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Roundtable: Following the democratic process in Barrio Logan

 April 22, 2022 at 12:00 PM PDT

S1: This week on roundtable the political process in San Diego from those deeply committed to seeking change to the reasons why so many of us refuse to participate. We look at both sides of this coin from one of the city's most diverse and often underrepresented neighborhoods. I'm Christina Kim , and this is KPBS Roundtable.
S2: I see that as one of the lawyers working for us. Hello. Council members. Thank you for having us. I'd like to say that one minute is unjust. After 40 years of struggle and I ask the Council President to make exemptions for folks reading comments for others and to be lenient with time. We'd like to acknowledge and uplift the residents of Barrio Logan. It's because of their irrepressible spirit and continual struggle for environmental justice that we're here today. So we're asking council to stand with community today to approve this plan as it is unanimously and swiftly without any exemptions for industry. Thank you very much , Terry. 40 years of struggles and you can address the city council for a minute. So feel right.
S1: The story of Barrio Logan , one of San Diego's oldest neighborhoods , is one of continuous struggle that overlaps multiple generations. By now , you might know about the air pollution the neighborhood faces in the shadow of the Coronado Bridge. It was brought about decades ago when construction of the five freeway split Logan Heights into two largely Latino communities , making them neighbors to big business and industry at the Port of San Diego. But its story is also one of community resistance. On a Ramirez is a photojournalist at the San Diego Union-Tribune , and she tells that story in her new documentary , Vivid Barrio , which we heard a snippet of at the top of the segment and joins us now for more. Welcome. Honor. Hi.
S3: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.
S1: Thank you so much for being here. So the first community voice we hear in your documentary is Julie Morales of the Environmental Health Coalition.
S3: You know , she's a resident , she's an advocate. And she's been really involved in changing policy in the community , including , you know , the Barrio Logan Community Plan update. And also in that opening scene , you see her mixed emotions. When we first started the day , she was really positive and excited , and then she learned that she and other residents would only have a minute to speak during the city council meeting. And she was upset by that , you know , and she reached out to city council trying to see if there was an exception and it just didn't work out. But just like anything she just did and you see that.
S1: Right ? That line really stuck with me. She says it's been 40 years of struggle. It seems like I should get a little more time. And I think in some ways you introduce her as a way of kind of setting the scene.
S3: So I spoke to residents who have been fighting for decades , trying to change those policies that would minimize the industry in the area to help create a less polluted community.
S1: You're relatively new here in San Diego.
S3: So I wanted to learn more about Barrio Logan. So the first thing I did was just go out and start exploring and talking to as many people as I could and just trying to get to know the area and being new here. I hadn't seen a neighborhood like this. There are people fishing at the pier right next to shipbuilding industry. Big rig trucks are plowing up and down the street , passing Perkins Elementary School. And , you know , you see smoke billowing from facilities behind people's homes.
S1: Barrio Logan is one of the most polluted communities in California. In your documentary , we actually hear from residents who believe cancer and asthma are some of the health problems that disproportionately affect them because they live in Barrio Logan. And we also hear about the smells. Let's take a listen to your documentary. We're going to hear from Miguel Espinoza , a resident manager for a senior apartment complex , as well as Barrio Logan resident Maria Coral.
S4: What I'm doing is I'm notifying all my tenants , but this smell too bad. The smell can't go through the lands right now because it is terrible out here. When I started the band being here , so with our handle , Mirella , literally Hondo was going to keep our whatever little or chemical puzzle pierogi. We are someone who very bad , very bad down here one more year very bad is the tenant has said get it with me dad. She gets. Headaches for vomit , vomit , know , type , type.
S2: And she controlled the shrink. Yes , my name is Maria and I was giving this phone number in order to make complain about the air pollution right across from us. Okay. What is the name of the endearing summertime ? I'm not exaggerating. It's like you put a deck or two or three dogs inside a plastic and then the sun boils them. And that's the kind of smell we get. It's it's unbearable. And it comes from outdoors inside. So most of the time , we have to be locked in windows closed because you don't know when the smell is going to invade.
S1: I mean , I really was struck by that vivid description that Maria gives of the smell. As you share at the end of the documentary , that smell has been deemed not hazardous , but instead as a nuisance.
S3: I didn't know what I was walking into. I had a Facebook message from Miguel and he was telling me about the smell. And so first thing I did was drive out there and I noticed it right away. I went a few times to the same area and depending on the day , it is stronger than on other days. And depending on when the wind is blowing , it changes as well. Maria was talking about depression and how she can't open her windows and enjoy riding her bike like she used to.
S1: For those of you just joining in , I'm talking with photojournalist Ana Ramirez about her documentary , Viva la Barrio for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Ana , in your film , as you mentioned , there's a lot of historical context. I really love seeing all those old photos of El Barrio.
S3: So there are old family photos or they were friends photos , you know. So I just I talked to a lot of people in the community and I was just like , who who still has old photos of people living in Barrio Logan ? And , you know , I thought it was super important to include the history because this isn't something new. You know , this is something the community has been dealing with for 40 years and it's been more than 40 years , just the struggle they've had with the city and industry and everything. Absolutely.
S1: Absolutely. So for this documentary , you also got the perspective from the Port of San Diego. You spoke to National City's Sandy Naranjo. She's just the second Latina to ever serve on the board.
S3: I think , you know , what makes Sandy unique is she can relate to places like Barrio Logan. You know , she she grew up in San Pedro and she was diagnosed with the asthma at the emergency room. So you can tell she really cares about these communities. And a big effort for the port right now is to electrify all the big rig trucks that come in and out of the port. That's a big push for California in general , but the port is trying to do it five years sooner than California.
S1: For those listening who weren't following the headlines in December , the city council unanimously voted to approve Barrio Logan's Community Plan update , which is going to establish more of a buffer zone between industry and residential areas. And as you show in your documentary , there's some real optimism for the future. Here's Logan Heights resident Maritza Garcia.
S2: As negative as pollution is. There's just so much positive in our lives. This is my first child. I think something that's fueling me to want to change all this , because I do want it to change for my kids. I don't want them to have to be in so much pollution. They'll have a better chance to live in a healthier neighborhood. If we keep fighting now. But also they will be able to grow up in the same kind of love and community that I grew up in. And I think that that's bigger than anything else. Knowing that you belong somewhere , that's something that I would hope that they can experience , just as I've experienced.
S3: The businesses that are there , they can only grow a certain amount. But that being said , the hope is that a lot of those industries and businesses will leave the area. And after that , people can build homes in that area where the businesses were. But if you watch the documentary , one of the things that Julie says is the fight is not over. Yes , this is a huge win for the community. But there is , you know , the whole issue of gentrification. And now that they're cleaning up their community , there is worry.
S1: I also really love the way it's mostly non narrated. You're really weaving the different characters to tell the story of their own neighborhood.
S3: But short form documentary storytelling is great because it can speak in ways a written story and photos can't. It goes beyond words and speaks to some of the most important sentences. Like , you can see a struggle. You can hear someone laugh or scream and learn about a topic all in just watching a video.
S1: So what's next for you on.
S3: A lot right now ? I think I am going to take a break from doing as long of a documentary , but I am excited about a couple environmental stories I'm working on with environmental reporter Joshua Emmerson Smith about climate change and fires and other issues. I also have a few stories coming out about T.J. and I'm hoping to continue to document Barrio Logan and see what happens next.
S1: A lot to look forward from you. I've been talking with the San Diego Union-Tribune and Ramirez , thank you for this work on a and for everyone listening. Make sure to check out Viva la Barrio. It's 20 minutes. Well worth your time. Thank you. On a mentioned the work being done to electrify some of the heavy machinery used at the Port of San Diego. If you want to know more , check out last week's roundtable podcast. We had an interview with U-T energy reporter Rob Nicolosi , who filled us in on that technology.
S5: It's all part of reducing emissions in port areas , as port areas emit a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. And the reason why is because generally speaking , they use diesel fuel. So when you've got all that diesel fumes that really affect places like Barrio Logan and also National City that are right next to the port , and they've had traditionally for a long time had a lot of problems with particulate pollution , air pollution. And that leads to all kinds of health issues like greater incidences of asthma.
S1: Once more Barrio Logan. Barrio Logan is also getting some national attention. This week , a story on Chicano Park's history is included in The New York Times California Today newsletter. The park is celebrating its 52nd anniversary this weekend. That last segment featured an example of people working together in the democratic process. But many more in Barrio Logan and beyond are not as dialed into local politics. Or even worse , they're turned off entirely. Just look at the most recent special election to fill the vacant state assembly seat in the South Bay , where more than 85% of eligible voters didn't vote. Jesse Marks from Voice of San Diego recently took a look at what's behind this voter apathy , and he joins us now for more. Hey , Jesse.
S5: Hey , Christina. Thanks for having me.
S5: In fact , if you did vote in the April 5th election , you were actually in the minority. The last time I checked , it was a mere 13% turnout among eligible voters. So what I did on the morning of the election was spend a couple of hours walking around and honestly , I had trouble finding anyone who actually did vote. Most didn't even know that there was an election taking place. Most didn't know who the candidates were. Most said they didn't have time to even think about it , and some just flat out said they didn't care. When I pressed people for their justifications , they said the problem was that elected officials come and go , but their lives don't improve all that much. They believe that wealth is just flowing to the top while they and their friends and their families consistently hustle to get by. So essentially they've intuited that the government doesn't exist for their benefit and it doesn't matter who is elected because it won't change much long term.
S1: You spent Election Day in Barrio Logan , one of the communities in the 80th Assembly District. Why did you want to explore this topic ? These questions in Barrio Logan ? What makes Barrio Logan an interesting case study , especially since the 80th Assembly District extends all the way to Chula Vista and the border.
S5: Having been told my entire adult life that the next election is the most important one ever , and you need to plug your nose and pick one of the candidates. I understand instinctively why people would be turned off by that lesser of two evils argument by essentially saying you need to vote for one candidate because the other is so much worse. And as true as I might be , it effectively turns the democratic process into nothing more than damage control. And so I think that argument doesn't necessarily leave you feeling very hopeful about the future. There's no real vision to it or ideology. But I had also read recently in a history book that starting in the 1970s and eighties , there was an increasing number of U.S. citizens who'd been dropping out of elections , and that that trend coincided with a decline in union membership. And the problem there is that it effectively opens the door to just middle and upper class representation in government when lower income folks abstain. So to me , Barrio Logan was a really interesting case study because it's a mostly working class community and because the two Democrats who are running for the Assembly seat had either grown up there or they had spent time there working as advocates. So it was central to their identities and their pitch. And I just wanted to hear what regular people had to say about them. Right.
S1: Right. You're bringing up something that I wanted to ask you about next. You cross-referenced voter turnout data with census information and found that demographics and economics , to your point , really influenced voter turnout. I think we've always heard , you know , whiter , wealthier communities have higher voter turnout. But you found some outliers.
S5: I found that in several historically black neighborhoods in southeast San Diego , they had relatively high voter registration levels. So , for instance , Paradise Hills , Mountain View and Canso were a couple of them that I noticed. And the more you think about it , the less surprising it really is because black folks have had to fight for their basic human rights and civil rights for centuries. And so the fact that they were able to gain that right means that they cherish it. So if you look at data across the entire country , black Americans tend to vote in nearly the same rate as white Americans. So it seemed to me that mostly the pockets of nonvoters were in brown communities that were Latino more than anything else , but also they overlapped with significant pockets of poverty.
S1: You're listening to Roundtable and we're talking with Voice of San Diego associate editor Jesse Marks about voter apathy.
S5: They don't look down their nose at people. They don't lecture people who feel alienated by the political process. Instead , what they do is they point to positive changes in their own communities , like investments in parks , as an example of what you yourself can also advocate for and achieve. One organizer , for instance , who who works for Mid-City , Kan , told me that her team tries to couple voter outreach with information about food and housing assistance that already exists. So that way you're approaching someone not just from the question of , Hey , do you want to vote ? But also here's what's at stake for you and here's what's available to you so you're less likely to be dismissed.
S1: You also looked into National City , which is another South Bay community. They recently had a rent control measure in 2018 that failed by fewer than 200 votes.
S5: I think down ballot issues are extremely important and that oftentimes they're only decided by a handful of voters , maybe a few hundred , a few thousand , but even as little as a few dozen. Interestingly , though , when I was going around talking to people about why they didn't vote or why they were on the fence about voting in general , the thing that kept coming up was down ballot issues and specifically ballot measures. So as dissatisfied as people might be with the legislative process and with certain political personalities , they see the ballot process as a kind of direct democracy. It's open , of course , to manipulation and spin , as any campaign is , but it is at the very least , a way for regular people to obtain some actual control over the political process , rather than just casting off a vote for one candidate or another and hoping that you don't get duped.
S1: So a lot of people have probably heard the slogan , Your vote is your voice. But for some , silence speaks even louder in their opinion. You spoke with some folks that said they're not voting because it's a form of protest. What are the reasons that you heard ? Yeah.
S5: So some folks who view not voting as a form of protest , they told me specifically that they were turned off by the kind of sports spectacle of campaigns. They'd invested themselves emotionally in elections for years and had been disappointed. So they'd come to the conclusion that the differences between the Democrats and the Republicans , the two major parties , aren't actually all that great in the end , because , again , nothing about their lives , their material interests , their social interests changes over the long term. Wars continue on autopilot. Income inequality is still severe. The US still doesn't have a universal health care system , those types of things. So they would rather wait until a candidate comes along who seems to be genuinely interested in fixing those problems. Otherwise they feel complicit in the status quo.
S5: Most of the people told me they would rather engage in charitable acts on the local level. One grocery store worker I spoke to mentioned to me that after the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 , he started channeling his own energy into mutual aid work. So he essentially gathers up and delivers free food to San Diegans who are and who are in need of it. And he views that as more important than voting because it has an immediate effect on someone else and he can see it with his own eyes. He acknowledged to me at the same time that some of our biggest problems , like climate change homelessness , will definitely require a massive response from people and from the government. The government needs to lead those efforts because no individual can solve them by themselves. So while distributing food gives him a certain sense of meaning and purpose and it makes him feel like he's part of something bigger , he also wants to practice what he preaches.
S1: So I'm thinking , you know , audiences listening right now , what what what are our takeaways from what you learned ? How are people going to become motivated to participate in the electoral process in order to grapple with these big systemic issues that you're outlining ? Sure.
S5: That's that's the main dilemma here , which is that people feel alienated by this process and that individually casting off a vote won't really solve anything. So instead , what I what I heard time and time again from people is that you need to view politics as the mass mobilization of folks who are similar to you and that you need to put pressure on public officials. And so voting is only one aspect of that. It has to be coupled with a sense of solidarity , whether that's membership in a certain group , whether that's charitable acts , it all has to add up to something bigger because by yourself you can't accomplish that in your living room. You need to be tied to other people and you need to be putting pressure on the government in order to make bigger systemic changes. And so the voter apathy that I kept hearing from talking to dozens and dozens of people is both a product of government failures , but it also sustains and reinforces government failures. And that's the dilemma we're faced with.
S1: We have a midterm election this year and a primary in June.
S5: I mean , we have to be honest , special elections and primaries also always attract fewer numbers of people because they're not paying attention and oftentimes they don't even know. But everyone knows that there's a presidential election every four years. There's a congressional election every two years. And so a lot of people do put their energies into that. And I was hearing from folks on the ground , I don't have the time for this special election. But tell you what , I will do some research on my own when the November general election rolls around. And so I don't I don't have a crystal ball. I can't tell what the turnout is actually going to be and over , you know , a couple of months from now. But what I can tell you is that more people do put their. Charges into that. And if they're going to be dissatisfied and they're not going to be eager and engaged and of Louisiana stick by to the candidates are. Don't be surprised if the turnout is low as it always is.
S1: I've been speaking with the associate editor at Voice of San Diego , Jesse Marks. Thanks again , Jesse.
S5: Thanks , Christina.
S1: That's all for this edition of KPBS roundtable. Thank you to our guests , Ana Ramirez from the San Diego Union-Tribune and Jesse Marks from Voice of San Diego. If you missed any part of our show , you can listen any time on the KPBS roundtable podcast. I'm Christina Kim. Join us next week on the roundtable.

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The Barrio Logan neighborhood in San Diego, Calif. is seen in this photo taken Feb. 9, 2022.
Jacob Aere
The Barrio Logan neighborhood in San Diego, Calif. is seen in this photo taken Feb. 9, 2022.
A new documentary showcases a struggle for environmental justice in Barrio Logan, and nonvoters in the 80th Assembly District explain why they chose not to participate in the recent special election.

KPBS racial justice and social equity reporter Cristina Kim talks with San Diego Union-Tribune photojournalist Ana Ramirez about her documentary on the decadeslong struggle for environmental justice in Barrio Logan. Also, a discussion with Voice of San Diego associate editor Jesse Marx about the lack of voter participation in Barrio Logan and elsewhere in San Diego County during the recent special election to fill a vacant state Assembly seat.