Martha Sanchez grew up in the small town of Tepatitlan, in the Mexican state of Jalisco—a far cry from the industrial wasteland of East LA, where she and her family set down roots several years ago. The homes in her new neighborhood were interspersed among paint factories, sweatshops and various industrial sites, and the air smelled of burning plastics and other toxins. Soon after relocating, Sanchez learned that a local paint-cleaning company was polluting her children’s elementary school, and she launched a campaign to force the company to clean up. In the process of this long battle, as she learned English and schooled herself on the law, Sanchez overcame her family’s tradition of restricting women’s empowerment and discovered her passion for community organizing. Over the course of several years, she embarrassed city and state agencies into investigating why so many children and staff at the school were getting sick. Ultimately, she compelled the Palace Plating Company and the school district to clean up the chromium-polluted site—and, she adds, the company has agreed to shut down the facility. I recently sat down with Sanchez to discuss the campaign and how it has shaped her approach to social and environmental justice.
What triggered your activism?
I was born with this inner sense of justice. As a child I always wanted to be someone like Mother Teresa. My mom came to the US when I was 11, due to economic hardship; she asked me to take care of my siblings. I said yes, but when she saw I was determined to become a nun she said, “Who will take care of your brothers and sisters?” I said, “OK, I’ll take care of them till you come back.” But she never came back. I met my husband and I married. He asked me to come to the United States, and I said, “That’s OK.” I was 23 years old. My husband said, “Don’t worry, we’ll be here two years and then go back.”
Things became worse and worse. We couldn’t save any money. We were trapped. But I think we came for a purpose. I became more and more involved—in politics, in social activism.
I’ve been here almost sixteen years, a long time. When we came here, we went to Pico Union, a very popular area. There was a quinciañera party at our neighbors’, a grand celebration. A gang member came and started shooting people, and my kids were observing from the porch. So we decided to move [to East LA]. I placed my children at 28th Street School, the neighborhood school they told us to attend, which is three and a half blocks away. The first week everything was nice. But after a month, they started developing rashes and complaining about headaches. I thought, “Maybe it’s the change. Maybe it’s the realization of facing a traumatic event.” I thought it would pass. But every week they came home with headaches, stomachaches. They complained of being dizzy.
I thought, “Whoa, what’s going on?” I couldn’t see anything wrong. The company across the street was cleaning metal; I thought they were just using pure water, because when I went by they were operating with the doors wide open and were using a kind of spray that looked to me like clear water. It was like going through a car wash. But as soon as I came in contact with it, I started itching. It was like chlorine. I smelled it. I thought, “This is not pure water. What is this?” I went close to the company; they never asked me to leave, to cover myself. There were a lot of parents standing over there, because it was the only shadow for us to wait in for our kids.
What did you do after you discovered something was wrong?
I sent a letter to the air quality department asking if they knew something about this company. I never received a response. In a few weeks, they sent an invitation, just for the parents of 28th Street School, that we could attend a meeting to talk about giving permits to the company. I was concerned it was a polluting company. But I was the new kid on the block. Most of the people here had been living here twenty or thirty years. I told my husband, “This is the company I was complaining about. I got this invite. I’m going to attend.” He said this wasn’t woman’s work, but I went. The auditorium was full of people. We got people from the Los Angeles County health department, the South Coast Air Quality Department, people from the office of environmental protection. We got people from the fire department as well, one person from the local police station. They made this small presentation. They said, “We have a friend close by the school. They have been operating since 1940. Their activities are, basically, painting metals. And the paint for the metals that they are using is safe. And because a proposition was passed, they have an obligation to tell us about it.” The law says they had to tell us what they were doing. But they never mentioned that Proposition 65 was referring to cancer, or being exposed to chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer. Of course, I’m very curious about it. I said, “Excuse me, what does the law say? Why does it force you, after years, to come tell us?” They were trying to explain to us as if we were in kindergarten. The owner of the property showed us a spray can and said, “We use paint like this to paint metals like this. It’s the same activity you do at home when you paint something. We do it every day.” He said it’s nothing to be worried about. That clicked with me. Why are they consistently saying, “There’s nothing to be worried about”? These words made me feel suspicious. Then we asked a question: “How do you know? Have you ever conducted a study? Have you ever tested the kids in the school?”