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Iowa Latino Groups Take Action For Their Environments

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Paloma Bribriesco, 6, holds up her nature journal outside the Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids. Her journal has entries from all of the adventures she's been on, like hiking and discovering new animals.

Six-year-old Paloma Bribriesco shows the way around the Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids. She just finished nature camp. And sometimes, she ran around too fast to keep up.

Her dad Andrew Bribriesco cheered her on: "¡Correle, correle!" (Run, run!)

Paloma's pink and white tennis shoes pound the damp dirt of the grounds as she runs toward the Center.

"I have a pretty good bird sound!" She said, and tweeted on her way.

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Paloma holds up Squiggles the turtle (with help from a camp counselor). She said people shouldn't be afraid of animals, as long as they learn about them. "The shell felt kind of smooth and the leg kind of felt a little bumpy and squishy," she said.

When she was on a break after camp, Paloma looked at the turtles in the indoor exhibit. She pointed out Squiggles, who she got to pet that day. She talked about why nature is so important to her.

“Because it kind of gives us more things to know for later in life like if you go for a Jungle Cruise and get lost or if you're being attacked by a bobcat," she said.

If people are being attacked by a bobcat, Paloma recommended not running, because a bobcat will always be faster than humans. She said people should try to hit it anywhere in the nose or the eyes.

Paloma earned her junior ranger badge through the national park service and the Channel Islands National Park. She said part of her job as a junior ranger is sharing her knowledge with grownups. She can do it in Spanish and English. She listed some animals, "Tortuga...pulpo..." (turtle and octopus).

"Then you can teach others to respect all nature. And to teach them to love nature, and then there would be more people on the same track," she said.

A group of Latino civil rights advocates has joined Paloma on that track. The Iowa League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) has created a Climate and Environmental Justice Committee. Paloma was the youngest member at the meeting.

Cristina Muñoz De La Torre led the conversation. She’s the newly appointed climate and environmental justice director. Part of her responsibility is to make sure Latinos in the state have healthy living and working conditions. In her work, she informs federal and state policymakers so all communities can see environmental justice.

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Cristina Muñoz De La Torre is a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa where her dissertation analyzes the distribution of FEMA assistance after floods and hurricanes, and evaluates whether that assistance is distributed equitably.

“To the greater world, and to the rest of the United States, it may not [be] obvious that there's a big Latino presence in Iowa, let alone that the kind of environmental and climate justice issues that we're facing are unique in Iowa. Thus, we need to bring that attention to the state and national level," Muñoz De La Torre said.

She also said compared to other states, Iowa doesn't get the same national attention. She pointed to the August derecho as an example, saying the storm didn't gain the same national concern as other natural disasters.

The LULAC Iowa state director, Nick Salazar, gathered input from Latinos across the state last year to ask what was important to them. He said over and over again, the responses were about the environment. Although the environment has always been a concern within LULAC, Salazar said it wasn't designated as a priority in past years.

He said the injustices Latinos face, voting rights, workers' rights, are all interconnected.

“We believe that the climate and environmental issue is the mother of all collective issues, which is kind of an umbrella for what we are already doing," Salazar said.

A recent report from the United Nations found climate change is accelerating and it’s mostly caused by humans.

Muñoz De La Torre said Latinos are usually more hurt by the hazards caused by climate change because they’re on the front lines. Many in Iowa work in agriculture, manufacturing and construction. These types of jobs may feel the effects of climate change more acutely.

Communities of color, in general, are considered a vulnerable population for climate effects which can result in health threats. Climate change has been shown to have a negative health and economic impact as well as increasing the information and service gaps for Latinos, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

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Paloma looks through a telescope. The six-year-old knew the answer to almost every question about outdoor critters her dad and nanny asked her.

“I think one of the biggest things is to acknowledge that environmental injustice, economic or racial inequities, they're all like symptoms," Muñoz De La Torre said. "They're all different symptoms of the same kind of illness, which is the systemic marginalization of certain communities and sacrifices of them for an economic profit.”

The Iowa Environmental Council has a justice, equity, diversity and inclusion initiative as one way to address the inequities Muñoz De La Torre and other Latino leaders are concerned about.

“I think we need more perspectives, more voices, we need people coming at this from, you know, new angles," executive director Brian Campbell said.“We need Latino leaders along with all different other diverse voices in order to have the best solutions and the environmental solutions.”

The new partnership between the Iowa Environmental Council and LULAC allows for that to happen, according to both Salazar and Muñoz De La Torre. At the meeting, Muñoz De La Torre discussed how in the past, environmentalist movements were primarily led by white organizations.

When we talk about diversifying the movement, it's not just making sure your board has people of color, or you have people of color in your membership. It's about reaching out to folks who are already impacted, already doing the work," Salazar added.

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Paloma changed the direction of a panel at the Center's solar farm. "You know, Morocco has the largest one. It comes from a little bit of Morocco and spills out to the Sahara," she said. Her brows furrow as she shares all of the facts she knows.

Members of Iowa Indigenous communities also joined LULAC members in the new environmental committee.

The diverse leaders are also focused on engaging members of the younger generation to get involved in environmental policy.

"It inspires me to have younger generations already having that language and education and the tools to speak to that. And so I definitely want to support those efforts," Muñoz De La Torre said.

Back at the nature camp, Paloma Bribriesco wants to be an environmentalist when she grows up. That way, she can teach others about how to keep nature safe for people and for animals. She finished the tour of her nature camp with a big solar farm where she can change the direction of one of the panels. She left everyone with one big idea before leaving for lunch.

She focused her blue-green eyes and stared straight ahead with a little furrow in her brow, "The less nature there is, then there’s less nature to support us, for us to thrive."