Right to Nature

Three Decades after Prop 187, Immigrants Still Face Barriers to Public Green Spaces

For Audubon California's Associate Policy Director Juan Altamirano, undoing California's history of racism in land use is personal.

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When California voters approved Proposition 187 in the fall of 1994, an initiative that sought to punish undocumented immigrants like myself by denying us access to core services such as health and education, it underscored for that growing up as a Mexican immigrant in Orange County, California was a scary place to live. When I sit and take time to reflect on the state I feared growing up, I have to give thanks to the Golden State that has given me so much opportunity to thrive and develop my voice to advocate for the things I care about the most.  

When my family arrived to this country over 30 years ago. We didn’t have much, but we were thankful we were together and had each other. We were all curious to explore our new place we called home, to meet new people and see and experience the beauty of California through our own eyes. Regrettably, like many immigrants, we limited how much time we spent outside our apartment doors. We did not want to draw any attention, we were scared of police, of people reporting us to la migra, and access to the outdoors was negligible. Access to parks or open spaces was hard to come by in our neighborhood. We lived a block away from I-5, one of the busiest California freeways. The only thing separating our living room from the flow of cars and trucks traversing the city and the smells of thick pollution and rubber dust were the 10-foot sound barriers at the end of Vermont Avenue and Citron Street in the city of Anaheim. Our only accessible green spaces were more than a mile away. As I look at California today, we should celebrate the progress we've made to expand access to nature and to bring nature into our communities by design. Still, we can do so much more to ensure working-class and immigrant families can enjoy nature, beaches, woodlands and in a way that is culturally relevant to their experiences.  

As we give thanks for everything, we have been able to achieve as a state, we must also not forget the enduring history we continue to live through today because of the racist decisions of the past. Our state’s redlining legacy can be seen and felt across our cities till this day – lending and housing practices that relegated African-Americans, Latinos, Jews, and others to less-desirable areas with tree-lined streets, parks, and other greenspaces concentrated in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. 

While redlining may no longer be openly practiced, we continue to suffer its effects in neighborhoods like the one I grew up in; the lowest-income and most segregated communities across California often have the least access to nature. A recent study by the Hispanic Access Foundation and the Center for American Progress found that communities of color are three times more likely than white communities to live in park-poor and nature-deprived areas. Nearly 70 percent of low-income communities lack access to trails or neighborhood parks compared to more affluent areas. 

Inequitable access to the outdoors continues to be a pervasive issue throughout the state that we must work to rectify because the consequences are measurable and tangible. Located in areas with the worst air quality and least tree cover, lower-income and communities of color suffer higher rates of respiratory diseases like asthma, as well as poorer mental health.  Fortunately, Governor Newsom and the Legislature recently appropriated nearly a billion dollars to increase access to the outdoors. This significant investment will help fund deferred maintenance at our State Parks, and other projects that will reduce barriers so more people can access the outdoors and enjoy our magnificent public lands and rivers. 

Even as I look back at the California of the ’90s, I also take time to celebrate the California of today. Our state isn’t perfect and we need to continue to address systemic challenges, but we should celebrate our state’s diversity, our culture, and our perseverance to push back against hatred and xenophobia. The Mexican immigrant kid who grew up without access to greenspaces and the outdoors is now working with the state, local activists and partner organizations to ensure that communities most impacted by a lack of outdoor spaces have the same benefits as affluent and privileged communities. 

Juan Altamirano is the Associate Director of Policy for Audubon California, juan.altamirano@audubon.org

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