Even after 24 years, Onys Sierra’s voice still breaks when she recalls the night Hurricane Mitch began devastating her home country of Honduras. “I remember thinking, ‘I have to sleep next to my daughter, because if we die, we will be together,’” she said.*
Once the storm finally cleared, homes, workplaces and lives had been destroyed. “Erased from the map,” Sierra said of her country. “Whole families dead, bodies of people floating, children.”
“That experience is the hardest I have ever had in life,” she added.
Hurricane Mitch is the second-deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record. More than 11,000 people were killed and 3 million left homeless by the storm in Honduras and Nicaragua. Mitch made landfall in 1998, where it slowed and sat over Central America, dumping rain for days.
Left: The Rio Lampa swells near the city of Nueva Ocotepeque during Hurricane Mitch. (Photo credit: Leonora (Ellie) Enking / CC BY 2.0). Right: Flood damage along the Choluteca River caused by Hurricane Mitch (Photo credit: NOAA / CC BY 2.0).
In the following decades, climate change has made hurricanes with periods of long, heavy rains more common. Hurricane Harvey produced a record-breaking 51 inches of rain near Houston in 2017, and in November 2020, two category four hurricanes dropped catastrophic rains on Central America.
In the aftermath of the storm, Sierra and many others made the difficult decision to immigrate to the United States.
“There was no work. My place of work no longer existed — it existed, the place, but it was no longer functioning. It was full of mud and trees,” Sierra said. “It was difficult because I had to leave my daughter. That is leaving one’s life — to leave one’s child, that’s leaving one’s life.”
Sierra now lives in Durham, North Carolina, where she works two jobs. Her daughter eventually joined her in the U.S. and had two children of her own. And though Sierra doesn’t worry much about hurricanes anymore, the signs of climate change are everywhere. The summers, she said, have gotten insufferably hot, and intense rainstorms cause flooding and downed trees.
“The environment, we’re not taking care of it. It’s the most precious, beautiful thing we have and we’re not taking care of it,” she said. “What’s going to happen in 2030? What are my grandchildren going to live through when they grow up?”
Sierra’s story is just one of many diverse, complex stories of Latinos living in the United States amid climate change. And though climate change affects everyone, it doesn’t affect everyone equally. From North Carolina to New Jersey to California to Puerto Rico, both the causes and effects of climate change disproportionately threaten Latinos all over the United States.
Burning fossil fuels creates air pollution, causing climate change and harming health
A major cause of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas — that release heat-trapping gases. Burning fossil fuels also produces other pollutants that harm communities in the United States. Fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, gets into people’s lungs and causes short term health concerns, like coughing, shortness of breath, and irritation in the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Long-term exposure may cause increased rates of chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function, and increased risk of death from lung cancer and heart disease.
The Ironbound neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, is home to many immigrants from Latin America. Maria Lopez-Nuñez, the deputy director of organizing and advocacy for the Ironbound Community Corporation, described the neighborhood as “four square miles surrounded by industry.”
Some of that surrounding industry, including a garbage incinerator and the largest port on the East Coast, emits a lot of PM 2.5. Lopez-Nuñez said that one in four kids, or 25%, in the neighborhood has asthma. That compares to 7% of kids nationwide.
Poor air quality is one of the leading risk factors for death around the world. A Harvard study found that in 2018, one in five premature deaths was caused by fossil fuel pollution. In the U.S., air pollution disproportionately affects marginalized groups.
“There are times when we wake up and we can smell the pollution in the air,” Lopez-Nuñez said. “I don’t think that’s an experience everyone in this country has to deal with, but it’s an experience that has a profound impact on you.”
In the U.S., Black and Hispanic people are much more likely to live in areas with unhealthy air than non-Hispanic white people. A 2019 study led by researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Minnesota calculated a “pollution inequity” metric that measures the amount of PM 2.5 pollution a group faces as compared to that group’s role in causing pollution.
They found that, on average, non-Hispanic whites experience a “pollution advantage” of 17% less air pollution exposure than they cause. Black and Hispanic people experience a “pollution burden” of 56% and 63% more exposure than they cause, respectively.
As eliminating the burning of these fossil fuels is essential to reducing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other air pollutants, climate action could improve public health in Latino neighborhoods.
Extreme weather and heat disproportionately harm Latinos
In addition to bearing an excessive burden from fossil fuel pollution, Latinos in the U.S. face the effects of climate change through extreme weather, wildfires, heat, and sea-level rise.
“The majority of the Latino population, from mainland Latinos to Puerto Ricans, lives at the forefront of climate change. They’re first and hardest hit,” said Michael Méndez, an assistant professor of environmental policy and planning at the University of California, Irvine.
Many Latinos live in areas affected by extreme heat. Méndez said that predominantly Latino neighborhoods often lack shade trees and green space, which can help neighborhoods stay cool. Researchers have found that the Los Angeles neighborhoods with the highest percentage of Latino residents were 6.5°F hotter on extreme heat days than the neighborhoods with the fewest Latinos.
Similarly, researchers from the University of Arizona and the University of Kentucky have shown that Latino neighborhoods are more vulnerable to flooding. Large Latino populations live in coastal cities like Miami and Houston that experience sea-level rise and threats from hurricanes.
“Because of racism and other social inequality, structural inequalities, most of these communities have aging infrastructure that is crumbling, even before a disaster strikes,” Méndez said.
Listen: Hot days endanger farmworkers
At work, Latinos are overrepresented in outdoor industries like agriculture and construction. One-fifth of the national workforce is Hispanic, but Hispanics make up more than half of hired farmworkers. Méndez said that in California, many farmworkers are forced to labor in extreme heat and on days when wildfire smoke fills the sky.
Latino climate action leaders
Latinos in the United States believe in, worry about, and are willing to act on climate change at a much higher rate than the general U.S. public.** Méndez says this difference is likely a result of many Latinos’ lived experience with climate change.
And Latino leaders are demanding climate solutions from the workplace to statehouses and beyond. Méndez said that migrant rights groups in California were forced to engage with climate change as workers began to experience more wildfires and extreme heat.
“These individuals are becoming sort of de facto disaster and climate change experts and are now slowly starting to work regionally and throughout the state as a network to address disasters,” he said.
Lopez-Nuñez and the Ironbound Community Corporation have had success fighting for environmental justice in their community by starting at the municipal level. They worked to pass a law that requires a community’s existing pollution burden to be considered before permitting new polluting facilities. The ordinance was adopted first in Newark and then, after 12 years of work, in New Jersey as a whole.
“It was about making our case over and over and over again,” Lopez-Nuñez said.
When Onys Sierra moved to Durham, she faced discrimination from bosses who knew that she desperately needed a job. So she joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to advocate for more worker protections. In her own life, she tries to use less plastic and to conserve water. “The environment is what gives us life,” she said. “So destroying it is the same as destroying ourselves.”
Though more than willing to do what she can to fight climate change, Sierra is also frustrated by the inaction of people who have the real power to implement solutions, she said: “It would be great if they could try to use the power they have, so that our grandchildren won’t be faced with such a ruined environment.”
*All quotes attributed to Onys Sierra are direct translations from her original Spanish. Maria Ponce with Service Employees International Union and Lisa Fernandez with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) provided interpretation and translation support.
**These research findings were produced by YPCCC, the publisher of this site.