Meet Three California Latinas Leading the Fight for Environmental Justice

According to the Trust for Public Land (TPL), Los Angeles currently ranks 74th out of 100 U.S. cities for park space. TPL’s Park Score system, which has been collecting data yearly since 2011, rates U.S. cities based on three criteria: park size, accessibility to residents and the budget size for programs and maintenance. For a city that boasts its 48.5 percent Latino population, it still lacks sufficient access for communities of color to enjoy open space. In contrast, San Jose —which ranks 24th— has low acreage and number of recreational facilities despite its large budget and its residents’ reasonable access to park space.

The following photo profile seeks to highlight the achievements of three women across generations, fighting to create spaces for all Californians to enjoy nature. These women have created or collaborated in programs that have created parks for underserved communities, and produced programs to ensure their access to national parks and green space within urban neighborhoods.

Raquel Rangel

Raquel Rangel from Latino Outdoors while on a trip to Sequoia National (Photo Credit: Gregory Morris)

When Raquel Rangel began getting involved in conservations around the environment, she often felt left out. “I looked around me, whenever I went to expeditions or meetings, and everyone was white. And I had this moment of ‘what are you doing here? Nobody here looks like you.’” So Rangel, a 29-year-old San Jose native, became determined to create more spaces for Latinos to enjoy the outdoors and learn about nature.

In 2014, she started volunteering for Latino Outdoors, a non-profit organization that promotes leadership, mentorship and professional opportunities for Latinos in environmentalism. At Latino Outdoors, Rangel now leads and organizes expeditions to state parks and outdoor spaces for groups that are largely composed of working-class families. The first outing she organized was to Caswell State Park, the same year she became involved with the organization.

Raquel Rangel working with families at San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge (Photo Credit: Natividad Chavez)

“It was amazing to bring these people of color and families together and give them a new experience,” she says. “It turned into a big ol’ party out in the park, potluck style. From there, I got hooked.”

Rangel’s role at Latino Outdoors has changed over the years, but now she’s determined to develop her educational training to better serve the community.  She’s studying towards getting her teaching credentials (she already has a degree in Biology) and eventually wants to teach elementary, middle school and special education students about outdoor activities. Rangel has also created educational programs for Latino Outdoors—including one called “Exploring my Backyard, which teaches people skills like invasive species removal and trail maintenance.

“We try to teach things people can bring back home,” she says.

Raquel Rangel on a trip to San Luis National Wildlife Refuge (Photo Credit: Meg Gonzalez)

The biggest challenge, according to Rangel, is encouraging communities to get involved and proving they can have an impact in the environment. “Everyone cares about it but they don’t know how to help out,” she says. “I constantly tell people not to give up…There are struggles everywhere and sometimes it can feel like no one is listening, but even one person can make a difference.”

Jennifer Ramírez

Jennifer Ramírez, Community Organizer at the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust.

Jennifer Ramírez is a community organizer at the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, a non-profit organization that seeks to address L.A.’s park inequities within low-income neighborhoods. For the past two months, she’s been on the team that is developing a new park in Park Mesa Heights, a neighborhood in South L.A., and continuing to cultivate the Land Trust’s relationship with other community partners—all while studying full-time to earn her degrees in sociology and child development. “My plans keep changing,” she says, “but I want to be an advocate for young people of color.”

Ramírez became involved in local organization when she was in high school, when she joined the Community Coalition as a 10th grader to fight budget cuts in John C. Fremont High School. Their leader, Tonna Oyendu, helped them create a list of demands that would help improve their school, such as reducing class sizes and creating more after school programs. One issue they advocated for was food justice.

Jennifer Ramírez and Tamika Butler, Executive Director at the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust

“We went to different supermarkets in South Central and Central Los Angeles to see the differences in the food we were consuming,” she says. She became involved in the Gardening Apprenticeship Program, which teaches Angelenos about gardening and healthy eating, which is organized by the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust. “I had no access to healthy food or farmer’s markets until the Apprenticeship Program,” she says. “That program is like a second home to me.”

Now, the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust is focusing on safety around the community, such as a partnership with the city’s parks and recreation department, by creating after-school and weekend programs for kids to play in otherwise inaccessible parks.

“I want to continue organizing around the community, continue working with my community and bring awareness to my community,” Ramírez says.

Belinda Faustinos

Belinda Faustinos and President Barack Obama at Presidential Proclamation of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in 2014.

When Belinda Faustinos began her career in environmentalism and conservation in her native Los Angeles 40 years ago, she was the only Latina in the room. But she’s declared a seat at the table for nature access throughout her career. In 2014, Faustinos helped lead the effort that culminated with President Obama declaring areas of the San Gabriel Mountains a national monument. Now she serves as Executive Director of Nature for All, a coalition of 12 organizations that promotes park access for all Angelenos.

Belinda Faustinos (pictured in the far left) joined President Barack Obama at the Presidential Proclamation of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in 2014.

“I call myself the abuelita of Latinas in environmentalism,” she says.

Faustinos became interested in environmentalism and conservation when her father would take her and her siblings to play in the park every Sunday, when she was a chavalita. They would also take “hardcore” camping trips and go to the beach together. “He even made us pick up the trash before playing,” Faustinos notes with a big laugh.

She began her career as a social worker, working with mental health patients and people with disabilities. However, she found the work emotionally draining. When she found an opportunity to work within the State’s Santa Monica Mountain Conservation, she took it. “I saw this chance to work with lots of open space, and thought to myself ‘this is a cool thing.’” She stayed at the Santa Monica Mountain Conservation for over 17 years, and as Executive Director for a decade, often working with school-aged children to ensure their access to the area.

Because of the geography, it’s still tough for people from South Central and East Los Angeles to access these parks and open spaces, especially if they do not have access to their own car, Faustinos explains. So for her, it is very important to ensure that people from those areas —especially working-class people of color and children— have access to these parks and open spaces.

“I really enjoyed what I did, I had experience doing things I never would have done. We jokingly called it the ‘celebrity conservatory fund,’” she says with a laugh, in reference to Santa Monica’s affluent neighbors.

Belinda Faustinos (in the center) with colleagues and supporters at the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.

Faustinos says that lack of access to national parks continues to be a problem for many Angelenos of color, especially Latino families: traveling to these areas can be expensive, reservations for camping tend to fill up fast and the Trump administration is proposing to enter these parks. Last summer, the Department of the Interior included the San Gabriel Mountains among the national monuments it wanted to shrink.

“It’s frustrating that we have to spend time and efforts to hang on to what we have instead of improving it,” Faustinos said.

However, she remains optimistic. “There’s still a lot of good stuff happening on the ground that people don’t talk about, even with the current administration. They’re dedicating more time with local communities,” including the Leadership Academy hosted by her own organization, Nature for All, which empowers young community organizers who want to get advocate for public lands and conservation.

“We can’t move Yosemite,” she says “but we can create local parks.”