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Latina San Diego Port Commissioner Fights For Community

San Diego skyline as seen from Harbor Island Park on Feb. 5, 2021.

Photo by Erik Anderson

Above: San Diego skyline as seen from Harbor Island Park on Feb. 5, 2021.

The Port of San Diego faces some financial hurdles in 2021, as the public agency deals with the coronavirus pandemic.

In the midst of that financial uncertainty, the port’s board welcomed its second Latina commissioner, Sandy Naranjo. The first was Sylvia Rios.

Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.

She replaces longtime National City Port Commissioner Dukie Valderamma. The former businessman spent four terms as National City’s representative

Naranjo stopped by Pepper Park — one of the only places in National City where residents can put their foot in the waters of San Diego Bay — to talk about her new job.

Helping preserve that access to the bay is a priority for Naranjo.

“I want to make sure I continue that legacy that former commissioner Valderamma left,” Naranjo said. “But also too to expand that the port is inclusive of everyone.”

She knows that the waterfront is an important slice of National City, but it is a resource that has been largely closed to residents.

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“When everyone thinks of San Diego, they think of our waterfront,” Naranjo said. “And I want to embrace that. But I also want to embrace those community members that live here to enjoy that as well. I want it to be inviting to not just the people who live in National City and Barrio Logan, but also San Ysidro, Southeast San Diego where they feel like they can come here and they have access.”

Naranjo brings a fresh set of eyes to the board. She fought side-by-side with other residents in communities near the bay for clean air.

The environmental battles are rooted in her childhood when she had her first severe asthma attack.

Video by Roland Lizarondo

She blames that medical condition on the diesel truck traffic that rumbled through her neighborhood when she was a child. It is a condition she struggles with today and she wants to improve National City for the kids who live there now.

“Unfortunately, my story’s not unique,” Naranjo said. “This is what happens in our community where we see brown and Black children being diagnosed with severe asthma at higher rates because they’re exposed to toxic air pollution because they live next to a polluting industry.”

The asthma rate for children in Barrio Logan is seven times higher than it is for kids growing up in La Jolla.

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Naranjo brings experience advocating for community residents.

She worked for the Environmental Health Coalition and Mothers Out Front and she hopes to bring that community perspective to her position at the port.

“Someone like myself, with my background in environmental justice and labor advocacy, has not been traditionally welcome, but I believe its going to serve as a positive force,” Naranjo said.

National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis praised Naranjo’s willingness to fight for the community.

That, said the mayor, makes the new port commissioner the right person to push for issues important for National City.

“I think she’s very nimble,” Sotelo-Solis said. “She has the understanding of the government as well as that personable aspect that the decisions that are made affect real people.

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Sotelo-Solis said putting Naranjo at the table with other decision-makers allows her to fight to keep National City from being overrun by industries.

Naranjo can be a voice for clean air and clean water.

“It is also knowing, that those are natural resources of our waterfront. We deserve, we’ve earned and it's within our jurisdiction to have access to,” Sotelo-Solis said.

But for longtime environmental justice advocate Diane Takvorian, Naranjo’s appointment may be a sea change in the way business is done at the Port of San Diego.

“The Environmental Health Coalition has been advocating with the port for 30 years now. And this is completely different,” said Takvorian, executive director of the EHC.

Port officials were surprised years ago when residents first began speaking out about air pollution in the portside neighborhoods.

Now advocates are not just crowding a public meeting demanding to be heard.

They have a seat at the table. And that boosts chances that clean air and water will be a priority for the Port of San Diego.

Correction: This story originally stated that Sandy Naranjo was the port's first Latina board member. In fact, Sylvia Rios was appointed to the board in 2003. KPBS regrets the error.

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Photo of Erik Anderson

Erik Anderson
Environment Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI focus on the environment and all the implications that a changing or challenging environment has for life in Southern California. That includes climate change, endangered species, habitat, urbanization, pollution and many other topics.

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