vivir. More specifically, they criticize violence against women in Los Angeles that is resulting in disequilibrium, and the breakdown of the family unit in our local communities. Since their origins, they saw a need for physical and spiritual healing in response to physical and verbal violence within their families and communities. In their eyes, violence, whether individual or collective, disrupts the balance and equilibrium of communal living. As a group, they desire that our local communities be characterized by the value of physical and spiritual wellness, which they perceive comes with an increased “consciousness, confidence, community, health, access to the city, and closeness to mother earth.” Jennifer Ruth Hosek tells us that these women gather as womxn of color to defy prescribed gender norms for women in Hispanic culture, just as they denounce the objectification of women’s bodies. The Ovarian Psycos embrace the spirit of buen vivir as they affirm their value as women of Indigenous descent within Mexican culture. In a pre-Covid-19 world, they normally gather monthly for a lunar bike ritual to remember the Aztec goddess, Coyolxāuhqui, who was tragically dismembered by her brother Huitzilopochtli. The Aztec legend states:
Huitzilopchtli killed Coyolxāuhqui, beheading her and throwing her down the side of Caltepec: “He pierced Coyolxāuhqui, and then quickly struck off her head. It stopped there at the edge of Coatepetl. And her body came falling below. It fell breaking into pieces, in various places her arms, her legs, parts of her body each fell.
For members of The Ovarian Psycos, this story resonates with their lives as it is symbolic of the violence they experience within Latinx communities by men as a result of machista misogynist attitudes toward women. At the same time, it is a source of inspiration as they gather on the streets in East Los Angeles for lunar bike rides where – like ASCO – they reclaim their own space, i.e., their habitat. For their vision and commitment to the health and wellness of women and social cohesion in our Latinx communities, they also fit within the scope of environmental resisters in the United States.
Finally, Hermanas is another group of activist U.S. Latinx/Chicanx women with goals much like Mujeres de Maiz and The Ovarian Psycos. In the early 1970s, Hermanas, a group of nuns, recognized the negation of U.S. Hispanic culture not only in U.S. politics, but in the politics of the Roman Catholic Church as well. The political activist work of Hermanas has focused on social justice, equality, and democracy for Chicanos and Chicanas within both the Roman Catholic Church and U.S. society at large. In her book Las Hermanas: Chicana/Latina Religious-Political Activism in the U. S. Catholic Church, Lara Medina states that this group of nuns in their political activism uniquely bridged the “civil rights struggles of Chicanos and Chicanas and their religious needs.” Medina continues, “Their presence brought the Chicano movement into the Church and the Church into the Chicano movement.” As an organic grassroots movement, their aim has been the empowerment of Latinx/Chicanx women in the United States. Accordingly, their focus has been on “issues of leadership development, moral agency, reproductive rights, sexuality, and domestic abuse” for “grassroots Latinas.” Medina explains:
Their early concerns included institutional representation and accountability for a rapidly growing Latino Catholic population, culturally sensitive ministry and educational programs, church and secular labor practices, women’s empowerment, and ecclesial support for the Chicano movement.
Though not fully active at present, I argue that members of Hermanas were significant women to be reckoned with resulting in a church that is more inclusive of the U.S. Latinx experience. As Latinx/Chicanas, they leveraged their power and influence as nuns to address this injustice to church leaders on the United States Council of Catholic Bishops. Today, the U.S. Roman Catholic church has integrated Spanish masses nationwide and has an estimated 25 Latinx bishops, including Archbishop José H. Gomez, the first Latinx President of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops. As can be seen, due to their work against “overt discrimination toward Chicanos and Latinos in the Catholic Church and in society at large,” Las Hermanas fit the label of Environmental Resisters in the United States. Additionally, I would also argue that because of their commitment of faith and spirituality and its role in the social sphere, they also reflect the values of buen vivir.
Conclusion: Reflection on Environmental Resisters in the United States & Latin America
In this essay, I have argued that the U.S. Latinx environmental resisters share much in common with the Indigenous peoples in Latin America in terms of the values and principles of buen vivir. In their activist work to safeguard the inalienable rights of humans and Nature as well as their shared commitment to the material and spiritual wellness of their community members these groups put on display a wide range of ethical values that resonate with buen vivir as a fundamental philosophy for life. The names of Latinx Environmental Justice activists extend beyond the individuals and movements explored in this essay. Some other names that are worth mentioning are Elena Popp – Executive Director of the Eviction Defense Network (EDN), Chicanx organizer Trinidad Ruiz, of the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU), Latinx scholar Magally Miranda Alcázar, Alex Contreras, Regional Organizing Director for California YIMBY (“Yes, in my backyard”), and Xugo Luján, South East LA Community Organizer with Communities for a Better Environment, in Huntington Park Los Angeles. Among theologian Environmental Resisters I also include Daniel Castillo, Nelson Araque, Carmen M. Nanko-Fernández, Melissa Págan, Peter Mena, and Ahida Calderón Pilarski among many others.
As I reflect on the ethical imperative of buen vivir, I celebrate how its principles are reflected among the U.S. Latinx community of environmental resisters. I am also convinced that the principles and values of buen vivir can hold crucial insights for addressing the pressing climate challenge that humans and the natural world are facing at this critical moment in history. In my view, it is the original peoples in Latin America who hold the key to open a new door to our “common home.” And the key, in the spirit of Pope Francis, is the Andean-based buen vivir philosophy.