“We have a responsibility to our community and to our environment.” – George Autobee

George’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!

George Autobee is a descendent of early Mexican settlers in southern Colorado. He served in the 1st Marine Corps Division in the Vietnam War and was awarded a Purple Heart with gold star. A demographic researcher, he has produced many documentaries, books, and television programs specializing on the history and struggles of Hispanic and Latino communities in southern Colorado. He 

In this edited interview, George explains how environmental justice is connected to the broader fight for democracy and Latino rights in Pueblo.

 “That lit a fire in me.”

I lived in Pueblo up until I went to college, but my environmental awareness really started with my service in the military. In Vietnam, the U.S. military sprayed a powerful chemical called Agent Orange to kill the trees and crops so that the VietCong and the North Vietnamese army wouldn’t have a place to hide (later they found out they were all underground, so it really didn’t matter). We didn’t know it at the time, but when they sprayed Agent Orange, it got into the air, the dirt, the water, and anyone who was in the field—including Vietnamese civilians and American troops—was exposed. 

Cleaning up Agent Orange contamination in Vietnam eventually became one of the largest environmental activities the U.S. was ever involved in. But the impact wasn’t realized at the time—only later when people were starting to get sick. It gets into your system, and as you lose certain fatty tissues as you get older, it starts to surface. Veterans were diagnosed with lots of different cancers, and other diseases like diabetes. I’m one of them. I was carrying that Agent Orange around with me like a ticking time bomb.

So that made me very aware of what we were doing; poisoning our troops and that whole area in Vietnam. That really lit a fire in me.

“When you’re out in the backcountry in the high mountains, the whole reality hits you in reference to what’s going on with the environment.”

The other thing that led me into this movement was that in the mid-nineties I had the chance to be a trainer with the Colorado Outward Bound School. We would take people out to the wilderness, to the Outward Bound School’s camp out in Leadville, for a few days at a time. And we’d get them exposed to the backcountry. We were mountain climbing, rock climbing, and snowshoeing; spending nights out in tents. We were out there.

For the average person, it was completely outside their reality. For me, it was awesome. I felt at home. I loved it—living out there, in the woods. I lived in the jungles for about ten months when I was in Vietnam, so it was just another way to go about living. As long as you take care of yourself and get what you need, you’re going to do good. 

When you’re out in the backcountry in the high mountains, the whole reality hits you in reference to what’s going on with the environment. When you see Mother Nature, you see the pollution that’s taking place, the impact it’s having. And it’s real. You can see the changes with the climate. That to me really instilled trying to be not only a person that’s environmentally aware, but proactive in regards to the environment.

“Over the last 40 years, not much has changed in those communities.”

I went back to Pueblo for my graduate studies in the 1970s, and then my biggest environmental reality was watching the steel mill churn out all that pollution. Down here in southern Colorado, we’ve seen since I was young the pollution and the impact it has in our communities. 

For about a year, I lived four blocks away from the steel mill. At at 4:00 in the morning when everyone was asleep, they’d start shooting that stuff out. And, man, I walked outside and I thought I was under a gas attack. I could hardly breathe. And the smell was something else. Those neighborhoods where the pollution was worst, the Lower East Side and Salt Creek, were predominantly Chicano. But at the same time, the steel mill had been hit bad economically, and thousands of people lost their jobs. So people viewed smoke and pollution as prosperity. You weren’t supposed to have a problem with these things, because they meant too much to our community. 

My Master’s thesis was a socioeconomic study on Pueblo. I was able to use Census data to show that the areas with higher poverty rates were correlated to where Hispanics and Chicanos live. And over the last 40 years, not much has changed in those communities. The Lower East Side is still like a wasteland, with no health facilities, no real grocery stores. You can see how the redlining and environmental racism impacted our communities. 

When I was younger, we used to play in the Fountain River. But then it got very polluted, and now it’s brown like a sewer coming in from Colorado Springs. The Arkansas River is bad, too. It’s tragic. A group from CSU Pueblo later did tests and found that the steel mill had done all this dumping of all this leftover from their steel processing. Later they’d come in with dirt and put houses on top of all this contamination. This is the Bessemer neighborhood in Pueblo. 

When this came to light, they had to go through nearby all these houses and pick off at least six inches of dirt because it was all contaminated. People were going nuts because their housing value was going to go down. I said “Well, if we don’t clean it up, you’re going to be so sick.”

Pueblo still has one of the last remaining coal-fired power plants. The irony is we don’t get any of the power, it all goes north. They even suggested putting a nuclear power plant in place of it. Here we are polluting our air with the coal they’re burning now, and they want to remove it and put in a nuclear plant—the amount of water that would take is astounding, not to mention the possibility of some type of Chernobyl taking place. So the citizens were up in arms about it. 

“We need to come together for a common purpose.”

When you grow up in the community you think everything you see is normal. But when you leave and you see what’s going on and you come back like I did, you go, Oh, my God … We’re having these really bad issues down here, from crime and drug overdose to environmental racism.

The community now seems to be on the side of clean air. But we still need to develop a better infrastructure for environmental activism here. Advocacy can be very siloed. Everyone focuses on their own agenda. I haven’t seen anyone bring together the intersections. We need the other organizations to buy into an environmental platform so we can be consistent when we take that message to our legislators. 

My family’s been here forever; my ancestor Charles Autobee settled here near Pueblo in 1853. And because of that, I think we have a responsibility to our community and to our environment. We have a vested interest in making sure, generations later, our children and then our great grandchildren, are still going to be able to live around here. And we want to make sure that water is clean, that the earth is clean, for good. 

With this climate change … I mean, right now here in Colorado, it’s dry. I think climate change and fires are the biggest thing that people are worried about right now. Hopefully we get a handle on it and are able to turn things around. 

And it’s an all out effort. The attack on January 6, 2021 on our nation’s capital is a reminder that there are people who have alternative agendas that do not believe in the democratic process. We have a responsibility to make sure that our democratic process is safe so that we can make positive change. We need to come together for a common purpose. Knowing that there is a movement supporting all the same realities further enhances us to go forward. That’s our calling.

Read more stories from climate justice leaders