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March 15, 2013

From Guatemala to Green Issues: One Activist's Unusual Journey


By Phill Courtney, Redlands Daily Facts, reprinted with permission.

I felt an immediate connection to Allen Hernandez the other day when I suddenly realized that his love for the natural world, like mine, dates back to the times when we were both young boys growing up in Fontana [California] during those carefree days when we'd go with our families to the undeveloped lands north of the city, seeking a break from civilization. In particular, we both recall the bucolic beauty of Lytle Creek, one of those proverbial babbling brooks, which bounces over boulders beneath a canopy of leafy trees in a canyon north of the town.

Of course, since Allen was born in 1980, his era of youthful appreciation came a few years later than mine, but the love was the same, and so was the lasting result: a desire to see that some of the natural world is kept as it is—a world that cannot be improved but only diminished by mankind's desire to see it "developed." From there our journeys diverged, but the love remained, and now Allen has found a way to express that love through community action.

I'd first heard about him last December after he'd met Roger Bell, a fellow member of the Redlands Sustainability Network, who was impressed by Allen's enthusiasm and willingness to help out with our organization's sustainability festival coming up Saturday at the University of Redlands. Allen was working with the Sierra Club, and had some of the club's T-shirts available to which we might add our logo for distributing at the festival. Since I knew Duan Kellum, one of Redlands' master T-shirt makers, and his company, Skool Boiz, it was only natural that I'd get them together.

Working with Allen only increased my interest in knowing more about him, and how he came to be involved with the Sierra Club. If you know even a bit about the Sierra Club, you probably know that their ranks aren't exactly swelling with a vast number of young Latinos, or people under 50 of any ethnicity for that matter, so it was even more intriguing that someone like Allen was involved.

Then, when Allen invited me to a meeting for My Generation, the new Sierra Club campaign he was heading up for the Inland Empire, and I saw a room filled with Latino people at the San Bernardino County Museum getting information on how to make their homes more energy efficient, I knew I had to sit down and talk with him.

Allen-HernandezAllen's story actually begins in Guatemala, where his parents were born, and where they found their lives literally in danger during the unrest in Central America in the 1970s. This was a time when entire villages of indigenous people were being "disappeared," a term often used then in reference to those people killed and disposed of by oppressive governments under the thumb of such tyrants as General Efron Rios Montt, who, just now, finds himself being the first former ruler of a nation to be tried by his own people for war crimes.

Although Allen's parents did succeed in helping to unionize a meat packing plant, the company soon shut it down rather than deal with a union, which was not just frustrating, but also resulted in their becoming targets for a viciously anti-union government suspicious of any movements which might empower the poor. Their lives were at risk, and they had to get out, leaving for Los Angeles where Allen was born, and then Fontana. Eventually his dad found work as a landscape gardener, and his mother in housekeeping at the San Manuel Reservation.

After those early days enjoying the beauty of Lytle Creek, Allen graduated with honors from his high school, and then eventually did graduate studies at the University of Chicago, where he majored in social work and health policy, while learning the basics of community organizing. Along the way he also had an experience that further raised his awareness of the natural world.

"I took a road trip across the country one summer," he told me, "and visited about 12 national parks. That solidified my passion for nature. That, and coming back to Fontana only to see many of my childhood spots paved over and covered with big boxes." Which may help to further explain why a stocky, buzzed-cut Latino guy, who looks like he'd be more comfortable sitting in a tattoo parlor than a clearing in the forest, cares so deeply about the environment. That and his own personal health.

"I grew up with asthma, and one time it got so bad my parents had to take me to the hospital. I'll never forget it. It was traumatic. They gave me six shots; three in each arm, and all because the air I was breathing was polluted."

A few years after leaving college, he was looking for ways to channel his passion for the environment when he found out that the Sierra Club was seeking young organizers for its new My Generation campaign, which is attempting to reach out to both young people and communities of color with its programs advocating green energy sources.

"No one was reaching them," Allen explains, "and I saw an opportunity to organize on my home turf. It's the first campaign that's attempted to involve young people and people of color."

Allen's come along at an interesting moment for the Sierra Club, of which I've been a member on and off for many years. For some time I've thought the club was a bit too much on the limousine liberal, wine and cheese side of the environmental movement, more willing to negotiate with the suits up in the suites, than take their concerns out to the streets.

But recently that changed when, for the first time in their 120-year history, the club called for civil disobedience, and even its executive director Michael Brune was arrested in the nation's capitol, protesting global warming and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, part of the ongoing protest I was involved with last month and wrote about in my previous column.

For Allen such actions are par for the course. In 2005 he marched for immigrant rights, and was arrested in a protest for striking janitors. He also went to bat for warehouse workers in Fontana during the Occupation events, and in 2011 supported 17 kitchen workers at Pomona College who were trying to organize.

"There's amazing stuff happening in the Inland Empire," Allen tells me. "and I'd like to see more young people connecting. One way they can do it is by checking out our My Generation Facebook page, and another Sierra Club campaign, San Gabriel Mountains Forever, which is fighting for areas like Lytle Creek. It's given me hope that the young people are beginning to step up."

I can only join him in that hope and wish him well as he continues to find ways to express an environmental passion sparked so many years ago in the wild lands we both knew well above our hometown of Fontana.

Phill Courtney can be reached at pjcourtney@earthlink.net

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