En español | She's four feet 11 inches and her little-girl voice tells you sweetly, yet somehow defiantly, that she won't stop fighting until there's justice in the world.
"I know I'm an idealist. My eventual goal is to prevent the rich from getting richer and the poor from getting poorer," says Erica Fernandez, not pausing for breath or for effect.
If that sounds impossibly naïve, it could be because she's 20, a junior at Stanford University, and she believes in magic.
"What else can I call it?" says the environmental and community activist who was honored last year by renowned primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall. Fernandez has also met President Obama, hobnobbed with environmental-minded movie actors such as Pierce Brosnan and received accolades and awards from organizations such as the Earth Island Institute's New Leaders Initiative, which gave her a much-coveted Brower Youth Award when she was only 16. A Gates Millennium Scholarship and assistance from Stanford cover her education expenses.
"Look where I started and where I am now. It's all kind of magical, isn't it?" says Fernandez.
Perhaps, but there's also her hard work and her ability to reach across generations to organize communities around issues that range from immigration reform and affordable housing to clean water and green spaces. Some of her friends and mentors, including Goodall, are old enough to be her grandparents.
"A key message of mine is that every individual makes a difference," wrote Goodall in an e-mail. "Erica certainly illustrates just what a difference one individual can make."
Gloria Roman, 56, met Fernandez about seven years ago. The then 12-year-old approached her during a beach clean-up day in Oxnard, a city 60 miles north of Los Angeles.
"It's her enthusiasm, her eagerness, how she throws herself into a project, that first appealed to me," says Roman. "It was clear she had no problem speaking to people much older than she," says the community activist.
That meeting proved fateful. Guided by Roman, Fernandez soon joined the work of local groups that for years had tried to stop the world's largest mining company, BHP Billiton, from building a liquefied natural gas terminal just off the Oxnard and Malibu coastlines. The plan called for running a 36-inch pipeline through a predominantly low-income Latino neighborhood. At minimum, the project would have led to the displacement of numerous families. A leak or any other accident would have put many more at risk, local activists say.
Fernandez campaigned door-to-door, spoke in schools against the project, participated in protests and took her impassioned arguments before various state commissions. In the end, BHP Billiton cancelled the project.
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.
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."