Drowning in Industry in Houston’s East End – Interview with Yudith Nieto and Emmanuel Guajardo
If you want to get a sense of what the Keystone XL pipeline would do to Gulf Coast communities (and which communities will bear the brunt of refining 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil a day), look no further than Manchester, a neighborhood in Houston’s East End. The almost entirely Latino and low-income community is literally surrounded on all sides by industry, including by the Valero refinery – which is poised to refine tar sands pumped in from Canada by the pipeline. Yudith Nieto, born in Mexico and raised in Manchester, has been organizing her community, and was arrested in protest of the pipeline in Washington D.C. in February, along with 47 other environmental activists and members of communities in the United States and Canada that will be directly harmed by the project.
Nieto, who works with third and fourth graders for an after school program in a charter school as her day job, and her partner Emmanuel Guajardo, a musician, spoke with Bridge The Gulf Media Fellow Ada McMahon at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Gulf of Mexico Environmental Justice meeting in Biloxi, Mississippi, on March 2nd, 2013.
Ada McMahon: What's going on in Manchester?
Yudith Nieto: Manchester is in the middle of all these industries surrounding it, so there's a car crushing facility, there's Valero, which is a crude oil refinery, along with other refineries that go along the ship channel, there's also a facility that makes synthetic rubber, and then there's a waste water treatment plant right beside it, so it's encapsulated by all this contamination and pollution, all at the same time. And it's not just air and water and soil, it's also noise pollution and light pollution from the city. And people there are getting sick. They're getting respiratory infections, they have asthma, they have cancer, they even deal with intestinal problems.
And a lot of the people there don't come out and talk about these things, or these issues, and they don't raise any awareness because they've lost hope from their representatives, from the people that are supposed to protect them. These are low-income communities, these are people of color, some of them don't have a legal status here in the United States, so these people are scared to come out and say what their needs are, what their issues are, what they're dealing with. And the security, of Valero specifically, and the police don't help in empowering these people, so these people are disempowered to want to do anything, to even call attention to the community.
These are some examples of what Manchester is dealing with right now, and they've been dealing with that for decades. And these are people that don't have the confidence to approach this issue or how to find solutions. Because they don't have basic information on what is being emitted into the air, so that they can go to their doctor and explain what their situation might be, because they can't express these kinds of things, you know they just go to the doctor, go in and out, and it's the same cycle there too because some of them don't have insurance, so they're not looked at properly, and they're just sent off, and that's it, that's the only care they have.
Emmanuel Guajardo: That pretty much says it all. These are obviously not conditions to be raising a family in, you know? But I think definitely from Valero, there's a lot of harassment and intimidation to suppress the voices of the community. So I mean, they're definitely protecting something, but what are they really protecting? And the way they work with law enforcement, Houston Police Department, they're all working to protect the same thing. But the lack of humanity, I guess you boiled it down – it's just lack of love, compassion, and understanding. Would they want to raise their families in those kind of conditions? Obviously not.
Ada: What are your connections to Manchester?
Yudith: I grew up there. I originally came from Mexico with my family, and we started living in Manchester when I was five or six years old, so I've been there since then. I recently moved out because of the reasons that – I have asthma and I have respiratory problems. Whenever you get sick in Manchester, a simple cold that takes two weeks or less to heal, it takes months to heal. I was dealing with that a lot. So, I moved out of Manchester, just like five minutes away, and it makes a big difference. But my family is still in Manchester, a lot of them live there. That's my connection to it, and I've started organizing with t.e.j.a.s., the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services and got together with some folks from the Tar Sands Blockade, and then started helping them organize in the community as well. So I'm still very active in Manchester, I still go back and forth.
Emmanuel: Well, I grew up in southwest Houston, but my father, he worked in Pasadena, which is along so much industry, and just seeing that as a kid, you know you just see how unnatural the conditions are, you know? I mean, they refer to it as Stinkadena, so - that's the first impression, the stench, that nauseating smell of it all. Meeting Yudith, I was shocked to see a community in that close proximity to all this, the refinery right there. I couldn't even believe it. It was just pretty shocking to see that exist.
Yudith: And there are no zoning laws in Texas, so they can build a school right down the street from it, and that's the school I went to. And then there's another school that they just built not too long ago. And these kids go to school so close to the refineries, but not just that, they go back home into Manchester. So they're never out of that proximity to the refinery. So they're constantly breathing, day in and day out, these cancer-causing carcinogens. It looks like they have no hope to getting out of there. And you know, the community has tried to put pressure on Valero to buy them out, to buy their properties and send them far away from there. But of course, because of Valero, the property value goes down, so they want to give them the minimum they can give them for their property. So people are pretty much forced or trapped to stay there. They can't leave. And that's another reason why we've been organizing, because there's an urgency with some people that can't stay in Manchester any longer because of their health issues, because they can't keep breathing that air. Some of them are the older folk, you know the senior citizens that can't get out of there, either because they don't have mobility to get out of the neighborhood, or they don't have the means or the income. And yeah, that's what we're working towards.
Ada: So tell me more about that, the organizing, what kind of activities do you do and what are you trying to accomplish with it?
Yudith: Well we started setting up a free store, which is showing people mutual aid and helping them realize that you don't need money all the time, you need communication within the community. So we set up a free store where we gather food, and some of it is liberated from dumpsters that are from Whole Foods or Trader Joe's, the big name health food groceries, that they don't have access to. And that's another way of showing people that so much food is being wasted in Houston, that these people could use. This food could be given or donated, but because the Food Bank has a monopoly on those kind of privileges, then they don't get that food and it doesn't come to Manchester. So that's another reason why we started the free store, and to show them that it's not based on charity, but solidarity within the community.
And they've actually been pretty good at coming out and helping and even donating some of their stuff, and kind of swapping as well, giving them that concept that they can help each other in that way. The Librotraficantes, which is the banned book smugglers from Houston who take books to Arizona, they donated a lot of books too and they donated toys. So we got a lot of support from some organizations in doing that, and the people were really interested in coming out and hearing more about why we're doing it or what's going on. Because a lot of these people don't have basic information on, what is the Keystone XL Pipeline, or why we want to get the community to get more involved, because they don't know that the tar sands are already being processed in the refineries. People there are already breathing in the toxins from burning the tar sands. Some of them have no idea what tar sands are.
That helps us to gather the people, they come out, they eat, they hang out, they have fun, and then we give them this information at the same time, and we build solidarity within the community and have them be more active in their community. Ultimately it's going to come to whatever they choose to do, because they're the ones being affected. Outside people, outside organizers from other organizations, they don't really know what it's like until you come to Manchester and realize, oh wow, this is what people are living with every day of their life.
It helps to have the community more connected, because this is a community that is very close together, very tight-knit community, and we all grew up together, we went to school together, there's been many generations that grew up together and went to school together, so it helped build even more solidarity with what needs to really happen in the community or how they can help each other, you know? And if they don't have the support from their representatives or the EPA or whoever, at least they have each other and hopefully that can help make the movements bigger, and include them as well.
Emmanuel: Yeah, we're setting up the free store and encouraging that mutual aid, but the important part is education and awareness. The carcinogenic chemical compounds and everything they're pumping out, which the company itself isn't going to offer to the community. Hopefully, by bringing the community together we can create a demand on Valero specifically for transparency, to provide this information, and hopefully make bigger changes.
Ada: Can you say more about solidarity and mutual aid and sort of how – one, how you developed, or came to, or learned about those philosophies, and also how you see that playing out with the Tar Sands Blockade or the stuff you are doing in D.C. How does the rubber hit the road to make those things happen?
Yudith: Yeah, well those philosophies came to us through the Tar Sands Blockade folks that came down and you know, they shared ideas and they shared their vision with us. And we're like, we're totally down for that. We come from this community where there's a lot of families that are very close together, very big families, so solidarity and mutual aid has always been there and has existed within our own families and our own experiences, so it wasn't hard to bring it to the people. But it was a new philosophy for them to incorporate into every day life and to extend it to other people that weren't in their immediate family.
And so I guess the way it ties into what I'm doing as well, is because, I'm from the community, and I know all the people, most of the people there, and the families that I grew up with in Manchester as well, so bringing new knowledge that they weren't exposed to, because none of them have either gone to D.C. or been to conferences like this where this information is given to them, so the way that I guess I bring it all in is, I bring this information that they've either wondered about or asked about but haven't had the right access to it, or even the terminology of certain things, it helps them determine, oh well that's what I was thinking but that's the way you say it, or that's the way they can, you know, incorporate that information into what their struggle is, and then make it a bigger movement within that community.
We're going to continue to do it, we're gonna keep building those relationships with other organizations that are already established and working in different parts of Houston, in different parts of the community, I guess. And hopefully it brings it, brings more information or more awareness into the community and makes Manchester known. A lot of people forget about it because it’s such a small community. There's only 150 homes there, and they forget about it, they forget about a community like that, because they've just been used to everything that they've been going through and it's easy to forget. But, that's where I come in too, I'm bringing this attention to Manchester, like people I've met in D.C., people I've met in Ohio or anywhere I've gone, they've never even heard of such a place.
And thanks to our friends from Mutual Aid Media and the Tar Sands Blockade, we made this video that's going to show a little more of what Manchester is going through, just shed some light on it. You capture it on film and it becomes a visual experience, you get more of the picture and the feeling of what's going on there. Because just seeing it, you couldn't imagine people living there, you know children growing up there. And it’s so surreal. It’s something that I've been telling people, I've just been talking about it, and now that I have something to show. It's like well, you know, its not going to make a difference if I just tell you about it, here, watch it for yourself. It's going to be an eye opener, and it grabs you by the heart too. You see these children and they're playing in the park, and they're talking about how they can't even play in the park because right after they go out there their head starts to hurt, or they start bleeding as soon as they get home. And you know this is something that they deal with every day of their lives, and nobody is paying as much attention as they should, you know?
Ada: I know we just talked about a lot of the problems, but it also sounds like – you're still motivated to do this work, right? And you don't have the same sense of hopelessness that you described other people having. So where do you feel like your energy is coming from, and is anything making you excited about this kind of work you're doing in your community?
Yudith: I guess it would tie more into our spiritual sense. This is me personally, but I feel that everything's been put into play to where we can take action and we can continue. And the only thing we have to do to gain the motivation, like you said, and the inspiration, is to turn to the people that live there. For me, it's my grandmother, and my family that live there and are constantly dealing with a health issue. And they ask, "Well, why are we still here? We shouldn't be here." And they realize that it’s not a place that's safe to live in or that's just. And I feel that everything has been set out to where me and Emmanuel, but we've been put in a position where we've been kind of thrown in the middle of it. The people that we've met and the experiences that we've come across have fueled this energy and this potential to continue.
And it's more of spiritual sense because we are tied to this land, you know, this planet. We see that it's an injustice and it’s definitely absurd to do so much destruction, and then have people live in the middle of that destruction, it just doesn't make sense.
So it's not hard to see how unfair and how wrong it is, and that's my fuel. You know, I see the wrong in it, and I'm awakened to something else that, I can't explain as easily to people. But you just have to see it, with more than your eyes, and you have to feel it, like literally feel it. And all you have to do is go to Manchester and smell it, because it’s in your air every day and you can smell it. You know that if something smells bad it’s not right. If you smell that in the air every day then you know it’s not healthy, you know it’s not ok. That's what I feel.
Emmanuel: I would agree completely with that. To address the hopelessness - that complacency and that attitude – “Well, that's the way things are, that's the way things have been, what can you do about it?” Well we need to start with envisioning another world. Another world is possible. That's what it comes down to. So the motivation is out of love, compassion. To shed light.
Ada McMahon is a Media Fellow at Bridge The Gulf (www.BridgeTheGulfProject.org), a community journalism project for Gulf Coast communities working towards justice and sustainability. She previously worked as a blogger and online organizer at Green For All, a national non-profit that fights pollution and poverty through "an inclusive green economy". She is from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and currently lives in New Orleans, Louisiana.