mark! Lopez won the Prize in 2017 for successfully leading a campaign to persuade the state of California to provide comprehensive lead testing and cleanup of East Los Angeles homes contaminated by a battery smelter. However, mark!’s work as a community organizer and environmental activist began long before he won the Prize. Read his Q&A to learn how mark! became the passionate activist he is today.
What was it like growing up in East Los Angeles?
Like many families on the eastside, my mom and grandma were my primary caretakers. They were both very much involved in the community, and so I was naturally also involved in the community. Sitting in planning meetings, doing door-to-door outreach, rallies, press conferences, films (usually with European film crews who came to shoot documentaries about our work), painting over graffiti at five in the morning, painting murals, starting the first community garden on the eastside, and a whole bunch of programming was my life. It was what we did. We grew up thinking that was normal. My brothers, cousins, and uncles were all involved. Friends who lived in the neighborhood and their families were involved too. There was a strong sense of place, sense of community. As I grew up, I learned that what I thought was normal for me wasn’t normal for others.
How did those experiences shape your path to becoming an activist?
I always had the idea I was going to go to college. I always did well in school. I was good at math, and considered environmental engineering. I got accepted to the UC Santa Barbara engineering program, but then I got into a similar program at UC Santa Cruz through their outreach program and it looked like a place I wanted to be for a couple of years. I got interested in environmental and urban studies. I went to Santa Cruz to develop the tools to bring back home, have the freedom to make mistakes to learn from, and come back and use those tools to serve the community back home.
When did you first become aware of the presence of the Exide smelter? How did you come to realize that it was a problem for the community?
Before going to college, because there were so many issues with which my family was involved, I wasn’t necessarily aware of Exide when I was in middle and high school. It was after I graduated from college and moved back home that I grew more aware of the issue. On one of my regular visits to my grandparents, they told me, “Hey, you know Exide is still right here [in East LA],” and gave me a notice for a public meeting in 2008. They broke the situation down for me of how Exide was a battery recycling company. I learned that my mom and grandma had toured the site with Cal EPA in the mid-90s and had witnessed issues around poor maintenance, which also meant Exide probably wasn’t following regulations. Of course, the company was telling my mom and grandma everything was fine. They asked the company, “If everything is fine, why am I wearing all this protective gear? And why aren’t any of the workers wearing the protective gear?” It was a signal that something wasn’t right.
How are things different in East LA now that the plant has been shut down?
In a metaphorical sense, there is a feeling that we’ve at least shut off the faucet but we still need to clean up the mess.
What happens now?
The governor initially wanted an environmental impact exemption for the cleanup, but that was a huge issue for us. The cleanup that has happened already has been problematic, so we wanted to push for the best cleanup process possible. Members identified that the state not having enough information is what got us into this mess in the first place. Cleaning up 10,000 homes means thousands of trucks coming in and out, and hundreds and thousands of pounds of soil being moved around. We need to make sure the planning is done right, and push for an Environmental Impact Report.
What can people do to help?
Make sure this isn’t happening in your communities. Examine your communities, and examine your practices. Car battery recycling is nice, but it’s contaminating communities. Make sure you are educated around waste management. Give time or donations so that community groups such as East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice [mark!’s nonprofit] can increase our work.