By Clemente Álvarez and Nacho Corbella
Up close the waters of the Colorado, the red-colored river, have no color. From afar, the river’s tones are many… Nor does it understand the nature of ethnicities and nationalities. All these human concepts are left behind when, as we go upstream on the Colorado, we arrive and find ourselves facing the vast panorama of the Grand Canyon. However, there is a population group in the United States, the Hispanics, who have claimed ownership of the cause for protecting this river. Are we really able to talk about this community’s special bond with the Colorado’s water? Is it true, as the surveys indicate, that Hispanics are showing greater concern for environmental issues?
“The Colorado can be green or turquois blue,” is how Alberto Ramos describes it with a sparkle in his eyes. It can be even brown, “dirty looking,” in areas where there are rapids. “With the water nice and quiet, it is emerald-like.” Carrying a tray full of dishes bearing enchiladas, burritos and quesadillas rancheras, this river lover is waiting on tables at the Plaza Bonita Mexican restaurant in Tusayan, Arizona, near the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park.
As we go upstream on the waters of the Colorado, and go further and further into the United States, the river turns more and more spectacular. Soon the earth opens up and the water flows at the bottom of a colossal gorge having a length of 277 miles and a depth that can reach 6,000 feet (1,828 meters at its maximum point. The distance between one rim and the other is about 10 miles, but in order to hop across the chasm, so to speak, one has to go 21 miles on foot or 251 by car, a five-hour odyssey. Everything around the Colorado is constantly changing, except for the high visibility of Hispanics wherever we go.
Tusayan is a small town of 558 inhabitants, 227 of whom (40%) are Hispanics. Nevertheless, this was not always so. When Ramos arrived from Zacatecas, Mexico, at the age of 16, Hispanics were few and far between. “There were only two of us at the high school. I didn’t speak any English, and neither did my friend, and we had to struggle with the language,” recalls this waiter, who has already been here 26 years. “Right now most of the students are Mexicans.”
More than a third of Hispanics in the United States live in the states where the Colorado shares its water. And as we demonstrated further south (see earlier chapters), much of that population totally depends on this water, as they are farmers, gardeners, waiters… Just as the Colorado proves itself to be indispensible for moving the economic wheels in states through which it passes (according to an economic estimate made in 2015, if the river were not there during an entire year, the losses would amount to nearly 1.4 trillion dollars), Hispanics provide the manual labor that performs the hardest tasks in these territories.
One has but to go into the kitchen at the Plaza Bonita restaurant to see who is standing in front of the stoves, is washing dishes or is waiting on tourists who have come to see the Grand Canyon or get into a river raft. “I’ve got one more thing to say, and that is, if all of us were to leave some day, I don’t know what they would do without the Hispanic manual labor,” comments the man from Zacatecas. “One time immigration came by and took them all away,” relates Ramos, who was an undocumented immigrant at the time. “I was at school and they didn’t take me away.” Even then, for quite some time, they weren’t allowed to work and they had to go into hiding. “The hotel owners were having to make the beds, do the cleaning and wash dishes,” he says with a smile.
When the Colorado gets churned up it turns into a light brown color, mixed in with effervescent whites. That’s where the river runs wild and returns to being its natural state. “Hahaha… Oh, God!” On the rapids, soaked by the whipped up water, a young man wearing a life jacket can’t stop yelling and laughing. Next to him, screaming and yelling on a whitewater raft, there are another dozen young Americans, all of them of Hispanic origin. “There are no words; it is so powerful and yet so calm. This is a place where you have no telephone, and you don’t have to worry about anything, a wonderful thing you have to do once in your lifetime,” explains Georgina Aguirre-Sacasa, director of the Nuestro Río program in the state of Colorado. It is an organization that takes young people to spend several days navigating through these canyons in order to pass on to them their own fascination for these waters. “These young people are our ambassadors, and they are the future.”
As she tells us a few days later in Denver, the Nuestro Río organization was founded in 2010 by a group of legislators from different states for the purpose of raising awareness of the Colorado’s situation. “There are 35 million people that use the river and live off the river, and one of every three is a Hispanic,” this woman from Nicaragua points out. “This is an incredible number. If the Hispanic community does not stand up for the Colorado, then who will?” This organization’s work focuses especially on involving politicians from the states through which these waters flow–and from Washington–aimed at changing the way in which the river is being utilized.
It is no longer just a problem of the Colorado not reaching the sea because its water has already been distributed beforehand (chapter 1), or of the principal rights to the river water being in the hands of California farmers (chapter 2) or of the water levels being below their minimum on Lake Mead, where the largest reserves are stored, because of the drought (chapter 3). Even in the Grand Canyon, one of the country’s most iconic spaces, the threats are accumulating. That is what is being said by the American Rivers organization, which placed this segment of the Colorado in first place on the 2015 list of most endangered rivers in the United States. Among the problems identified, they cite the Escalade project–which includes construction of a cable car and a tourist center–plus the uranium mines or the plans to expand Tusayan with hotels and urban developments.
Shortly before speaking with Aguirre-Sacasa in Denver, in another section of that Colorado city, a combative young woman of Mexican origin protests in response to rumors of the extraction of oil by the use of fracking near a neighborhood inhabited mainly by Hispanics. In the struggle over the Colorado there is another key factor and it is that this community wants to be heard in environmental issues. “The Hispanic voice is very powerful in this state and they have to pay attention to what we say,” says the Nicaraguan woman. “We have the power to change things.”
Why this population’s interest in nature? “I believe that as Hispanics we live outdoors more because we want to remember years gone by and teach our children how we were taught,” comments the representative from Nuestro Río. “One has to spend more time outdoors and not stay connected to a TV set or a telephone. I don’t want this for our children. I wasn’t brought up this way, and in Nicaragua I used to spend my time on my father’s farm, with horses.”
When the river calms down, the Colorado becomes almost inscrutable. The water seems to take on a green color, yet it also reflects the reds coming from these rocks dating back millions of years, the deep blue of the sky, as well as the blackness of the shadows cast by the imposing canyon walls. As we let the current carry us on an inflatable raft, time slows down as we go downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam. Travelling with the group is a family from the Dominican Republic and a guide from Utah who shuts off the motor after passing the startling Horseshoe Bend and shows us how his deep voice echoes from the red canyon walls as he sings a melodious traditional song: “In the quiet misty morning, when the moon has gone to bed. When the sparrows stop their singing and the sky is clear and red…”.
Actually, this Colorado River is very different from what it was before the Glen Canyon dam construction started in 1956. Apart from the sediments–which modify the color–the dam also changed the water temperature, “It’s cold, very cold” highlights Aguirre-Sacasa. “Super cooled” agrees Ramos. And so much so that this drop in temperature completely changed the river wildlife.
Hispanics’ interest in the environment has another explanation, one that is much less idyllic. As stated in a recent study conducted in California and published by the online version of the American Journal of Public Health, environmental impact (such as exposure to ozone, pesticides, traffic, hazardous waste…) is on average 75% greater in Hispanic communities and 67% greater among African-Americans than it is for non-Hispanic whites. In other words, skin color has a lot to do with the quality of the air breathed by each population or the health risks with which one is confronted. And in this kind of disparity, Hispanics bear the greatest burden.
“As Hispanics were are more concerned about these issues for a practical reason,” explains Maite Arce, president and CEO of Fundación Acceso Hispano, another one of the Hispanic organizations committed to the Colorado River. “Protecting and having a better environment means having a healthy family and community.”
This foundation recently presented a report that demonstrates the tendency among Hispanic voters to favor environmental initiatives in surveys conducted in Florida, California, Colorado and New Mexico. The study analyzed the voting process for four propositions relating to water, protected spaces or public lands, and found that these were supported by a majority of the Hispanic population; as a matter of fact, one of the initiatives would never have gotten off the ground without Hispanic support.
Environmental impact is on average 75% greater in Hispanic communities and 67% greater among African-Americans than it is for non-Hispanic whites.
“Even though our community is very diverse, this is something we agree upon. I believe it is something that comes from our grandparents, and from our countries of origin. It is not about an organized environmental movement such as the Sierra Club. Our people, the Hispanic voters see it as something natural. Our health depends upon it,” states Arce, who believes the Hispanic community has the opportunity to lead in the environmental cause in the United States. “We can be leaders in establishing a very different sense of responsibility in this country.”
More than 300 miles away from Glen Canyon, also in the Colorado River basin, a short time ago the waters of the Ánimas River turned into an unbelievably yellow color. But in this case the reason was a toxic material spill consisting of 3 million gallons (equal to about five Olympic sized pools), caused by a mistake made by technicians of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as they were trying to deal with discharging contaminants from an abandoned mine, one of nearly 400 that may exist in that area. The spill set off all sorts of alarms, but these called off one by one as the toxic color diluted into the rest of the basin.
We leave Denver and continue along the green scenery toward the Rocky Mountains, where the Colorado River is born. Going in reverse, against the current, much like the stream of immigrants, we finally reach the point where everything starts over again. This is something well understood by Ramos, the waiter in Tusayan, who still waits for the moment when he can bring his wife and daughter from Mexico. “My daughter is five and a half years old and she says to me: ‘Daddy, when are you going to take me to see the Grand Canyon?’. ‘Soon enough, soon enough’.”