Daylighting more than streams

July 25, 2009 § 4 Comments

Last night I had the pleasure of speaking – if briefly – to a gathering of kids and their parents, up at the Audubon Center at Debs Park.  My friend Mary Loquvam, director of Los Angeles Audubon, had asked me to make some comments to introduce the short film, Stream Spirit Rising, as part of LA Audubon’s summer film series.  The courtyard of the Audubon Center was a lovely place to be on a summer night – if you have the opportunity, I recommend you attend one of her offerings.


The North Branch - Storm Drain 5202 - coursing through Highland Park.  Source LAPL, photo 00019854.

The North Branch – now Storm Drain 5202 – coursing through Highland Park. Source LAPL, photo #00019854.

I had balked at Mary’s request.  Stream Spirit Rising was a community outreach project I organized while at North East Trees, a small, wonderful nonprofit that primarily serves North East Los Angeles, innovating in urban forestry & watershed management while engaging youth.  In this project (YouTube link here, segment 1, segment 2), we hosted a “Tales of the Arroyo Night” in which old-timers told their stories of the Arroyo Seco and the North Branch stream, a tributary that flowed through the heart of Highland Park, outletting into the Arroyo Seco at Sycamore Grove Park.  Then, over three weeks we were led by artist Jennifer Murphy in the making of stream spirit masks, creatures of all kinds (swamp monsters, turtles, bear, dragons) that represented the beings dependent upon streams.  And finally we walked the old path of the stream (sort of) in a celebratory parade with the masks, the stream spirits rising through the community.  Our goal was to inspire the daylighting of the old North Branch, aka Stormdrain 5202.

This act of community gathering and celebration was beautiful in and of itself.  What has been so difficult for me to forgive, however, was the political dimension.  We had taken our interest in daylighting the North Branch to city government.  We had heard that there was interest on the County government side to re-establish a low flow stream where the creek had been, if not completely daylight it.  But city government had other ideas, and other interests, to play to.  Through back channels, I had heard that the proponents of daylighting (that would be me) were perceived as white and therefore not really representing the interests of the “community.”  Over the course of several years in different situations, including ones unrelated to the North Branch, I was hearing that a conservation and restoration approach to environmentalism was out of touch with “the community,”  that it was streams vs. soccer, that we were canyon-dwelling elitists, etc.

Interesting assessment given that I’m half Mexican-American living in what a friend calls a “charming hovel.”

But proof that no one has a monopoly on judging by one’s looks rather than one’s life experiences.  That, after all, takes effort, it takes getting beyond your own stuff.

If the stuff of others is their short-sighted perceptions, mine is often ethnic rejection. I don’t “look” latina.  I have often wanted to fit in.  Very badly.  And then, I have wanted to turn the stereotypes upside down, wreak havoc with the sacred cows of the chicano movement.  I cringe when a latino/a gives me the “my people do X – you wouldn’t understand” lecture at the same time that I identify with the experience of being different, of wanting or needing to explain something or feel heard.

But what if I weren’t half Mexican-American?  Why did I play into the belief that this should buy me the right to be heard?  I would hope that we reach for inclusivity, and that we teach our children to be open to the input and wisdom of all people.  But I have heard a latino adult in an environmental context tell latino children that they need people who look like them as mentors in order to believe they can succeed.  So if a white or black or Asian or say, a half-Mexican white-looking person believes in a latino kid, it doesn’t count?  C’mon.  The kids need to know that successful people (of all races) believe in them and their abilities.  It is a disservice to tell kids to limit their self-concept to the exclusive opinions and examples of people “who look like them.”  They have enough obstacles as it is.  We need to look at our own projections.  I’m not saying there aren’t reasons why the projections exist, that the amount of trust it takes to go beyond them must feel unreachable, the wounding, deep.  But we must get there.  Our children deserve to know their potential, and loving people of all races have something to contribute.  This is true when talking about mentors, as well as at the political level. (I’m also not saying that role models and representation doesn’t matter. It does! I’m just saying, let’s not tell kids not to listen to the supportive adults just because of what they look like.)


A couple of my aunts, doing what kids do best. Santa Fe River, 1948. Photo by my mom.

But there is more.  For as cultural identity and environmental justice have been wound more tightly around each other, the political leadership turned to community leaders with culturally iconic associations to define the movement.  In a word, soccer.  I don’t question the cultural significance of the game, the need for playing fields, the powerful role soccer teams and organizations play in stabilizing community and giving youth meaningful outlets.   But when we took that nose-dive into soccer vs. streams on the North Branch (repeated at North Atwater Park, if briefly) I got really angry.  Hanging in the air was this idea that latino kids didn’t need, or even like, nature.  Cultural pride started to feel like a limiting self-concept that was going to trump common sense (kids of all races LOVE to play in streams), science (hydrology and ecology) and watershed planning (multi-benefit and multi-functional uses of common lands for stormwater management, water supply, and habitat).  Recently, the concept of Nature Deficit Disorder has raised our awareness of the value of nature experiences in play.  Exploration, observation, challenging one’s environment – things that happen playing in nature – enhance reasoning, discernment, confidence, self-esteem, and strength.  Neurons fire and facilitate brain development.  Was it going to take someone who “looked” latino to prove to our political leadership that latino children could enjoy and benefit from nature?  I couldn’t take it.  I have seen the photos of my grandfather with his friends on burro-laden camping trips, of my grandmother jauntily perched in a tree, tales of my mother and her sisters playing in the Santa Fe River.  I had my own experiences as a kid, the best times were spent goofing around in nature, around streams.  What’s more, I have seen the countless latino families flocking up the the San Gabriel River’s East Fork to frolic in the river on a hot summer day.  And then I circled back to the ethnic exclusivism of the argument.  Uncomfortable to argue that my background entitled me to be heard, and knowing that it wouldn’t matter anyway, I took myself out of the fight.

Every environmental project has a story about the human dimension that goes beyond the piece of land itself.  This is just one layer of the human story of the North Branch.  These are old battles now.  Today, organizations -including soccer clubs –  in North East Los Angeles have expanded programs that reach out to youth and provide exposure to the LA River, our water system, the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains.  I think we’ve gotten beyond soccer vs. streams – as to the larger questions of the interplay of ethnicity, race, and politics with environmentalism and our long term planning, I have no idea.  But whenever I am asked about Stream Spirit Rising, this is the story that pings around endlessly in my head.  As an event, Stream Spirit Rising had a successful sequence of events, yet I felt it as a failure – we didn’t daylight the North Branch and I was personally stung by the power of superficial perceptions feeding political prerogatives.  It revealed to me that our stagnant human relationships need to be healed more than the stream itself.


At Debs last night, I went up to the microphone, I looked out on all these expectant, joyful, mostly brown, children’s faces.  I asked them if they’d gone on the night hike.  A lot of hands went up in the air.  I asked how many of them liked creeks.  More hands went up in the air.  I briefly introduced the movie, and mentioned how maybe one day we can see that stream flow again.  Looking out on the kids, it was suddenly so easy to be hopeful and positive.

A little latina girl came up to me afterwards.  She said she liked the movie.  I asked her if she liked creeks.  “Oh yes,” she said. “me and my friend were in one.  My friend was on a rock and she slipped and got muddy.” She smiled impishly,  “I like creeks because you can go and get muddy.”

The kids, they get it.  Let’s hope the adults hear them.


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§ 4 Responses to Daylighting more than streams

  • Petrea says:

    A wise and thoughtful essay, Jessica.

    Race VS. Nature? Only moneyed, cynical adults could have thought that up.

  • the professor says:

    Thanks Jessica for sharing this…

  • theparsley says:

    jessica, thank you for such a beautiful and heartfelt post. if we all didn’t care so much we wouldn’t run such a risk of getting our hearts broken. but, hearts do mend, and moving on from narrow views to greater understanding is always possible.

    none of us should accept the idea that our public realm is necessarily going to be so constrained and so impoverished that there is never going to be enough room for all the things we want – nature AND culture(s), streams AND soccer. we have to be stubborn and insist on wanting it all.

    if our public spaces don’t model how diverse people can gather together, and how people and nature can coexist on a better footing than in the past…. where on earth IS it going to happen?

  • Nancy Steele says:

    You are so right it hurts. Soccer vs nature, streams, anything is so degrading and insulting. These kinds of stereotypes, usually formed by people with know real knowledge or understanding, stop understanding. In Pasadena, I heard that City Council people all believed that building more soccer fields was the priority over natural features in the Arroyo Seco until they were shown a poll in which people of all races overwhelmingly supported natural settings to the soccer fields. Perhaps we need to starting asking the right questions.

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