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?”

The principal asked me to be silent and let the people talk. I said, “They came to answer questions. Why should I be quiet? It is my right to know. You’re telling me be quiet, otherwise I have to leave. This is violating my rights.” And I was just trotting out words, because I didn’t know my rights at that time. I was just repeating what I heard on TV—people saying constantly, “It is my right.” The meeting finished, and nothing happened, and they held another meeting for teachers, and another meeting for parents. I was refusing to accept the information, was asking for more and more. They held probably five meetings. At every meeting we had different people coming in and asking different questions. I noticed that people started wondering, “OK, if you say the chemicals are safe, why are my children always complaining of headaches?” Another parent said the same, and another. Soon almost 100 people were sharing the same story: “My kids are suffering; they have headaches, bleeding noses, can’t concentrate, are sleepy at home, and are refusing to eat because their stomachs are upset. What’s going on?”

How did the campaign take shape, and what was your role in it?

From that day we began to organize, to meet together in our classrooms, after school, the teachers and a few parents—probably ten parents at that time. The teachers were really afraid to organize, because they were more concerned about keeping their jobs. A few parents and teachers were standing and fighting. They offered a classroom to strategize. The principal asked the teachers to stop. I invited them to come to my home, which became the headquarters. One day, my home was full of people. When I was ending a meeting, a community organizer from ACORN said, “I’d like to invite you to become part of our organization. I’d like to offer you the opportunity to organize with us, and give you some support.” They helped me strategize, make phone calls, do fliers, visit homes.

I was trying to figure out how many people were affected, how many kids were complaining, how many teachers were suffering from the same problems—because the teachers were complaining as well. Several teachers had cancer, and most of the female teachers had miscarriages; a number of staff were complaining as well. At that time, they told us that probably five or ten staff and teachers had died of cancer. So I began knocking on doors, asking people, collecting data, looking for a legal office to help me.

The last six years we were always, twice or three times per month, doing a community action—writing letters, demonstrations, trying to find the laws that weren’t protecting us, trying to redirect resources, trying to bring experts to do tests on people. The air quality department agreed to place an air monitor in one of the classrooms. The school district changed its policy about building new schools. They started to implement rules. They visited the school to check how the kids were doing. We won mobile cleaning of the playground. They came every month to offer free treatment for the kids who were suffering from asthma or allergies. They were there for three years. They were also following the company, and they did surprise visits. They forced the company to place filters in the building, to change some tanks and the way they were operating. The company stopped using spray paint. One day in 2005 the air quality person organized a big press conference to tell the people he had charged the company $65,000 for illegal disposal, and he announced the company had to face criminal charges because of that. It was a huge event.

We sued the company. At this time we were fifty parents willing to go into the class action. But the lawsuit hasn’t advanced yet, because the city is blocking the process; they haven’t removed the criminal charges, and the criminal charges come first, then the civil lawsuit.

What happened to the school?

One day the school had a new project to resurface the playground. I came up with the idea that underground there was contamination. I thought, “If I complain that there’s contamination underground, they have to demonstrate that there is nothing.” So I start complaining. When they did the job, they put all the soil in a pile in the middle of the playground, and they didn’t cover that up. I was observing the reaction in children. They immediately started coming out in rashes, and the teachers told me, “I cannot close the window because it is too hot. But the window is open, and the soil is coming into the classroom and the kids are coughing a lot and they sneeze a lot, and they have started complaining again.” I sent letters to the school district and the department of toxic substances, and they came and tested the soil. They found out there were chemicals; they became concerned by one specific chemical, TCE [trichloroethylene], which they said is used to remove paint, to clean. And it’s mostly used in dry cleaners’ facilities. The problem with that is the chemical gasifies, and it was coming into the bungalows and was putting the kids to sleep. It was really dangerous. They made tests inside the bungalows, across the street from the company, and they found out the levels were really high. And they had to figure out how to take this gas out of the classroom. They placed filters, but that didn’t work at all. They decided to remove the bungalows. The school was built to house 800 students. At the time they were hosting 2,300 students. It was extremely overcrowded, the second-most overcrowded school in the nation. Now we have less than 900 students, because they built new schools.

What does your husband think about all this?

He changed. He was told by his father that if he allowed me to improve I would leave him. But he realized I wasn’t happy, that organizing was the thing that keeps me inspired and alive. He supported me.

When did that change?

It was little by little. At the beginning we were facing a harsh trouble within the family. My own brothers told him to stop me. One of my brothers told him, “Why don’t you stop her? You’re going to get in trouble. You should be a man.” He said, “What do you want me to do? Kick her? Hit her? I can do that if you want. I don’t mind.” He just shut his mouth and never mentioned it again. But my mom, she’s still thinking that I’m not doing good, that I shouldn’t be doing this and that, that I’m going to get in trouble, that someone will show me a gun one day and shoot me. But I feel really empowered when I am able to help someone. I feel better than I used to, a human being. I have a lot of gifts that I have to share. It’s like having something inside of you like a fire. If you don’t share that fire, you’re going to burn yourself. So I have to release my fire by sharing. And that makes me happy.