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The Fight for Environmental Justice in The Gorge: Spotlight on Ubaldo Hernandez

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

The Columbia Gorge is full of passionate people dedicated to community health and health equity. This is the first in a series of “spotlights” on community members tackling these issues in unique and inspiring ways. No matter how it may feel at times, we are not doing this work alone.

Ubaldo Hernandez grew up in the 80’s and 90’s in a family of social activists in Mexico City. His brothers were involved in student movements and hosted meetings at their home, which Ubaldo witnessed from a young age. This upbringing exposed him to social justice issues and educated him about the importance of grassroots organizing.

One of the first issues Ubaldo worked on as a young activist was access to affordable housing in Mexico City. The city was growing, and there was limited space for people to live. He and his father participated in a successful effort to provide the community with affordable lots and access to resources like water, electricity, and a sewage system.

Upon arriving in the Columbia Gorge 25 years ago, Ubaldo started the first bilingual radio station in the area, Radio Tierra. This radio station grew out of a need to communicate about issues affecting the Latino community, and the need for a medium to access information in Spanish.

Ubaldo speaking on Radio Tierra.

What’s more, in 2000, a man named Elfego Torres was shot and killed in The Dalles in an argument over loud music. The Latino community was enraged and grieving, but did not have a place to communicate about this incident. In part, Radio Tierra was founded to give space to the Latino community to support each other through times like this, and to engage, in Spanish, about issues of social and racial justice. Radio Tierra remains an important news source for Spanish-speakers in the Columbia Gorge.

In 2017, Ubaldo began working as a community organizer for Columbia Riverkeeper. Riverkeeper works to protect the Columbia River and its adjacent communities from threats such as fossil fuel exports, fossil fuel terminals, and intense industrial development. In his role, Ubaldo engages community members on a daily basis, discussing environmental issues and the importance of protecting our natural resources. While protecting the Columbia is clearly an environmental issue, it is also an issue of environmental justice for the surrounding community.

“Whenever an environmental crisis happens, our communities are going to be the first ones to feel the consequences. The [Eagle Creek] fire that happened a couple years ago was an environmental crisis, but our communities felt the impact right away,” said Ubaldo.

Photo credit: Bonneville Power Administration

One issue close to Ubaldo’s heart is the cleanup of Bradford Island, which is located next to the Bonneville Dam. For over 40 years, Bradford Island and its surrounding area was polluted by waste from construction and maintenance of the dam. This has resulted in extremely high levels of PCBs in fish stocks just upstream of the Bonneville Dam. The Oregon and Washington departments of health have advised against consuming resident fish (non-migratory fish that live out their lives on the Columbia River). However, many tribal members rely on fish caught in the Columbia to support themselves and their families, making this an issue of environmental justice. Earlier this year, Oregon, Washington, and Yakama Nation asked the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to list Bradford Island as a Superfund site.

The crux of health inequity is that individuals and communities are affected disproportionately based on race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, and other aspects of social identity. Just like high PCB levels in fish largely affect the tribal community, pesticide exposure unequally affects the Latino community in the Gorge, many of whom are farmworkers. Unaffordable housing and lack of access to health care are other difficulties confronting the growing Latino community in the Gorge. And for Ubaldo, the health of a community also depends on the ability to take time in nature to relax and spend time with loved ones.

“The farther you go, the less access to resources you have,” said Ubaldo. “So if you can’t afford to live in town, you [also] can’t afford to spend much time traveling, enjoying the waterfront, because you’re living far away. The chance for you to take advantage of the area will be limited.”

Despite the challenges it faces, the Latino community in the Gorge has some major strengths. According to Ubaldo, the biggest strength of the Latino community is the people themselves, and the support they give each other. The connection to culture is strong, with communities from different regions in Mexico, from Michoacán to Jalisco, coming together to celebrate on a yearly basis.

When asked what a healthy, equitable, and thriving community looks like, Ubaldo responded: “Our community having access to resources. People feeling welcome in the area where they live. Fairer wages and salaries that will allow people to enjoy the area the same way as people who have money and resources. Because it’s not the same seeing the waterfront from a kitchen in a restaurant where you work, or seeing the waterfront from the freeway when you drive to work.”

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