Yaritza Perez: Serving her country again – this time from home

Yaritza Perez: Serving her country again – this time from home

Yaritza Perez: Serving her country again – this time from homeYaritza Perez: Serving her country again – this time from home 1

Yaritza Perez is another unsung hero in the fight for our environment and climate action. A proud U.S. Marine veteran, she served her country for a dozen years–many overseas. Now, Yaritiza is the state field coordinator for EcoMadres – Moms Clean Air Force’s Latino community outreach program that works to protect Latino families from air pollution and climate change.

She’s serving her country again, only this time from Orlando, Florida, where this mom is an advocate for children, vets, and her community. When Hurricane Ian recently hit her beloved hometown, she led recovery and cleanup efforts. We recently spoke to Yaritza from storm-ravaged Central Florida.

What a great way to be able to serve your country by keeping it clean. – Yaritza Perez

Tell us how you transitioned from caring about the security of our country to caring about the security of our planet.

My transition from the military was a little bit rough. I suddenly had to figure out what I was supposed to do next.

You see, I had imagined being a Marine forever. To help with the transition, I started volunteering with some veteran-led organizations. I soon noticed that we were always volunteering in Black and Brown neighborhoods, which most of the time are the most underserved communities here in central Florida. I started to notice that within our volunteer projects that there was a lot of vital information that those residents were not receiving. This realization was startling.

In the military, I operated in a bubble, my military bubble. They took care of me in the military. Everything was very secure. Everything was always guaranteed. There’s a routine—and process–for everything. But in contrast, over on the civilian side of life, this wasn’t happening. And I began to notice that there was something going on, especially in the area of south Orlando — like why is it that it’s getting so oppressively hot with each passing year?

Why are kids getting sicker and sicker even with the modern medicine and technologies that we have these days? I mean it’s difficult for my mom to go outside sometimes because it’s so hot or it smells really bad because of the landfill.

And that’s when I first came across Moms Clean Air Force. I was thrilled to discover a network of parent advocates –who like me– were interested in keeping the planet clean and livable. And I loved that this network worked in a way that transcended politics as usual. Look, I do not care much for politics: I am not red or blue. But I am very green!

Look, I do not care much for politics. I am not red or blue. But I am very green. – Yaritza Perez

So between the flooding and the drought and Hurricane Ian, things have gotten a lot worse for Americans lately. What are some steps that we can do as private citizens — besides voting?

An overflight view of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona

Flickr / Coast Guard News

Get to know your neighbors. Get involved in your community and find out who leads and who makes decisions that impact lives. Start small at the community level and work your way up. It can be very overwhelming even for seasoned community leaders like me to take it all on, all at once. Instead, work incrementally and in a way that sustains your energy.

When I was growing up, my parents knew all of my neighbors. Now we don’t. But within the EcoMadres program, we have Cafecitos, and it’s literally just moms getting together to have a cup of coffee and finding out as we’re chitchatting, “Hey, you know what? My kids are getting sick and your kids are getting sick. What’s the connection here? And what’s it tied to?” We cannot underestimate the power of coming together for a common cause.

A lot of politicians and leaders like to use that veteran card whenever possible, and they’re always preaching that they care about the environment– but they stick very much to their side of the aisle. – Yaritza Perez

The last couple of years have been really bad. Hurricane Ian definitely exacerbated issues around access to safe housing, clean air and clean water. For example, the water is now contaminated because there’s a leak somewhere within the sewage department. Suddenly, we are confronted with constant worry about our families’ well-being and survival. There are streets that are flooded that have never flooded before, so those residents weren’t prepared to handle that amount of water.

Meanwhile, a lot of politicians and leaders like to use that veteran card whenever possible, and they’re always preaching that they care about the environment– but they stick very much to their side of the aisle. This is frustrating because clean air and clean water are not partisan issues.

Yet, I’m uplifted by the many residents that I work with here in Florida who want to serve this country. Deep down, don’t most of us–in one way, shape, or form–want to serve, right? What a great way to be able to serve your country by keeping it clean.

What else can communities do?

Good question! Education is key. Everyone eligible to vote must do their homework and understand how their vote can advance those things that Latinos care about: our rights, our health and our ability to thrive in our environment –with good-paying jobs, a social safety net and a stable climate. Oftentimes, I hear Latinos question the power of their vote, but I stand by this belief: In every election, we Latinos have to exercise our right to vote and courageously be the change we seek in this world. We got this–but only if we vote! Imagine if all those people who think “my vote doesn’t matter,” voted. We’d have probably twice as many voters, which could be the difference in every election. Some elections are determined by just a few votes.

It’s very important that we also model our determination to be change-agents for future generations, “Hey, this is how democracy works. This is how we get things done, and make changes for our people, not just as a country, but as a community.”

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