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Environmental Activist

Erica Fernandez: Toward a Safer, More Just World

20-year-old environmental activist takes multigenerational approach.

Erica Fernandez with Jane Goodall, Ph.D., DBE

Erica Fernandez with Jane Goodall, Ph.D., DBE — Courtesy of the Jane Goodall Institute

A company official, who did not want to be identified in this story, confirmed that the company has not attempted to build that type of project anywhere in the United States again. "That's in the past," he says. "We've moved on."

So has Fernandez. Since then, she's been trained as a community organizer and participated in a variety of pro-environment and pro-immigration campaigns. She's also volunteered to teach English and help farm workers organize to demand their rights.

Ambitious Dreams

Fernandez started life in a dirt-floored mud house in Gómez Farias, a small town—fewer than 1,000 residents—in the state of Michoacán, Mexico.

She's the fifth of six children in a family so poor that they made do without hot water or a toilet, refrigerator or stove.

The family managed to eat every day because everyone pitched in. Her father worked in the United States, but traveled home often, while everyone else, including the children, toiled in the fields, picking strawberries or weeding beans. Fernandez and her young siblings also collected and sold horse manure to make bricks for fuel and construction.

When Fernandez was eight, her mother left to join her husband—who claimed her as a U.S. resident. Fernandez and her two sisters, Noemi, then 13, and Maria del Carmen, 4, stayed behind. Fernandez and Noemi took turns caring for their little sister and going to school. They also tended to the animals and worked in the fields for their food. Their grandmothers lived nearby, but the girls were mostly on their own.

"We were scared and sad," Fernandez says. "We didn't want to be without our mom, but we didn't have a choice."

A year and a half later, Fernandez and her sisters followed their parents to California. The transition was a shock for a child who spoke no English and had never seen the ocean, but she focused on the one thing that had helped her endure loneliness in Mexico: education.

Fernandez's mother, Maria del Carmen Fernandez, 53—who never learned to read or write and works sorting oranges in Strathmore, California—says Erica's drive comes from her heart: "I couldn't go to school; my parents were too poor for that. But Erica has always followed her own light, her own path."

But it was Noemi, Erica says, who motivated her early on. Her older sister was so studious that she received scholarships starting at a very early age and is now a college graduate. Now, Fernandez is also motivated by more ambitious dreams, and changing the world is one of them.

"Erica's goal, I think, is to change global policy," says Cindy Wilber, 58, education coordinator at Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, who has become Fernandez's mentor and worked with her this summer on a reforestation project in Yucatán, Mexico. "There aren't many people who I think can do that, but I think Erica can."

What gives her such assurance? Wilber points to three reasons: "She believes she can. She feels she has to. And she has a pretty clear idea of how to do it."

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