“When I first moved to this area, I had thought I had the evil eye. My son started getting bloody noses. My daughter started getting stomach aches. Everyone in my family kept getting sick. But when I started knocking on my neighbors’ doors I found out everyone had the evil eye. Yo no soy yo no más. It’s the whole community. We are really impacted by these toxins we are breathing.” – Lucy Molina

Lucy’s story is part of our blog series in conjunction with the first-ever Colorado Latino Climate Justice Policy Handbook. 

Historically, environmental policymakers have failed to fully understand the intersection of conservation policy and the unique issues impacting Latino communities across Colorado. Protégete created the policy handbook as a bilingual tool to help communities advocate for solutions that pave the way towards broader climate resilience. It will also help policymakers to better understand environmental inequities that Latino communities in Colorado are facing. It illustrates the historical context of environmental racism on Latino communities, provides innovative data, and presents a range of solutions to solve the most pressing environmental issues Latinos in Colorado are currently facing. This blog series delves deeper into the stories of community leaders who are experiencing and addressing many of the issues that the policy handbook details.

Read the rest of the stories!

Commerce City and North Denver contain some of the most polluted neighborhoods in the state and even the country. These communities, which have high percentages of Latino residents, are heavily impacted by environmental injustice—surrounded by factories, large rail yards, highways, waste facilities, and other industrial activities that pollute the air, water, and soil. According to recent EPA data, there are 183 total facilities in this area with at least one documented violation in the past 3 years and 94 facilities with documented current violations. Exposure to pollutants that these facilities release can increase residents’ risk of cancer, asthma, diabetes, and other health problems. 

Commerce City and North Denver are also home to many residents who have been standing up to polluters, calling attention to the disproportionate burden of pollution that they carry, and demanding justice for their communities. Lucy Molina is a community organizer with 350 Colorado and one of the best-known voices standing up to pollution and environmental racism in Commerce City. She shared her perspective and how she came to raise her voice with Conservation Colorado and Protégete. Here we present our edited interview with Lucy.

“I had the ‘Aha’ moment: it’s pollution that’s making us sick”

When I moved to this area of Commerce City next to Suncor, I thought this was the perfect place for my family. There was a new high school on Quebec Street and a park behind my house. Our kids here are so smart. You go to the schools and you hear Hola buenas tardes, Good afternoon; they all speak two languages. I loved the community. I started planning my whole future around it.

But soon we saw the downsides. The smells were very strong. It smelled like rotten eggs here, all the time. The first year of living here, my son started getting bloody noses. He would be sitting in class and just drip. My daughter started getting stomach aches. They started missing a lot of school. My mom, who is a diabetic, was living with me, and she kept getting more sick. 

At first I thought it was my fault. For two years I was going to all these doctors trying to figure out what was going on. As Latinos, we’re proud parents. Everything I do is for my kids. But the schools and the doctors seemed to blame me for my kids’ sicknesses. So when I got hit with truancy and they put a caseworker on me to investigate, I felt like I was being attacked. I was like, what am I doing wrong?

Finally, I had the “Aha” moment. I was talking to Kristi Douglas, who is now a Commerce City councilmember. She told me, it’s probably Suncor that’s making you sick. 

I felt like the shroud was out of my eyes. I had thought Suncor was just providing gas. But then I started looking at everything in a whole new light. I learned about how Suncor had been fined multiple times for pumping carcinogens into the air; how they were operating with expired permits. I thought of my grandma, who died of leukemia and my auntie who got breast cancer. Suncor could have given them these cancers. I started to realize all this stuff we’ve been dealing with might be because there’s poison in our air. The next time I drove home past Suncor, I felt this darkness. How could this have been in front of my face the whole time? Why did no one warn me of the risks? 

I had thought I had the evil eye when everyone in my family kept getting sick. But when I started knocking on my neighbors’ doors I found out everyone had the evil eye. Yo no soy yo no más. It’s the whole community. A lot of parents get hit with truancy just like I did, because their kids are sick or they are sick themselves and their kids have to help pay the bills or drive them to the hospital. We’re getting punished by the same government that on the other hand is allowing industries to continue poisoning our air. We are really impacted by these toxins we are breathing. The EPA warned that these things cause cancer back in the 90s. And the fact that nobody in our government did anything about it for decades is environmental racism. 

So I started going to events. I started talking to these scientists, sociologists, and doctors. I learned about how fracking was harming children in the whiter neighborhoods up north. I thought, my community has been a sacrifice zone for pollution for decades and no one ever seemed to care.

“This is a sacrifice zone.” 

I grew up in the 80216 zip code, on the other side of Suncor, right in the middle of what I call the “Bermuda Triangle” of polluters: the Purina Factory, Suncor, and the Xcel Comanche natural gas plant. We’re surrounded by all these factories, three major highways, large rail yards, and more than 10 waste facilities. Almost my whole family was raised in Globeville-Elyria Swansea. And almost everyone has some sort of health issue. 

We lost my grandma to leukemia. On the block where her house is, almost everyone has lost someone to cancer. But we didn’t have the awareness that the pollution might be causing it. My cousin from Texas would spend the summers here, and she’d always get those bloody noses, just like my son. The adults told us that she couldn’t spend time in the sun. Now I know it wasn’t the sun, it was the air. 

My nieces and nephews are diabetic. Almost every other house here has a diabetic, including mine. People always say that Latinos have high rates of diabetes because we drink a lot of soda. I believed that for a long time—in my ignorance I thought that people with obesity get diabetes, but now I’m meeting all these young, healthy kids who have diabetes. Researchers are now saying that the pollutants we breathe can cause diabetes. So here I was thinking everything was our fault, that we get sick because we aren’t eating right. Now I see the pattern with a different clarity: maybe it’s not our diet, it’s not genetic, it’s not our family history, because our neighbors are getting sick too. The thing we have in common is that we live in this triangle of pollution. 

A lot of my family has asthma. Friends have told me they developed asthma when they moved here. When you think that Colorado was one of the most healthy, beautiful paradise-like states back in the day, that’s pretty scary. The last pieces of paradise are being destroyed. And our government allows it. 

Since we’re already sick, any other diseases that come are even worse for us. The pandemic hit us hard. My mom is diabetic. She got covid and almost died on me. She went to stay with my brother in Lakewood until she gets better, because I was afraid that here she’d just get more sick. 

I am constantly worried I’ll get cancer. At this point I just expect it. I have fibromyalgia from all this stress I’ve gone through. There are times my migraines are so bad I can’t see. It’s shocking. It changes your life. 

The best thing I could do for my own health is to move, but where would I move? This whole state is getting gentrified, so it’s expensive to move anywhere. When I look around I can only afford to move to Greeley and Pueblo and there’s terrible pollution there, too. Plus we’ve lived here all our life. We made the investment into our futures here, without being warned about the risks. 

This is a sacrifice zone. The smell in the air and the industrial waste and the cancer and asthma and heart disease in our communities has been normalized. But this is not normal.

“I speak two languages, and I’m gonna use my voice until I die.”

Once I found out about all this, I wasn’t going to wait for someone to tell me what to do or how to fix it. I speak two languages, thanks to God, and I’m gonna use my voice until I die. I have nothing to lose. These industries already took 30 years off my life with the stress and death and pain and suffering and environmental racism and injustices that we have to go through as families. We’ve been through it all. We’ve relocated so industry can move in. They are banking off of human misery. 

So civic responsibility was something I took. I started knocking on doors. I started making a stink at the local city council, and then testifying in commissions and boards. The first time I asked our city council for air monitors, they basically laughed me out of the room. I was told there’s nothing they could do. I was told my issues are genetic. A mi me cerraron las puertas. But we need to keep pushing or this industry will continue to control our government. I’ve been living in this stink forever. It’s my turn to make a stink, and so I took every opportunity, every platform. They started knowing who I was. 

I had never thought I’d run for office. The first time I ran for Commerce City Council in 2019, when Conservation Colorado endorsed me, I didn’t know what an endorsement was. I just knew I was going to make noise. 

And I’ve come a long way. I didn’t win a seat on city council, but I don’t have to be sitting as an elected official to do something for my community. 

Through raising our voices, we have changed policies. We’ve brought millions of dollars to the community through the settlement with Suncor for air quality violations. We’ve elected leadership de la raza who can bring change that will help our communities. I am proud to say Colorado has an opportunity to become leaders in the environmental justice movement on a national and global level. People are looking to Colorado, to us. I think that’s pretty dope.

“We are the solution.”

But we are running out of time. We are 30 years behind what we need to be doing for the climate. I’m very emotional about the fact that I didn’t wake up earlier. I knew there was an issue then, but it didn’t click that it was an emergency. I didn’t see the urgency until I had kids. Once I had kids, I knew I didn’t want to leave a world like this for them. 

It’s not only the industry but also traditional environmental nonprofits that have hijacked this movement and kept us 30 years behind. We need people de la raza at the table to hold these organizations accountable. It’s natural for us to recycle; it’s part of our culture to be sustainable. BIPOC folks would have stepped in and done something to help our planet sooner if environmental racism hadn’t given us the short end of the stick. But I ain’t got time to hold a grudge. Ya estamos aqui, and what we can do right now is unite to protect our planet, our communities and our environment. 

The only way we can fight these industries is through policy and the law. Self-regulation does not work. Industry has been doing that for decades, and that’s why we don’t trust our government entities that have allowed these industries to poison us. I always say, the problem is where the solution lies. The problem of environmental racism is impacting us, the people of Commerce City, the Latino communities of Colorado. And so we are the solution. 

So if you have inspiration to speak up, to fight for justice, to do the right thing for your community and your family, do it. Don’t wait to be told. I was never trained for none of this. I just did it and that’s how I learned. But hopefully I paved the way for the path to be a little bit easier. Along with organizations like Protégete, we are educating the community not to be afraid to speak up, to know that it’s their right to show up at the Air Quality Control Commission or city council and advocate to protect their families. 

The collective mind and spirit of our youth knows that something is up. This world is not going to support life if we don’t get it together. So we need to come together now.

Read more stories from climate justice leaders