This interview was conducted by Aletta Brady on March 28, 2018. Alexandra Cohen and Talia Fox contributed to the production of this story.
Azaria Mendoza is an artist, a college student, and an organizer with the Zero Hour Movement. This is Azaria's story:
“I was born into an artistic community in Pueblo, Colorado. My mother is a potter, my aunt and uncle are sculptors, and my grandparents are painters. I grew up in a place called, ‘The Blocks.’ Every house on the street is painted vibrant colors. There is art everywhere you look. There are sculptures coming out of everything.
My home is not only hit by climate change, but also the fossil fuel industry. I was raised on polluted air and contaminated water, and I didn’t even know it. There was a river down the hill from my house—the Arkansas River. I used to swim there as a child, and when I was younger, I dreamed of being a swimmer. When I would go in the river to swim, my dad would take a kayak, and we would both get really, really sick. I never understood why.
Growing up, I could see smokestacks near my house that filled the entire sky with clouds, but I didn’t know what they were. In high school, I started asking people, ‘What is that place?’ Finally, my aunt told me, ‘that’s a coal burning power plant that they were supposed to build in Denver.’ It was planned in a predominantly white community, but the people of Denver rallied and said that it was unsafe. As a result, Xcel Energy moved the power plant two hours south to my predominantly Hispanic town—Pueblo, Colorado. The company was aware of the health risks and offered the community free energy and jobs in exchange. The city took it. After ten years or so, the company stopped giving free energy and rerouted the jobs. Now my hometown is experiencing pollution and destruction from this power plant without anything in return.
This past winter, I went home over winter break. The Arkansas River, which used to be a magnificent blue color, was green. The kind of green that’s sick. The kind of green that means infection. The kind of green that means contamination. You can’t fish in the river anymore because of how contaminated it is. Growing up, I remember paddling around in this pristine, beautiful river with my little floaties. My aunt’s dog, Honey, whose fur is the same color as honey, would swim with me. I remember the water being so high, so powerful, and so deep and blue. I looked over to my left and saw this beautiful mountain that I’ve looked at my entire life—Pike’s Peak—and it was brown. That mountain always had snow on it in the winter. I remember, as a kid, looking up and seeing it so white, so pristine. And now, it was brown. I looked back in front of me and the river was so small. It used to be a kayak course that has mostly stopped because the rapids are not large enough. The levee that holds it is too large now. Construction men came and cut the levee in half horizontally because it was too tall. But the levee wasn’t any ordinary levee.
It was a mural—one of the largest murals in the world. It was painted over the course of decades. I remember swimming and having the backdrop of this huge mural that the whole artist community I grew up in had a hand in. It was a hidden gem in this destroyed city. With rising temperatures, the river sank, and the levee was too tall, which is why they had to cut it in half. To see the river so small and green, and to see the mural behind it cut in half just painted over with white concrete, was heartbreaking. I realized that the community I had grown up with was gone. All of the young people who were lively and artistic had to move to Denver because there were no jobs in Pueblo anymore. Climate change affects everyone differently but for me, it impacted the way my community came together.
I started to do research about the power plant near my house. It was the largest coal power plant in Colorado—the Comanche power plant. I read water quality reports, and what I found shocked me. There was a high level of lead in the water distribution system. The standard of danger is 5 parts per billion of lead, and ours had 9.3 parts per billion. That is about twice the amount of acceptable lead in the water. I remember reading that and re-reading it. Then everything started to click. ‘That’s why I get sick.’ ‘That’s why I’m told to filter every glass of water when I’m home.’ When I read that, we had only recently started filtering water. For most of my life, I just drank from the tap. I wondered, ‘What has this been doing to my health and the health of the people I love?’ I looked at my brother and wondered what other health problems he had because of the fossil fuel industry. Maybe the polluted air was why he has asthma.
In college, I came across an article about people organizing to shut down the plant. They talked about how contaminated the city was, how poor the living quality was, and how dangerous it was for youth to live in this city. I had read documents like that in an environmental class, and it always seemed one step removed. But, I read that and realized, ‘that’s me.’ I remember closing my computer and crying. I looked around and realized I was in Seattle. I couldn’t go down the street to the power plant, protest, and start organizing.
I felt so far removed from the people that I loved, who were so close to the harshness, destruction, and horrible health effects. It’s very difficult to protest when you’re not in the place you want to organize in. I think about my brother Jakson a lot. He’s in the fifth grade and just becoming aware of the world. The quality of the water he’s drinking, the air he’s breathing, and the food desert he’s existing in aren’t good for his health and future. Our mother and grandparents didn’t leave town, and he talks about never wanting to leave Pueblo as well. That’s the hardest part. I’ve been able to leave, take a step back, and realize what’s going on back at home, and my family can’t.
When I come back and see that my family can’t leave, it’s really heartbreaking. They are in the community that they built. You can’t just uproot and move when your house is your art studio, and your customers are people that you’ve made connections with for the past 60 or 70 years. That’s what fuels me to fight the fossil fuel industry. There has to be a way to get this toxic parasite out of my community.
I developed a passion and intensity to change the world, so I started looking around. I got together with another friend and we started meeting once a week. Then we started connecting to outside groups like 350.org. We shut down a Chase Bank over the Keystone XL pipeline, and we did it with music and art. That’s when I realized I could intersect my artistic upbringing and channel it into fighting against destructive forces like pipelines.
My advice is to root where you land, and engage with the community around you because it’s hard to change things from far away. Climate change affects everyone. No matter where you are, who you are, or how you live, it will affect you. There is no planet B. No one is safe. That doesn’t mean that we should forget that marginalized, indigenous, and frontline communities are hit the hardest. It will affect everyone, and in different ways.
It gets overwhelming sometimes because there’s so much we have to change. The best way to combat that is to find what you’re passionate about, what’s really life-giving to you, and to start there. It’s important to contribute in ways that give you life because if you’re doing something draining, it’s not going to sustain you. For instance, if you love to cook, you can throw dinners and build community, because a movement is only as strong as the community around it. If you love to rock climb, take people out and teach them, inspire them to see the beauty in the outdoors and why it’s worth fighting for. If you get life out of raising your kids, teach them to be sustainable, kind humans. Do the little things and the big things. We have to try everything.
For oppressive systems to change, we have to have confidence that we can make a difference. We must believe that freedom, liberation, and a fossil fuel-free world are possible in our lifetime. If we’re sick and tired of this old world, no one else will change it. It is on us and the confidence we have to do it.”