Latinos Marinos - Advocacy Group Connects California’s Grassroots Coastal Advocates

Latinos Marinos - Advocacy Group Connects California’s Grassroots Coastal Advocates

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Above: Members of Latinos Marinos meet with legislative staff in Sacramento as part of Ocean Day 2017.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Pacoima resident and community organizer Felipe Escobar loves going to the beach to play soccer, but he says litter, and especially glass, can be a problem.

“My friends and I go to Santa Monica,” Escobar told lawmakers during a visit to Sacramento as part of Ocean Day 2017. The March 14 event drew representatives from coastal advocacy groups around the state to press legislators on critical issues involving the coast. “But every time we go I cut my feet on glass.”

Escobar is with Pacoima Beautiful, a community group working on environmental justice issues in the mostly-working class Los Angeles neighborhood. He is also part of Latinos Marinos, a statewide cohort of Latino community advocates and organizers.

Until recently, such groups have been largely siloed from one another, focusing their efforts on environmental justice issues within their respective communities. But thanks to Marce Gutierrez Graudiņš, founder of AZUL and a longtime coastal advocate, they’ve found a collective voice that they are now bringing to the capitol. 
 
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The 12th annual Ocean Day 2017 drew over 100 representatives from some of California's leading coastal advocacy organizations. 

And their numbers are growing. Gutierrez Graudiņš started the group two years ago, when she says it was basically just her in a room of mostly-white coastal advocates. Today Latinos Marinos number over 20, representing communities and organizations up and down the California coast.

One member of the group, Arlis Reynolds, says Latinos Marinos points to a “growing army” of Latino activists representing the new face of coastal advocacy in California.

Reynolds, along with her mom, Olga, helped spearhead Save Banning Ranch Together, a campaign that helped stave off efforts to develop a 401-acre space along the Orange County coast. That effort ultimately succeeded, with the California Coastal Commission rejecting the plan put forward by developers late last year.

A similar effort is underway in Oxnard, a mostly-low-income farming community along the Central Coast that also happens to be a designated superfund site. Elma Del Aguila, 18, is an organizer with CAUSE, which has been fighting plans for a proposed fourth power plant to be built in the area. She says families like hers have offered up a “resounding no” to the Puente Power Project, and she sees it as her obligation to give voice to their concerns.

“Because we’re low income, a lot of residents think they can’t speak out,” she said. Which is why she and 30 other youth leaders turned out in January to protest a meeting with NRG Energy Inc., the group behind the Puente Project.

A decision on the project from the California Energy Commission is expected in May. Del Aguila says she will continue to fight the project, and was in Sacramento pressing lawmakers to support that cause. Asked if she sees herself as a torchbearer for coastal issues in her community, she pointed to several of her peers who joined her in Sacramento. “We all feel like that,” she replied. 
 
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Elma Del Aguila (center) along with CAUSE youth leaders attended the annual Ocean Day event in Sacramento on March 14. 

Gutierrez Graudiņš says the motivation for Latinos Marinos was to bring grassroots activists together so that their voice and the voice of their communities would be part of the collective conversation.

It could not come at a better time, says Jack Ainsworth, the new head of the California Coastal Commission. Speaking to the crowd of advocates at Ocean Day, he described the multiple threats confronting California’s majestic 1,100 miles of coast. These include rising sea levels, aggressive developers and a Trump administration that is looking to gut agencies like his.

“The threats to the coast are incredibly significant,” said Ainsworth, adding the Trump administration - which he dryly noted “does not share California’s values” - has proposed what amounts to a 10 percent reduction in funding for the commission. That, he said, would leave the regulatory agency in “deep doo doo.”

Ainsworth also stressed that public engagement was key to fighting back. ”We rely on the public,” he told the audience, without which the end result would be “bad decisions and bad outcomes” for any Californian who cares about coastal protection.

Pedro Nava is a former member of the Coastal Commission and the current head of the Little Hoover Commission. He’s been involved in coastal issues in the state for decades, and says without the engagement of California’s diverse communities, coastal advocacy “has no future.”

“As Latinos, we have to understand that these are our beaches too,” he said. “And I think we’re getting better at it.”