By Jessica Klees, Communications Intern

Jose Franco Garcia is an activist working with the Environmental Health Coalition, a binational organization that does work in San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico. His work focuses on environmental justice that crosses borders and brings communities together.

“Much like the Environmental Health Coalition, I grew up on both sides of the border,” Garcia explains. Like Garcia himself, many of the community members that EHC serves have family in the United States and in Tijuana. The border has a large impact on the day-to-day lives of people in these areas. Garcia says that in addition to environmental justice, issues such as immigration reform, housing, and worker’s rights are all affected by the US-Mexico border. 

During the pandemic, members of the Tijuana and San Diego organizations were able to meet together much more frequently because of the conveniences of remote work. This has allowed group members to communicate, work together, and build a strong sense of community. 

Garcia notes that “some of the environmental justice impacts are very similar” between the two communities in San Diego and Tijuana, although they are in different countries. Both are affected by the environmental impacts of factories and other industrial polluters. For example, textile plants known as maquiladoras are common near the border, and pollution caused by these plants affect those living nearby. Garcia adds that the nearby port also causes poor air quality for people on both sides of the border.

Garcia started his career as a labor organizer with United Healthcare Workers, where he worked with people in the same neighborhoods as he does with the Environmental Health Coalition. These communities are largely made up of people of color; they are often young people and the elderly. There are many frontline workers in these communities as well. Garcia says that “the same neighborhoods impacted by environmental justice are dealing with economic justice.” He describes this as a “cumulative impact” of these factors that affect people’s lives. And these experiences are quite similar between neighborhoods in Tijuana and  San Diego; community members are often dealing with the same issues.

“I don’t think there’s a social justice organization in this region that isn’t impacted by the border,” Garcia explains. Issues like transportation, healthcare, and housing affect the lives of people who regularly cross the border and families on either side of it. Garcia emphasizes that all of these issues are interconnected. He adds that when policy decisions are made, leaders need to take into account how communities on both sides of the border will be affected. 

The Environmental Health Coalition’s recent work includes establishing a new air pollution control district in San Diego. Another issue that the group is focusing on is transportation justice: improving mass transit to make it more accessible and better for the environment. Language justice is also a very important issue to Garcia, as he grew up interpreting for his mother, who only spoke Spanish. Because of these experiences, access to interpretation services is extremely personal for him. The Environmental Health Coalition always holds meetings in English and Spanish, and there is sometimes interpretation in more languages as well.

Using Zoom to connect during the pandemic has been difficult, but Garcia finds that it can still be a useful tool for getting people involved. “Folks that I never would have imagined being on Zoom a year ago are now jumping on and are telling others how to use the interpretation function on Zoom.” One way that community members have been able to connect online, Garcia found, is by leaving online meetings open so that people can talk and catch up with each other afterwards. “This was Spanish conversations, English conversations…Being able to have that connection, I’ve seen a lot of people have thrived in that, a lot of community members enjoyed that.”

Photo Credit: Jose Franco Garcia