Celeste Godinez

By Erick Huerta on

Celeste

Celeste Godinez

At age 15, Celeste Godinez spent her weekends at the Long Beach Port watching the boats dock and the diesel big-rigs pull away leaving thick trails of exhaust behind them. Located in the Los Angeles Basin, the large shipping yard yields some of the worst pollution in the nation, with thousands of area residents facing serious health problems like cancer, birth defects, and decreased lung function. Godinez would walk from the port to houses in the surrounding neighborhoods, and talk to those Angelenos about the connection between the air they breathe and the quality of the lives they lead. “One woman swept black dust from her porch every morning, and could never figure out where it came from,” she says. “She cleaned and cleaned and then five minutes later, watched the dust settle back down. She asked me, ‘Is this why my children have asthma?’ And I told her, yes, that’s why.”

Godinez, a freshman at Santa Monica College, was born and raised in South LA, a mile away from the smog-ridden freeway. She suffers from asthma, too, as do many of her family members. But for as long as she can remember, she’s known that it’s up to her to do something about it. “Community activism is a way of life for me,” she says. “It always has been.” As a young child, Godinez would accompany her mother to SCOPE’s meetings. But rather than play with the other kids in childcare, Godinez listened to adults talk about strategies for combating economic injustice in her neighborhood. “I learned to ask questions about why things are they way they are, and why it’s important to be educated,” she says. By age six, she was talking to her neighbors about the limitations of tax policies like Proposition 13, writing letters to the mayor, and attending marches. In her high school government class, she knew how national politics and the presidential agenda could affect local policy decisions, and made sure her friends understood this, too. “I would hear something at a SCOPE meeting, and then something else would click when I was in class. My grades impressed everyone.”

In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded the Long Beach Port $1.34 million to reduce diesel emissions by retrofitting on-site cargo equipment, which will help the state meet federal Clean Air Act standards for the first time in years. Godinez owns this victory, and pays homage to the history of the struggle that she participated in. “I was born after the riots. But I still live with them, and want to know why they happened and what’s going to happen next,” Godinez says. “They say youth is the future, but if the future doesn’t know the past, then we’ll never know how to change the way we live now.”