I start this piece by burning sage. As a way to honor this new day, my ancestors, my elders, my community, and you.
SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, I embarked on a new path—I began a new position in the midst of a pandemic, as the new Executive Director (ED) of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC). As I reflect on my journey so far, I realize that this was not just a new path, but yet another border crossing I’ve been tasked with in this life. As a Xicana, daughter of immigrant parents, and the granddaughter of people who worked the land, border crossings are nothing new.
Although previous border crossings involved paths into higher education, teaching, the nonprofit world as well as academics, this one entailed the crossing into yet another predominantly white space—that of the environmental world. This PhD’d Xicana from Maywood, California, predicted to fail out of college by my second year, is now the first woman of color to lead this historically white, nonprofit, public-interest environmental law center in its entire 34-year history.
I take a pause to recognize all of the people who helped me reach this point. We do not achieve these things alone.
Every day that I have the honor and privilege to be at the helm of this successful environmental organization, I think about (and pray for) the frontline communities who, on the daily, have to bear the brunt of a continued toxic legacy of environmental racism—and the opportunity that I’ve been given to make things right.
But right for who and for what?
This is when ceremonial rootedness enters the mind, heart, body, and spirit. This is when Tonantzin Coatlicue, Tunkasila, the great spirit, and universe enter the space, and as a good student, I must stop, listen, reflect, and then act.
It is the ceremonial teachings that must guide me as I embark on this journey to name, disrupt, and dismantle environmental racism. For those of us in the field understand that we cannot achieve environmental justice unless we disrupt and abolish environmental racism.
Most of those who inhabit my professional space do not realize how ceremony runs through everything for me, and that, as I hold this position that comes with relative power, I must stay grounded and connected to what I’ve been taught: courage, generosity, kindness, and to be a warrior for my community.
A few years ago, as my family and I were at our Sundance ceremony—praying at the tree while the beat of the drum pounded and the rays of the hot, healing sun touched upon our skin—I realized and accepted that I was brought into being at this specific moment of time to be a macehualli and steward of our precious Mother Earth.
Macehualli, although usually translated as “commoner,” means more than that. As I’ve been taught, it is the practice and philosophy of being of service to others, and I have further interpreted it to mean being of service to my community and people.
I will not forget that I am a macehualli as I continue to walk this path, especially when it might take me to places and spaces where I am the only one. Never forget your roots!
I am not an aberration, for being the first woman of color executive director to run NMELC is reflective of a shift that will continue to take place across the nation. This shift that’s been years in the making was only heightened by the racial awakening and reckoning brought upon by the world’s witnessing of the murder of George Floyd (Rest in Power!). The violence committed toward Black and Brown bodies at the hands of police (an agent of whiteness) is nothing new, but its worldwide witnessing sparked a moment in history we will not soon forget.
And we cannot let them forget.
The racial uprisings inspire us to continue the much-needed work, and it is up to us to prevent society from creeping back into its slumber. Here we are suddenly at so many tables; we’re not leaving, and we’re here to demand justice for our people and communities.
Environmental justice—that seems to be one of the trendy words of the day, but the reality is that it has been part of the People’s knowledge and being for so long. Environmentalists and hipsters, suddenly shoved into momentary wokeness, tout its importance across social media and rote statements, but our communities have been rising to defend their families and environments for so much more than a moment.