Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 54: MEXI-CALI


JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host Jared Blumenfeld. This week we explore the tale of two cities that straddle the US/ Mexico Border: Calexico and Mexi-cali. Mexi-cali and Calexico are in reality one city divided by a massive border fence. On the California side, Calexico is a sleepy town of 40,000 with farmland to the north, while Mexi-cali is this sprawling metropolis of 1.5 million. Both these communities share a great deal, including very serious air and water pollution challenges. This week I meet with three community activists, Ana Lorena Moreno Garay, Esther Bejarano, and José Luis Olmedo Velez who are all on the front lines of protecting community health on the border. I start my journey in Mexi-cali, which is a two-hour dusty drive from San Diego. Ana Lorena kindly offered to talk with me while we drive around the city of Mexi-cali. 

ANA LORENA MORENO GARAY: My name is Ana Lorena Moreno Garay. I'm an activist and we are in Mexi-cali, Baja, California. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, when you look to the left, what are we seeing right there?

 

ANA LORENA MORENO GARAY: It’s the border. That's the border with California is Calexico, California. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I mean it's right there. 

 

ANA LORENA MORENO GARAY: Yeah. Just a few steps from here. This is the capital of Baja, California and it's a binational town. I will say it because we are so used to the dynamic of being so close to the United States. So, we tend to be bi-cultural too. And we understand what's happening in our neighboring country and we also take care of our country too. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I came to Mexi-cali, I thought I was going to get the world's best tacos, but instead, what did we have? 

ANA LORENA MORENO GARAY: Oh, Chinese food because that is our heritage. The founders of the city were Chinese. The first people that came here because of the railroad and the fields of cotton were Chinese people and the second wave of migration here were Mexicans. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It was pretty good fusion Chinese/Mexican/American food, I have to say. Tell us about what it was like growing up here. 

ANA LORENA MORENO GARAY: It's an agriculture town that in time changed their vocation to maquiladoras in another economic model. I grew up here, went to school here, and it’s kind of boring actually. There's nothing much to do. I moved to California and then I went to Missouri, and from Missouri to Arkansas and that's where I spend most of my time, the middle of the US. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, to most people they would think this is a happening town compared to Arkansas. What was it like being a Mexican American in Arkansas? 

ANA LORENA MORENO GARAY: Well, first of all, I am not a Mexican American. I’m Mexican. I'm a resident. That's what allowed me to be in the United States and work in the United States and exercise my profession there. It was the time when the second wave of immigration arrived in the US, and there was a lot of cultural problems because immigration went to some really small towns where there they never had contact with people that didn't look like them. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, what was it like? 

 

ANA LORENA MORENO GARAY: The problems were very serious, and it was the beginning of the racism, you know, the second era of racism in US. I became bilingual myself over there. I learned English with close caption here. You know, like I said, you're constantly listening to TV and radio, like when you came in my car, you heard that I had NPR on, for example. We are constantly hearing and learning, but I actually learned how to speak by close captioned and I did it fast and that allowed me to help others. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, we've been driving along parallel to the border for like a mile. What do you think of when you see Calexico on the other side? 

ANA LORENA MORENO GARAY: There's not a lot of difference because Calexico is part of our day to day life here. It's a daily occurrence that you just cross the border and get some things over there because they're better either in quality or price or whatever. It's a normal dynamic for us in a border town to see our sister city as part of us. There's a lot of Mexican citizens that now are American citizens and they live there. You know, they were born here, and they emigrated and now they are the mayors or the directors or they're the decision-making people back there. So, it's just the like an extension. We're brothers and sisters. For me, there's no difference. I mean, the difference is we had to wait about an hour or sometimes two hours to get to see them and say hello. You know, the line to cross to cross the border. But it's just they are brothers and sisters for me. That's the way it is. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, you're living in Arkansas, you got this high-profile job and then you move back to the town that you grew up in. What's it been like? 

ANA LORENA MORENO GARAY: Oh, my goodness. It was a cultural shock for me. All my work-related experience was in the US. It was a shock is very different. In United States, it's more like one on one. Right here there's like a stratus or a caste system and the work environment is very marked. Right here, it is who you know, who you are. Back in the US, it is your work is what is going to determine how successful you are. When I moved back, I knew that I had to start over. There was a lot of barriers. I had to just be an entrepreneur, a professional entrepreneur and that's not bad. I loved it. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: We're just driving by the main federal plaza here and there are people that are protesting. Tell us why are they protesting? 

ANA LORENA MORENO GARAY: The protests began with the pact of Mexico that the president and that was part of his main government plan. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: He just finished being the president, right? So, he had five years?

ANA LORENA MORENO GARAY: Yes. It didn't go that well because there was not a lot of work done with the people. There was some type of imposition that took place in. It was all about our resources in the energy or oil. Just about everything. So, people didn't, didn't like it. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, he had this like social reform agenda where he was trying to make the country more capitalistic. Is that what he was trying to do? 

ANA LORENA MORENO GARAY: That's how it was understood. And here in Mexi-cali we started responding to the national call of protest and the protest that took place here was the biggest that has ever been. And since that day we have never stopped talking to our government, letting them know what we want. The water is one of the issues that continues to be a problem. There's a foreign investment that comes to our city that makes water part of their product. It's a brewery. It's a beer producer, a large corporation. They come here because they have the rights to sell Cordona, the beer, in the US market only. And California is the biggest market for that beer. They told them that there's a lot of water. So, they started to give them all kinds of facilities for them to be here. The farmers were the ones that brought all that information to us and we learned about those issues and the more we started digging, the more we understood that the problem, it was not going to go away just by asking. We needed to be there constantly. And there's people that since then have been in front of the Government Plaza and also in front of the site where the brewery is being built. So, what we want to do is to stop that construction in February, to leave because we don't have water. The aquifer is over extended, there's no recharge for the aquifer. We, we don't have rain here. It's one of the most arid areas in Mexico. So, we do need to talk about those issues before we have this kind of businesses coming and taking something that we are not going to get back. They use a lot of water to make one liter of beer and nothing of that is going to stay here. Everything is going to the US.  We don't want them here. Instead of opening up and talking to us and letting us know what their project was about, they treated us really badly. So, we have a pledge site, we have lawsuits that go from the brewery to us and from US citizens to them, we had been like two years into this fight to defend into protect our natural resources. There is water, but we need to take care of it, and we need to make sure that we understand that water cannot become a product. We needed to live, we needed to live. It's should we need to change the way we think about water. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, tell us a little bit about the air pollution here because you can hardly see the sun today. 

ANA LORENA MORENO GARAY: There’s no responsibility about our environment. We have to say it as it is. And even though the citizens are getting organized, there's a void in our government, and there's a lot of pollution that is being generated by cars. There's a pollution that we get from the industries and it's just really hard to breathe here. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, a lot of the cars I see have California plates. How are those cars ending up in Mexi-cali? 

ANA LORENA MORENO GARAY: There is not just California plates, there's Idaho and there's Nebraska and Arizona and so and so on. There are people that lived in the US and come back here, or they sell their cars and they stay here with the license plates. They call them actually the chocolate cars. And it is a huge problem because they're not accounted for and usually are older cars and they're not in good shape. We need to take very seriously this problem. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, have you thought about the change in your life? What does it mean in 2019 to be a strong environmental advocate who's pushing political campaigns in Mexico? 

ANA LORENA MORENO GARAY: I have always been political. I think that the first campaign that I actually participated in I was seven years old. I memorize a jingle of a presidential campaign. So I have been always, since I have memory been involved, and for me it's all about the greater good is there is no personal interest on this besides the fact that I have a conscience, and we cannot be standing in the line just waiting for somebody else to do something. If I see that there's a problem, that means that part of the solution is within me. I cannot just stay quiet. I have to do something. And when it comes to the environment here in Mexi-cali, it is just all over because it has been neglected. Whether it is trash, whether it is water, quality of air… In Mexico, we don't understand. Drinking water, you know, we have to pay for that and it's the responsibility of the government to give us drinking water. And so, it's just this, essentially the basic elements of sustaining life are based on our environment. They were not taking care of it. So, I can't stand just waiting for somebody else to do something. I always start just by reading the issues and under trying to understand them and then I go to the law and I'm not a lawyer, you know. I try to understand the best I can and then I go to experts and it is a lot of work, you know, it is a lot of work. My mom and my family say, why are you doing it? Is that work? Yeah, it is work, but you know, I'm not getting paid for it. That's the life of an activist. There's a lot at stake here now when we're talking about life, quality of life. So that's how it feels, it feels like a responsibility. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And how is the political establishment in business? How are they reacting to you? 

ANA LORENA MORENO GARAY: I do feel threatened. I feel persecuted. I feel observed. Just two weeks ago there was a reporter that lost his life. It's very real. Sometimes I get messages that don't say - I'm sorry if my voice breaks, but it is what I live, what I live on a daily basis with my family too. You know that something can happen to us. No one, we are outside, my mom is at home, you know that somebody come in and get us, pushes the door in and does something to our mom, you know, I would not be causing that, but there's people that don't like it. I have to separate that very consciously because if not, I will yield to fear and I'm willing to die for this. I'm willing to die for this. I'm not, I'm not staying quiet. I'm not staying quiet. I'm sorry. It's very real, the oppression, it is very real. And I have seen it in some other activists that had been more in the front and I advise a lot of the activists. I do a lot of that work that is not that much in the front right now here in Mexico. There is even a list of activists here that the government gave to United States homeland security so they wouldn't be able to cross the border, and that is repression. So, I live it on a daily basis. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Thank you. 

 

ANA LORENA MORENO GARAY: Thank you for being here.

JARED BLUMENFELD: Next step. I meet with Esther Bejarano who directs the health programs for Comite Civico Del Valle, a nonprofit that was founded in 1987 in Imperial County, California to improve the lives of disadvantaged communities through a broad range of approaches including civic education, outreach, research, citizen science and crowd sourcing. Esther spent the last decade working on asthma issues. We walked through Mexi-cali on route to the border crossing. I start by asking Esther to share a little of her history. 

ESTHER BEJARANO: I was born in Mexi-cali about maybe 30 miles from here to the east and I crossed the border illegally when I was about seven years old, and I’m a US citizen now. Naturalized.  

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Excellent.

 

ESTHER BEJARANO: You know before, the fence was open, there was no fence. So, my mother used to go across to buy groceries. My father was a farm worker and so we came to buy groceries and we just walked across, and we came back with groceries.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And then one day, you decided to stay?

 

ESTHER BEJARANO: One day they saw the Border Patrol saw us and said, you shouldn't be doing this, so they talked to us and my mom said, you know what, let's just move to the US. Your dad is going over there every day. You know, we hardly see him. He's always in Salinas. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, you've been living on the US side of the border and now you're working on asthma? 

 

ESTHER BEJARANO: I'm working on asthma. I'm working on empowering our community, my father, my uncles, my family, you know, this is the people who we live with, the people who we care about. And so that is what I do every day. I wake up and I do what I love to do. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, a lot of people come from the US to buy asthma medication here in Mexi-cali. 

 

ESTHER BEJARANO: So, I can come to this pharmacy here on your left. I can go in there, and ask for albuterol, which is a quick relief medication. In the US, it costs about maybe 70 to 200 dollars, and I can purchase it for under $10 right now. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And that's like an inhaler? 


ESTHER BEJARANO: It's an inhaler that I will help me breathe. So, if I'm having an asthma attack or I'm coughing or I'm wheezing and having chest tightness, I can come in here and they give me the inhaler. Two of my children have asthma. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And so, if you came over here, many people simply just can't afford to get the inhaler in the US at $200.

 

ESTHER BEJARANO: Yes, some of these pharmacies have doctors in them. So, they, you know, you talk to the doctor, you tell him whatever symptom you have, and you really avoid going to the doctor and spending money. Our community does not have a lot of resources and you know, we're just talking about a farm worker, they make about $50 a day. They wake up at one o'clock in the morning and start working at four or five. They get off work at five in the afternoon, maybe take home $50 or $60 a day, and they don't want to go and pay a consultant in the US or their employers are sending them to Mexico because that's where the medical care is, so you have to bring your child across the border. 
 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, there's an employer, like a farm worker would be employed and they'd tell you have to go to Mexico? 

 

ESTHER BEJARANO: Yes. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, they'd say to me, Jared, you need to go to Mexico to get your healthcare. 

 

ESTHER BEJARANO: Yes. So, we have a lot of employers in Imperial County, in the United States, that send you to Mexico to receive your medication. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, when you get the inhaler, you're then going to school, and they have an asthma attack. What happens? 

 

ESTHER BEJARANO: I was talking to a principal in one of the schools close to the Salton Sea. She says, Esther, we have a huge problem. You know, I have children that have their doctors in Mexico, and they bring medication from Mexico and they're huffing in front of me and I cannot administer that medication. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: So, they are told to go to Mexico to get the inhalers. They go get the inhalers, but then they can't use it in the school. Why? 

 

ESTHER BEJARANO: Because it is policy. It is not FDA approved and you can't, the school doesn't want to be liable. They rather you call 911, but we know that when you have asthma, you need the medication with you at all times. We had a mother. I spoke to a mom that works in El Centro. She sent me an email. She says, I work for the Imperial County Office of Education. I'm a teacher. I took my child to Mexi-cali because that's where my employer sent me to go to the doctor. She's a government employee and I was so upset that the nurse would not take the medication. I explained to her. It is not the nurse’s fault. That is what she is instructed to do. This was a policy that happens countywide. And this problem is also in San Diego. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It's crazy. 

 

ESTHER BEJARANO: But my brother has a friend who just passed three months ago because he wasn't taking his medication. So, there are people dying in Imperial County due to asthma. Is it something that completely can be avoidable.

JARED BLUMENFELD: Esther walks me back through US customs into Calexico where I meet out with José Luis Olmedo Velez who is the director of Comite Civico del Valle. Luis is one of the leading advocates for social and environmental justice along the US/Mexico border. Luis, it sounds like you had a very binational childhood. 

JOSÉ LUIS OLMEDO VELEZ: I was born in Mexi-cali and at age seven and I began to travel to the US side. I would travel with my dad. He was a farm worker and he would work in Imperial in the summer months, he would follow the harvest season north. So, I've traveled all throughout California. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, thirty years ago your dad formed an organization? 

 

JOSÉ LUIS OLMEDO VELEZ: My dad, his involvement in that farm worker movement at the local level and he credits his experience and the leadership skills that were developed. I think it was pretty clear that the farm worker community, also referred as the migrant community, needed a voice. And his response was they needed to have an organization. In order to have a voice, they needed to have a vote. So, one of the first things that my dad embarked in was to develop this group, which they called Comite Civico del Valle in 1989. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And, and at what point did it become an organization focused on environmental issues? 

 

JOSÉ LUIS OLMEDO VELEZ: So, we first addressed it through health and through community health workers, also known as promotores. We're out there in the community or interacting with the community and we started realizing, well we can push paper, you know, for decades upon decades and really not make a big dent. So, they realized that in order to be able to solve a lot of the health issues that the farm worker population were experiencing, they needed to remove the trigger and a lot of these were remove the pesticides, remove the toxins, remove the pollution. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, many people when they think of California, they think of these beaches or Silicon Valley or the Golden Gate Bridge. Like describe a little bit where we are, where we're driving right now. This is a California that's been forgotten. 

 

JOSÉ LUIS OLMEDO VELEZ: The way that that California looks at us is as a very rural agricultural area. We've never seen this area as anything other than rural because that's what we were trained to communicate as. And our true representation is we're a hybrid between a rural and a metropolitan area because just to the south is a metropolitan area and we're part of that metropolitan area. But, we're also rural because once you cross the border and you travel a few miles, then you see the rural areas of this salt and sea air basin. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I mean, we've just done that and it's kind of incredible. I mean, literally 10 minutes ago, you and I were walking through the border and on the other side is a city of one and a half, 2 million, and now like, just describe what we see around us. 

JOSÉ LUIS OLMEDO VELEZ: Once you cross the border, you don't have the density and traffic around us. You know, we have fields, we have all types of crops. You know, there's a lot of grass crops. There are certain areas in the valley that are also very productive when it comes to vegetable growing. That is sort of the economic engine. You know, this valley was founded on agriculture and because of diversion of the Colorado River, it's become a very fertile land. And, and it's one of the major job creators, and the other thing to note is, that as we're crossing the border, it's also evident that law enforcement is also one of the major job creators out here because of the prisons that we have. We have a couple of prisons, and we have probably every law enforcement you can think of. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, talking of law enforcement, when we were right next to the border fence, you were pointing out the razor wire that had just recently been installed. 

JOSÉ LUIS OLMEDO VELEZ: The razor wire is being ripped off the fence and then being sold to the neighboring communities to protect those homes. So, it's unnecessary, I mean it really gives a feel of a fascist communist type of government. I mean, I've never seen that. We're a very peaceful community and we're interconnected with Mexico. We have family on both sides, and I don't believe that it solves anything other than to just create local tensions and create local pressures. That's not what we're about in this community. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: You came up with a really ingenious and cool way of thinking about the role that communities can play in enforcement. 

JOSÉ LUIS OLMEDO VELEZ: The more we understood enforcement, the more we understood policy, the more we understood how to develop programs, we're able to utilize these experiences and these tools to be a partner with government. Who's in the best position then the community to inform the whole process? How do we get there? What are the local strategies? 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, if you're a community member and you live next to a facility and it's polluting the watershed, what would you do? 

JOSÉ LUIS OLMEDO VELEZ: You can text a report in, you can call it in. You can utilize a mobile app. You can use a computer or desktop, or you can go to the monthly task force. And that's important because we have consistency. Every third Thursday of the month, we meet at the local department of toxics. And when we meet there, then people can come in and submit their reports at that time and we'll do it for them. Or they'll call our office. We're able to then report back so government can then come back and report back what happened with that. Not every incident that gets submitted is a violation or a crime. A lot of times there's a need for information so that people understand what is truly a crime, what is not, and then in some cases they are able to learn more about their own community. We've also found that sometimes there's a need for policy, and that's also important. A lot of times, there's new things that hadn't been thought about and there's a need to push for new policy to be able to address some environmental pollution. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Tell us about the air quality problem in Imperial and then kind of how you found solutions. 

JOSÉ LUIS OLMEDO VELEZ: Some of the first steps that we took is we knew we wanted more data. We didn't trust the governmental monitors. That was the feeling at that time. We need community monitors. We wanted to see that if there was something happening, fence line to neighborhood, we wanted to see it in the monitor. But if the monitor is 5, 10, 15 miles away, then clearly that built lack of trust because people weren't able to tell the story through the monitors. But at that point, it wasn't real science yet. So, when this National Institutes of Health opportunity came by, we were able to recruit scientists and researchers, monitoring experts to create what we now call Ivan Air. And currently we have 40 air monitors that we operate. And I can tell you that in the past we didn't know this language, but you know, now we've been able to better understand when it comes to regulatory methodologies, citing methodologies, scientific methodologies and how to take a low cost sensor and be able to add these algorithms and calibrations. You know, all of these words that are associated to good scientific citizen science. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, what is the data showing us about the air quality here? That right today, I mean, there's mountains around us, but we can't see anything. 

JOSÉ LUIS OLMEDO VELEZ: There's a combination of particles coming from the north, Salton Sea, from the desert, you know, from the Los Angeles Air Basin. There's pollution coming from Mexico. And so, what happens is that we are in a bowl, so we're surrounded by dust. The mountains are an average of forty miles on every direction. We can’t see them because the further we look the more dense the pollution is. And so, it's unfortunate because this is a valley. It's got beautiful mountains all around us. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: This data is used to help schools, for instance, with a flag program so that they know when their kids should be staying inside, especially those kids that are sensitive to asthma. 

JOSÉ LUIS OLMEDO VELEZ: There's a lot of uses for the data. We've worked with the local high schools and the high school utilizes it for part of their programs. And some of these are state mandated programs, like environmental literacy or civic literacy. They actually utilize that opportunity to engage the students on better understanding the data, the science, then doing something about the pollution. It's creating a much greater awareness where now everybody is sort of policing the air quality. It's no different than a rainy-day schedule, but for some reason we feel that it's more dangerous to be out in the rain than it is to be out and out in poor air quality. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, this morning, you and I went to visit Veronica who lives out on a farm in a rural part of the county. Her water comes from the irrigation ditch. 

JOSÉ LUIS OLMEDO VELEZ: Everybody having access to water is important. It's important for agriculture. It's important for human consumption and having clean water is a human right and having access to water is a human right. It's a very contentious issue because the majority of the water is used for agriculture. It’s an economic engine. We as an organization, we care about public health. We care about people having access to clean water. Nobody should be having a drink unhealthy water. And it's very expensive to have bottled water. Bottled water is a luxury, and a lot of the people who live out in the countryside home, many of them are farm workers, but it's hard. There was a lot of pushback on our organization. I mean some political candidates back in October 2018 even were paying for paid publicity, calling us environmental terrorists. The issues of public health and in the environment and you know, food production, they shouldn't be an opportunity for political platform. Politics shouldn't be divisive in that way. What they should do is really facilitate conversations between community and industry so that everybody is able to share the resource and that everybody has what they need, whether it's to grow crops, to create jobs, but also to drink. I mean, because I mean everybody needs water. Everybody needs clean water and it's a resource just like there. We all need it. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: A huge thank you to Ana Lorena Morena Garay, Esther Bejarano, and José Luis Olmedo Velez for their incredible commitment to fighting for environmental justice along the US/ Mexico border. As I was thinking about the tale of Calexico and Mexi-cali, the words of Charles Dickens came to mind. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief. It was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of light. It was the season of darkness. It was the spring of hope. It was the winter of despair.” In the next episode of Podship Earth, I talk with the heroes of the planet, the winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize, which recognizes those who are overcoming enormous odds in battling pollutants. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, sound engineer Rob Speight, executive producer David Kahn, and from me, Jared Blumenfeld, have a great Earth Day week.