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Breathing in Southeast Los Angeles

By Jimena Perez and Irina Sandoval

Art by Kaitlyn Anderson

Living by the 105 Freeway is growing used to the sounds of cars, trucks, motorcycles, and the Green Line storming through loudly, making its presence known to all. It is becoming accustomed to freeway underpasses being a part of my daily walk to elementary school. It is being told by my mother to steer away from the debris and polluted materials along the path. It is noticing houseless folk struggling to find support and resources in order to survive and constantly being criminalized by the city. It is not knowing what a city devoid of noise sounds like. It is constantly being surveilled by helicopters and wondering who they are out to get this time. It is slowly noticing new gentrification projects being hauled in and that it's up to the Southeast Los Angeles community to organize and mobilize against the possible displacement. It is hearing about more and more peers in my class having respiratory issues or developing asthma. It is dealing with the fact that I am conditioned to breathing the toxic, unhealthy smogfilled air of Los Angeles. It is dealing with the reality that environmental justice communities, which are disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards, face these conditions and are raised believing this is the “norm.” It is coming to the conclusion that these damn freeways have ties to legacies of displacement, redlining, environmental racism, and gentrification that I have yet to process and deal with.

Living on the Huntington Park-Vernon border has been the presence of large trucks and grey buildings my entire life. Vernon, being an entirely industrial city, exempts the community from having a tree in sight — or a breath of fresh air. When the air smells disgusting in the mornings, due mostly to the Farmer John’s factory a couple blocks away, we use humor and tell jokes. I have vivid memories of driving down Leonis Blvd. with my parents and suddenly smelling a horrible smell. “Quien se hecho un pedo?” We would laugh and defend ourselves; “yo no! Yo no fui!” These are some of the most precious moments with my parents during my childhood, but at the root of this is this horrible environmental injustice. The air has an almost unbearable smell; if it smelled like that in Hanover people wouldn’t have to get used to it. But that’s not how it is around here. I mean, community members have made successful efforts to protect our hoods from the harmful pollutants in Vernon, but the Farmer John’s factory… well that’s just something we’re all used to. Something we do not deserve to live with, but I guess that is just the way it is.

Recent California fires worsened the already unhealthy air quality of our neighborhoods. The sky was orange for weeks and we were never formally told to stay indoors to avoid the extremely dangerous air quality. It was something we took upon ourselves, knowing that the state and government were not gonna advise us to do. Everytime, I walked outside to check on the world, it was difficult to breathe, as if I was inhaling sparks into my lungs.

The sensation was almost comparable to the sharp, crisp air of Hanover which we struggled to adjust to breathing.

In Hanover, we kept a running joke about the irony of our lungs struggling to adjust to clean air.

It was as if our lungs were so adjusted to the toxic, poor quality LA air that they could not adapt to the air improvement.

The air on campus is a privilege that not everyone has, and it is so disheartening to sit and think “why do I get access to this clean air, and why is it only available to me when I am on this campus.”

It made us realize that the simple right to breathe is only afforded to a few.

It also makes me think about mobility and who has the ability to travel to places like Hanover. It is like we (our lungs) could take a break from this reality during the time we spend on campus.

But since the pandemic started and I have spent all this time at home, I have begun to view nature differently. The Huntington Park-Vernon border is a pretty industrial area in Los Angeles. I always imagined nature to be everywhere except here. Nature was in places like Hanover. A drive or a plane ride away, but certainly not here.

But nature is in ..

.. In the summer afternoons before the sun starts to set, the neighborhood kids come out to play basketball, to skate, to just sit and talk in the backyard we share with two other families. Under a large guayaba tree that offers us shade in the LA heat, we live and we breathe.

Just as Hanover is filled with skyhigh trees, boundless nature is not absent, but abundant in our communities.

It is not a coincidence that we grow up thinking all there is to our homes is industry, but how can that be the case when we have grass in our backyards.

When we have towering dragon tree plants that wave to us in our windows, brown hummingbirds that sing to us, and the dogs and roosters that wake up the whole block.

When we have trees that offer us shade and are so kind as to sometimes give us lemons and pomegranates. We have roses that grow and push through the rigid concrete.

Nature is everywhere. The environment and the body are interconnected. It is a continuity that capitalism sets out to separate because it has the potential to radically change our understanding of nature and push us to (re)build our connection with it. Nature is living and what is done onto the environment is done onto our bodies and vise versa.

Nature is anywhere and everywhere, yet industrial capitalism has made us think we are not worthy of it so much so that it refuses to grow around here. Our lives are seen as expendable — but they are not. If tremendous profits can be made from setting up industries in our neighborhoods, it does not matter if it is at the expense of our air and overall environment.

After all, what is the harm of polluting the air and soil if our communities are imagined as having no grass and no trees here, anyways?


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