January 10, 2015. By Tracy Perkins.
One of the best parts of my work as a scholar involves traveling throughout California to meet environmental justice activists. This usually involves a sit-down interview. It sometimes also involves driving around someone’s neighborhood for an impromptu tour, sharing a meal, or meeting members of their families. I cross paths with some people over and over, while others I meet just the one time. Over the years, this process has increasingly blurred the boundary between my personal life and my professional life, and considerably enriched both.
But the joy of these relationships can also become a sorrow when the people I work with suffer from health problems and other hardships, as they often do. At the close of 2014, I would like to remember one such person in particular, so that her life might inspire work towards social and environmental justice in 2015 and all the years to come.
I first met Teresa De Anda in 2007, when I sat in on one of the monthly meetings of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment’s Delano Advisory Board. I was there to describe my master’s research and ask the community leaders on the advisory board if they would be willing to participate in it. At that time Teresa was the group’s president, and she was quick to say yes. I learned over time that this generosity of spirit was core to who she was.
As she has done for so many others, Teresa invited me into her home to tell me about her life and her work. Over the years I continued to get to know Teresa through photographing her, through her participation in Voices from the Valley (formerly called 25 Stories from the Central Valley), and through the many other environmental justice events we both attended. I came to know her as generous, fierce, and a lot of fun.
Teresa lived next to vast fields of industrial agriculture. When we first met she told me about the regular pesticide drift she experienced at her home in Earlimart. She told me about how many people in her community had cancer. I later learned that Earlimart was the site of a childhood cancer cluster in the late 1980s.
Teresa later got cancer herself. Her death at 55 is made doubly tragic by the fact that it is hard to think of her illness as random, rather than as part of a pattern of toxic exposure in politically marginalized communities. Much of her life’s work involved changing this pattern. Her efforts helped mandate the creation of buffer zones that limit the drift of pesticides into non-agricultural spaces in a number of San Joaquin Valley counties by restricting what pesticides can be used near homes, schools and farmworker housing. Teresa’s work also improved the government’s emergency responses to pesticide drift incidents statewide. She was a bright light whose loss will be deeply felt.