By Aurora Saldivar
Although Cristina Mendez was raised in the Eastern Coachella Valley, she was not aware of the living conditions endured by many in her community.
“I didn’t know about substandard infrastructural problems that exist. I didn’t know about environmental hazards like pesticides,” says Mendez, 33, who grew up in Coachella. “I didn’t really think about them, even though my mom was a farm worker.”
Now she thinks about these issues every day and, as a community worker with California Rural Legal Assistance, she is glad to be part of the solution. A large part of her job at CRLA is to raise awareness of environmental concerns in the area by educating residents, community groups, and government agencies.
“We don’t want to be the generation that ignored all the symptoms and all the problems that are going on,” says Mendez.
Mendez first became interested in community work while working at a Latino bookstore when she was a student at California State University at San Bernardino. Books about social and political issues brought her to the realization that she was part of a bigger world and that she was capable of making an impact.
She stayed in San Bernardino after completing her studies, working for the Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino and Inland Congregation United for Change before returning to Coachella. She jumped at the opportunity to make an impact in her hometown when she found out that CRLA was looking for a community worker.
“It’s interesting to come back as an adult, as a tax paying member of the community, as a professional,” she says. “It’s a growing opportunity for me as a person.”
In the year since she has been back, Mendez says progress has been made toward achieving environmental justice for Eastern Coachella Valley residents but the fight is far from over.
“Agencies are still not doing enough enforcement and investigation,” she says.
Even though she has made a career of helping others, Mendez says everyone can do their part.
“People think they have to be super heroes,” she says. “But being an active community member doesn’t mean that you save everybody. Simply asking questions and holding public officials accountable can help.”
A major concern in the community is that something in the air is going to cause cancer and make skin peel and bleed, which Mendez says scares many residents indoors.
“When people are living with these types of concerns and nobody is there providing an answer or an explanation that is provided with respect, you are going to have a community that lives in fear,” she says.
Mendez says every step forward, no matter how small it may seem, is important to the cause of environmental justice.
“If somebody doesn’t work for it, then we aren’t going to obtain it,” says Mendez. “The little victories that I get to see are very rewarding and fulfilling.”