Tell me about yourself.
I was born in Ecuador, so I’m an Ecuadorian citizen, and I emigrated to the United States in 2001 and have been there since then. I graduated from Duke in 2020, double majoring in Environmental Science and Policy and Religious Studies, with the Latino/a Studies in the Global South Certificate. During my time on campus, I was heavily involved in the Latinx community. When it comes to both extracurricular and curricular things, I always try to make sure that my work encompasses my three areas of interests — environmental justice, immigrant/Latinx immigrant rights, and then I always try to bring in a spirituality aspect as well. Currently, I work in the Office of Undergraduate Education as one of the Spark Fellows, where I’m helping launch the new Sophomore Spark initiative.
What got you interested in those three topics and specifically the intersection of them all?
I think it was just literally trying to figure out what I want to do at Duke. Once I realized pre-med was not for me, I just began to explore. I took a religious studies course — it was called The New Testament with Mark Goodacre, and I loved it. I just absolutely loved looking at the Bible from an academic standpoint, which is not what I did growing up. And because I grew up in the church, it also felt very cool to already know a lot of [the content], but analyzing it from a different standpoint. Then I started trying to explore what else interested me. I was speaking with my college advisor, Robin Kirk, and she encouraged me to just take classes here and there in something I was interested in.
I wasn’t initially interested in environmental science, but I was definitely interested in figuring out how we can stop the planet from burning. I jumped into 102, and it was not an easy course but it was still really interesting. From there, I applied for the DukeEngage in Kauai, which was an environmental science-focused program, with Rebecca Vidra in the Nicholas School. I spent my summer in Kauai doing a lot of sustainability work with a local native nonprofit and just seeing firsthand what they’re having to deal with — not only with climate change but with modern-day colonialism. It was a lot, and that’s what piqued my interest in environmental justice.
That fall, I took a class called Environmental Ethics and in that class we spoke a lot about the term “environmental racism,” specifically with hog farms in eastern North Carolina. It opened my eyes to how environmental racism affects the communities that I love and that I advocate for and that I’m a part of, and maybe not a part of. That’s when I realized I was going to major in Environmental Science. It wasn’t until later on in my Duke career was when I saw that my two interests were so different —- I don’t think there was a single class I took that overlapped with either major — but they’re so interconnected. Especially if you look at it more from a spiritual perspective, a lot of the research that I did was on how Native and Indigenous folks are the best caregivers of the Earth. They don’t see it as a tool or just another resource but as a living and breathing entity. So that’s where merging the two intersections of environmental justice and spirituality occurred.
I didn’t see how this related to my involvement with Latinx student advocacy until I started taking courses for my Latino/a Studies in the Global South certificate, when I was able to learn more about these issues in South America and in the U.S. For my senior capstone, I did a research project on Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. It was heartbreaking, but at the same time it was a really interesting way to look at those issues from an environmental justice standpoint, like, “What went wrong? Why? What can we do to prevent this from ever happening again?” I think, in short, those three areas of study — environmental justice, immigrant and Latinx advocacy, and spirituality (specifically how we connect with each other and the land) — they are all so important to me and my values, and I always want to ensure that whatever I do aligns with all my interests and advocacy work.
In a lot of this work, it’s important to not lose hope.
What are some of the environmental justice issues you were seeing in your own communities?
In my Environmental Ethics course, I wrote a paper on hog farming in Eastern North Carolina, which is huge because of how big the pork industry is in this state. What happens is that companies like Smithfield have these farms that they put very purposefully in neighborhoods that have a majority Latinx, Black, and low-income population. Runoff would happen from the pigs’ waste, and the smell is horrendous, and these communities would have to live so close to that. The companies probably did this intentionally, thinking that these communities wouldn’t know how to fight back or how to advocate for themselves. That narrative is changing a lot now as they have been empowering themselves to be able to fight back in court. But the fact that it’s over there and not in Durham says a lot. That was the second moment where I realized this was affecting the communities I care about.
In a lot of this work, it’s important to not lose hope. And I would try even in the smaller scale work I'd do, like every time I would visit home, I’d talk to my parents about small lifestyle changes like using reusable bags. I know in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t necessarily change the world, but I think it changes the way they approach their life, and I think it’s important for people to know that you do have power and an impact even through smaller acts. Within your own personal life, I think that empowers you, and makes you feel like you have the ability to bring about change for bigger things.
Do you see a higher level of concern back in your home community in South Florida, especially with the intensifying hurricanes and rising water levels?
You know, I have this fear that my city is going to be underwater soon. I don’t know if you’ve been hearing about Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico, but once again — no electricity, no power, just destruction. And I grew up with hurricanes, but the amount and the intensity that we have now is absolutely insane. I think particularly in Florida, people are concerned and aware — I don’t want to speak for the whole state, especially since I’ve been living here in North Carolina for six years — but at least from my own family, a lot of what they’re thinking is “What can we do? This is our home, our roots are here and we’ve established a life here. What happens next?” And I know it’s a bit doom and gloom, but that’s why things like the “Environmental Justice in the Latinx Community” event uplift these communities, uplifts not only the issues but the advocacy work that’s going towards them. It’s about focusing on “What can we do? What is the advocacy that is happening right here, right now in your community?” I’m big on action items – let’s focus on what’s next.
And I know it’s a bit doom and gloom, but that’s why things like the “Environmental Justice in the Latinx Community” event uplift these communities, uplifts not only the issues but the advocacy work that’s going towards them.
That’s a perfect segue into my final question — what’s next for you as it relates to your passions and interests?
I miss being a student and I love learning and continuing to grow. So down the line I’d love to apply to PhD programs and see how I can continue to bring my three areas of interest into conversation with each other. Even with my advocacy work, I love the idea of backing it up with education and knowledge, and having the opportunity to meet with other scholars in the field.