How Asian & Latina Immigrant Women Fight to Help Us Breathe Easier
By Nadia Y. Kim | August 17, 2021
Nadia Y. Kim is Professor of Sociology and of Asian and Asian American Studies at Loyola Marymount University.
When casual observers think of the “environment,” we often conjure up oceans, forests, and animal life, or the fires and floods of climate change—but less so, racism, and even more rarely, white nationalism. Yet, my research affirms that white nationalism cannot be extricated from the “environment” in the United States, and vice versa. Nor can the environmental justice movement be understood without appreciating the central role of women of color – including immigrants – in leading and defining it.
Even without documents, these women (and smaller numbers of men and youth) are changing the grassroots and political landscape of global cities like Los Angeles. Yet we know little about who they are, their process, and their impact.
Leading the Fight for Cleaner Air
As a case in point, immigrant (and African American) women have been the ones who have brought nationwide attention to the spiking asthma rates in communities of color. In Los Angeles, the largest urban oil field in the country, both diesel and oil refinery emissions lead to unhealthy air. By 2000, Black American and Latinx children across Los Angeles County were more likely than white Americans to report asthma-linked limitations on physical activity and to request urgent medical services, while Asian American children reported a higher asthma prevalence than Latinx youth. A 2003 national study found that Hispanic, African American, and Asian and Pacific Islander mothers were more than twice as likely as white mothers to live in the most air-polluted counties in the country.
Yet, compared to most industrialized countries, the United States collects only sparse data on asthma. Moreover, the US government has never had a federally directed effort to monitor and address asthma – an oversight so curious that even the Pew Environmental Health Coalition raised it as an issue in their nationwide study of the epidemic. In effect, the government regulatory world is engineering an asthma population/health crisis. Who steps into the gap? And how do they step in?
In the port-industrial belt of LA, it is Asian (mostly Filipina) and Latina (mostly Mexican) immigrant women and mothers who are fighting for cleaner air for their families and communities, making it a gendered phenomenon as well as a race- and class-based one.
In the port-industrial belt of LA, it is Asian (mostly Filipina) and Latina (mostly Mexican) immigrant women and mothers who are fighting for cleaner air for their families and communities, making it a gendered phenomenon as well as a race- and class-based one. To be sure, it is not always mothering that animates the movements that I have studied; some of the parenting of the Asian and Latina activist mothers suffered precisely because of their organizing. These women fight stigmas and subordination because they know that their communities suffer extreme pollution as a result of being seen as outside of the “white nation,” as the Trump era crystallized.
Inequalities Between Bodies
In this context, a growing chorus of Asian, Pacific Islander, Latina, and other immigrant women have assumed the helm of grassroots community organizing not just for environmental justice but for immigration, school, labor, domestic violence, welfare, and social service reform, especially as these affect migrants of color.
Between 2008 and 2013, I studied a movement against oil refineries and pollution in schools led mostly by Filipina American women residing in Carson, CA, where a concentration of middle-class Filipinx ethnics live. The main community-based organization I worked with was People’s CORE, a progressive Filipinx-focused organization that serviced Carson residents and low-income immigrants on issues such as environmental injustice and tenant rights. During the same time frame, I also worked with movements led by Mexican immigrant women living in working-class West Long Beach and Wilmington, communities where many are undocumented. With organizations like Coalition for a Safe Environment, Community Partners Council, Communities for a Better Environment, and Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma, their campaigns similarly focused on refineries and school hazards, as well as curbing diesel emissions and blocking the widening of the I-710 freeway that was already too close to their residences.
In working with these different movements, I found that the women redefined racism and classism as inequalities between bodies. Of course, one might expect activists who fight disproportionate environmental poisoning of their communities and an asthma epidemic to center embodiment. However, I was struck by how much the women, in the fight for environmental justice, redefined nativist racism and classism by spotlighting not just the bodily injustices but the emotional ones that they suffered. Such a perspective prompted the immigrants to see no separation between their bodies/emotions and their communities, ZIP codes that normally went unnoticed or were shunned by mainstream Angelenos.
“Citizenship” to many of these undocumented organizers was not really about assimilation, voting, campaigning, and having the state grant marginalized people “rights”; it was, as they practiced, taking care of each other’s bodies and emotional lives.
As a result, “citizenship” to many of these undocumented organizers was not really about assimilation, voting, campaigning, and having the state grant marginalized people “rights”; it was, as they practiced, taking care of each other’s bodies and emotional lives. State neglect left them with few other options.
A New Vision of Environmental Justice
By innovatively remapping environmental justice in this manner, what have these immigrant-led movements taught us about the social changes that need to take effect? First, that they need to be systemic or large-scale. These women expose the state as not caring, and worse, as committing violence against their communities. If the women cannot end the economic system that puts profit over people and the white supremacy that hyper-pollutes their neighborhoods, they aim to shame the government into bringing back robust social welfare policies that have been unraveled since the Reagan era (e.g., expansive healthcare, federally-funded schools). Their fights for non-fossil fuels and against the siting of freeways and refineries next to their homes and their children’s schools reflect a unique blending of their involvement in school reform and their work for environmental justice. They work to ensure no racist tracking of their children and the availability of immigrant-centered counseling inside their schools, while fighting over-pollution near and around them. Like the women, policymakers should not see education and the environment as separate.
Like the women, policymakers should not see education and the environment as separate.
Another societal shift that these women expose is the need for the healthcare industry to understand and center environmental causes of disease and premature death. For one, this would expand knowledge and treatment of the systemic causes of and solutions for asthma, other lung diseases, and cancers. Furthermore, it would institutionalize medical needs specific to (immigrant) communities of color who are misunderstood and under-resourced, especially the low-income and undocumented. This more comprehensive view of community health would take history as well as societal and environmental forces into account: a political goal for the Filipinx organizers in particular was to make connections between US (neo)colonialism in the Philippines (e.g., military bases, corporate dumping, deforestation for profit) and the health impacts they suffered from oil refinery pollution of their ethnic neighborhoods in US communities like Carson.
Finally, policy must consider the important connection between environmental injustices, white nationalism, and the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, why have Black, Latinx, and Pacific Islander communities suffered the highest rates of COVID-19 deaths? It owes in large part to their health having already been compromised by disproportionate pollution at the hands of environmental racism and classism. In my recent interviews with Latinxs in the Los Angeles communities I studied, they revealed that they were stricken by COVID-19 in alarming numbers because of their exploitation as (undocumented) essential workers, the lack of financial capacity to stop working, their multigenerational or crowded households, their lack of access to full health insurance and care, and general fear of deportation and state-sanctioned violence if they were to engage with formal institutions. And, as with the case of asthma and cancer, it is usually the Latinas who first notice COVID-19 symptoms in their loved ones, who take initiative, and who do the care work.
While the immigrant women of my study showed that, under state neglect and violence, they are also the ones taking care of themselves and each other, we as a society could do our part. As we see paralleled in wearing masks and getting vaccinated for the good of others, centering the collective means that if all of us would consume less and thereby waste less, fewer diesel-run ships, vehicles, and oil refineries would exist to hyper-pollute their lungs. When we think of the “environment,” then, let us think of these women suffering racism and white nationalism as readily as we do animals and oceans.