Seeing the World Through Petroleum Coke Glasses
Understanding How It Takes a Village to Fix a Village and How the Many Faces of the East Side Are Striving For a Better and Healthier Community
By Valerie Alvarez
The year is 2005 and I feel the breeze on my face as the warm summer sun beams down through the car sunroof. Mountains roll past me as I peer outside. ‘Mountains!” I exclaim excitedly. My neighborhood was sunshine, mostly warm with some clouded days in between, but in reality, I was too oblivious to realize that what I thought were monumental mountains were actually enormous heaps of petroleum coke, a byproduct of steel production. The breeze I longed for every scorching summer contained traces of manganese, a toxic chemical that can be to blame for the increased asthma rates in my neighborhood. My predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood- Chicago’s southeast side has been a victim and a casualty to environmental racism.
Today, the year is 2020 and the current COVID-19 pandemic leads me to reflect back to 2005, to the “mountains,” to my childhood oblivion, and to reflect on the unresolved problems that remain. The southeast side of Chicago still suffers from multiple health disparities, and they usually circle back to the same cause: pollution caused by environmental injustices.
While these environmental problems are embedded deep in the skin of my neighborhood, there are prominent youth figures that are fighting for betterment in my community in all aspects. Adelina Avalos is an activist and community organizer in the southeast side of Chicago, as well as a director for IL Youth Climate Strike and ambassador for the National Resource Defense Council. Adelina is admired in our neighborhood for her tireless work and devotion towards the community and ensuring that the southeast side is heard when conversations regarding environmental injustices in Chicago arise.
“Paying attention to health disparities is so important. Mainly because these health disparities affect communities of color the most. It is so crucial we look into race as an underlying factor of environmental injustices.” Avalos says.
When growing up in a community where you only see the sunshine, it’s sometimes hard to focus on the many hard truths about a neighborhood. The truth is, one industry’s actions can cause a lifetime and generational inheritance of disease.
Advocates are vital and play the utmost important role in fighting for change. While where we come from doesn’t define us, it shapes us and helps drive our passions. Ale Hermosillo is an East Side resident and a junior at UIC, pursuing an MSN (Masters of Science in Nursing). She has always been drawn to healthcare and over the years, realized a passion for providing and healing. In my community, it is detrimental for young people to be driven to be the change that is needed.
“Ale says, “Growing up in an underserved-minority based community is what ultimately impacted the way I perceived the healthcare system. Understanding that low-income and minority-based communities have fewer resources, lower quality of life, and are targeted for environmental racism that impacts their health is more about being aware of social issues and public policy in general.”
“People tend to care about what they see and what directly affects them, but to be a part of a community is to witness other’s struggles and feel their pain. The environmental injustices that have subjected the East Side to become a disease cluster have gone as far as to financially devastate families who are unable to afford proper health care. “
“We know that some groups of people live longer, healthier lives than others, and it’s important to investigate how and why to see if there are factors we can change. For example, through research, we know that minority populations who have lower education levels, lower socioeconomic status, and [reside in] food deserts have shorter life expectancies than wealthy white communities.” — Cassie Robledo
Cassie Robledo is a cardiac nurse at Advocate Christ Hospital who has been an East Side resident her whole life. As a nurse, she plays a key role in patient care and is truly a health care hero. She spreads her knowledge to the community and uses her insight to inform others. Robledo says, “My community is not very wealthy, which affects the type of insurance people can afford if they can afford insurance at all. Studies have shown that Latinos in Chicago are the most likely population to be uninsured or underinsured.”
Chicago has the greatest life expectancy gap in the country, so it’s easy to raise questions like what differentiates a healthy 20-year-old South Side/East Side resident from a healthy 20-year-old living in Lincoln Park, Logan Square, and the Loop? The ultimate difference is the 4-9 year gap in life expectancies. Numerically speaking, this gap may not seem like much of a difference but it is ultimately the greatest juxtaposition between wealthy and marginalized groups of people living in Chicago.
It’s time that we pay attention and come together. To see the world through petroleum coke glasses is to see a community that has been torn down from the inside and that has been impeded from reaching its fullest potential. It’s to see working-class families deal with economic as well as medical hardships. Yet you also see activists, advocates, health heroes, and passionate students come together to try and give back in any way they can. Now, in 2020, I understand that those heaps of petroleum coke are not mountains. However, I also understand that where there is a mountain, we will want to make it move, and because this is our home, our soil where we have been planted, we will ultimately bloom.