Reflecting on 50 years of social and environmental justice work
When the first celebration of Earth Day was being planned for April 1970, few people of color were on the front lines of the environmental movement. Although 20 million people of all races, creeds and cultures came out to celebrate and renew our relationship with Mother Earth, the National Organizing Team in Washington D.C. included only one person from an ethnic or racial minority. Fortunately, that Chicano activist, based in Albuquerque, had the street smarts to reach out to “La Raza” in several Western states, thereby fostering a more inclusive rollout of environmental teach-ins, rallies and marches slated for that landmark day in the history of the environmental movement.
Arturo Sandoval, to this day, continues his work as a pioneer in environmental justice, food justice and social justice to benefit Indigenous, Mexicano and Nuevo Mexicano in both rural and urban communities throughout the Southwest. As a 17-year-old Arab-American intern at Earth Day headquarters in the early months of 1970, I felt Arturo’s presence was a breath of fresh air. I saw more of the Ivy League and Stanford graduates on the leadership team, but Arturo—with his black hair, mustache and quizzical smile—reminded me more of the street activists I’d grown up around. Indeed, Arturo was already attentive to the La Raza movement before he left his hometown of Española to attend the University of New Mexico in the late 1960s. While still a minor, he attended a gathering about land rights in Anton Chico that set him on his path. As he told me with a slightly amused grin, “I changed from a nice, polite, risk aversive Catholic boy who had been leaning toward a sedate lifestyle, and came out as a Chicano activist. I’m sure that made some of my family members uneasy at the time. But I found the counterculture movement was a fantastic opening out of our worldview that looked beyond the constraints of the oppressive religious orthodoxy of that era.”
Sandoval has had a special role in making environmental concerns credible to minority populations.
Sandoval was so articulate about his values as a college student at UNM that he assumed a leadership role in the United Mexican American Students (UMAS) coalition, helping with a wildcat strike on campus organized exclusively by students themselves. Felipe González, who met Sandoval around 1968, remembers him as “very dynamic… with a strongly developed awareness of issues in relationship to the Chicano and Chicana people.”
Within two years, Earth Day coordinator Dennis Hayes enlisted Arturo to join him in the non-profit offices of Environmental Teach-In, Inc., where he and I met in February 1970. “I shared a lot of social justice- and peace-making values with the rest of the staff,” Arturo said.
The multicultural protest march along the banks of the Río Grande can rightly be called the first successful environmental justice initiative led by people of color in the U.S.
“The good thing about the participants in the counterculture at that time was that they modeled the behaviors they wanted to see changed in America; they didn’t just talk about them. They truly wanted to live in harmony with all races and cultures and with Mother Earth as well.” Both Arturo and I were struck by the fact that the youthful Earth Day organizers selected a place for their offices in a Black neighborhood in Washington, D.C. near DuPont Circle that others considered to be tough, if not dangerous. “But I loved to take breaks from my 10-hour-a day work and listen to the African drumming circles in the park below us… I guess I felt somewhat isolated from my own people at the time—my first long stay away from New Mexico—so I did a lot of outreach for Earth Day with Chicano groups in the West, not just Albuquerque, but L.A., San Francisco, Denver and metro areas in Texas and Arizona.”
He admitted to me that at times, Earth Day was a tough sell to people of color in urban areas.“ Their response was bemusement or even indifference. They were immersed in their own critically important issues… Their communities were under a lot of socioeconomic pressure.” Nevertheless, Arturo jumped into the Earth Day dance with both feet, simply assuming that land rights and the banning of agrichemicals killing his farm working neighbors were as important to Earth Day as wildlife conservation and wilderness preservation. Denis Hayes and other members of Earth Day’s organizing team claim that Sandoval had a special role in making environmental concerns credible to minority populations: “Arturo had obvious credibility talking about the daily showers of pesticides falling on Chicano field workers and the nitrate poisoning in their drinking water.” Speaking to Arturo 50 years later in his office at the Center of Southwest Culture in Albuquerque, he agreed: “I simply saw my work with the Earth Day team as an extension of my civil rights and peace activism on behalf of La Raza.”
Within the weeks immediately prior to the April 22, 1970 celebration, Arturo headed back to Albuquerque to organize the largest Earth Day rally of Native and Mexican Americans in his home state. He sought to close a foul-smelling solid waste treatment plant in the South Barelas barrio, an eyesore that had been imposed upon one of the oldest settlements in the valley without consultation or consent from its Spanish-speaking residents. Arturo and a mariachi band led a multicultural protest march of nearly 500 participants down along the banks of the Río Grande to the site for the demonstration at a location not far from where the National Hispanic Cultural Center stands today. Their efforts ultimately led to the relocation of the waste treatment facility. That rally can rightly be called the first successful environmental justice initiative led by people of color in the U.S.
Sandoval continues to guide the Center of Southwest Culture in Albuquerque.
Another team member, Steve Cotton, reminded me that the entire Earth Day organizing team chose to focus national media attention for the evening news on Arturo’s march and rally. When the networks claimed they could not get film footage from Albuquerque to New York in time for the evening news, Arturo refused to give them even a soundbite. Finally, ABC and CBS agreed to cover the event on the primetime news if Arturo would schedule his speech a half-hour earlier than planned. At the last minute, a deal was reached. Fifty years later, Sandoval continues to guide the Center of Southwest Culture in Albuquerque, which builds capacity among Hispanic and Indigenous communities. The center’s programs help dozens of rural communities produce and market affordable organic foods as means to reduce health issues otherwise caused by pesticides and herbicides.
Arturo—who is now 73—agrees that the environment movement ushered in by Earth Day still needs a wider range of voices to help it overcome the deep imperialistic and colonial history that still underlies most social and environmental justice issues in New Mexico. “The path forward for the environmental movement is in aligning it with the current values and strategies of activism in México and the rest of Latin America. We once took our leads from the activists on the West Coast or East Coast. Now the axis has changed, and we will be enriched more by interactions with our Spanish and Indigenous-speaking sisters and brothers to the south in Las Americas than with anyone else.” But then, he smiled one of those smiles so warm it could melt the snow in the Sandia Mountains. “Today I am the most in love that I’ve ever been with this place and its people. I even co-wrote a musical about our landscape here, Tierra Sagrada. I have hope for the human species that we can still get our relationship right with one another and with the earth… The seedpods of human potential are always waiting to germinate.”
Gary Paul Nabhan is an agricultural ecologist, ethnobotanist and author whose work has focused primarily on the plants and cultures of the desert Southwest. He is a pioneer in the local food and heirloom seed-saving movements.