This Latinx Heritage Month, I’ve been thinking a lot about my parents and the life they made possible for me. Growing up as a Puerto Rican in New York involves a lot of wondering about who you are. I had hardly been to the Island, I did not speak Spanish, and I did not fit neatly into people’s preconceptions. Our family had to navigate other people’s internal biases, including within our own culture, while meshing with an unknowable number of other cultures. It’s a lot to process for any young person, but I was lucky to have been raised by parents who know the importance of being inclusive and welcoming — who believed the best way forward was together.
My mother Jackie came to New York City from Puerto Rico in 1976. After earning her Master’s degree, she became a teacher and taught a rainbow coalition of children from mostly immigrant families in the South Bronx for over 30 years. For many of those kids, more pressing issues at home often prevented them from making learning their highest priority, yet she always managed to impart to them some of her encyclopedic knowledge of history and social studies — because they trusted her! She has an endless reservoir for empathy, which is why she builds bonds wherever she goes and seems to know everyone in her community.
Waldemar, my father, came from Puerto Rico to the South Bronx as a child, along with his three siblings. For those who are unfamiliar, the South Bronx is a part of New York City that has a long history of dealing with the fallout of redlining, systemic racism, police violence, and environmental injustice. He eventually worked as a community organizer, a teacher, a principal, a social worker, a therapist, a mentor, and a coach. How he managed to hold down two to three jobs, find time to be a part of boricua community groups, spend time with his family, and still find time to watch the Yankees remains a mystery to me.
Our home in New York was a good metaphor for their attitude. As one of the few families on our block who had a yard, it was a common sight to see kids running amok in and around our home. Despite their busy schedules, my parents were always ready to help our neighbors. Watching kids after baseball practice, helping with homework, throwing some food on the grill for everyone, you name it, they would volunteer to do it. Community was the name of the game.
In the 90s, if you asked them if they considered themselves environmentalists, they would probably shrug, smile and say, “Sure!” Naturally, this is where little Julian enters the story. Family trips to the Bronx Zoo became frequent, issues of National Geographic were regularly scattered about, and Jackie and Waldemar had no choice but to become fans of Sir David Attenborough. They let me revel in wonder, and pushed me to think about how I could make a difference in my community — and my world.
As I got older, we would have long talks about the relationship between environmentalism, racism, poverty, and more. Being “environmentalists” came naturally to them because they understood that questions of environmental protection are questions of poverty, of equity, of politics, of opportunity, of organizing, and of education. It was obvious to them that environmentalism was about more than the whales and leopards and eagles I watched on Animal Planet — it was also about the Inuit, the Masai, and yes, the puertorriqueños too.
When we found an opportunity to enroll in a special program for minority middle schoolers that required Saturday classes on top of normal school and more classes during summer, all with heavy homework loads, they convinced me it would be worth it. They would motivate me to wake up before sunrise to finish my work, then drove me to my classes in Manhattan. When I had a chance to attend high school in another state, where I would be able to study environmental science abroad, there was no hesitation. They implored me to go for it. I already knew I wanted to be an environmentalist. They wanted me to pursue that and share my passion and service with others.
In college, I studied wildlife biology and conservation management at the University of Delaware. Though I loved the subject, I began to realize that research zoology was often a solitary pursuit — and a field devoid of diversity. I had one Black classmate, who went on to become an amazing scientist. To this day, she is still fighting for the visibility of Black scientists and for Black representation in her field.
After a junior-year crisis, I decided to revisit the conversations about politics and policy I had with my parents over the years. Following that path is what led me to a career in environmental law and the hope I could, perhaps, make an important impact. With Earthjustice, I believe that is exactly what I’m doing.
It is not lost on me how lucky I am. My career, my voice, my platform are all the consequence of an unlikely 32-year streak of good fortune, only a small portion of which I was directly responsible for. My parents pushed me, removed barriers in front of me, and cheered me on. Not everyone has a force of nature like that in their corner, let alone two. That luck came to an abrupt end this year, when my father died because of complications due to COVID-19.
Though he was retired, my father continued to work part-time as a therapist for young autistic children. He was in great shape, looking forward to my mom’s upcoming retirement, and ready to spend the rest of their days relaxing, playing tennis, and enjoying grandparenthood. The virus and the complicit, cowardly individuals in positions of power who robbed him — and my mother — of what they earned together and the future they had planned make me furious every day.
So what does this Latinx Heritage Month mean to me? It represents pride and empathy, but also anger. And when I wake up every day and think about how to protect our water, it means remembering that, to my parents, environmentalism has always been a label for but a piece of a whole. It means asking the questions they taught me to ask: Who has a voice and who does not? Who has opportunity and who does not? Who dies, and who does not?
Finally, this month also means recognizing that my parents’ experiences as Latinx people shaped how they responded to those challenges. The Latinx diaspora is a vast world, even within the larger cultural universe of New York City. As part of this diverse and complicated culture, they opened themselves to others and believed in a moral obligation to help people whenever possible. This is what I’m here to do, and I can’t think of a better way to honor their legacy and celebrate our heritage.