A Green Immigration, by Alvaro Huerta

The environmentalist movement in this country is no longer confined to a small group of so-called tree huggers and back-to-nature utopians. From Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, the greening of the urban landscape has become trendy.

This includes an array of environmentally friendly policies and practices at the federal, state and city levels. Throughout American cities we see a push toward renewable energy, improved public transportation systems, green buildings, smaller homes, more parks and trees, bicycle lanes and an improved culture of recycling our waste.

In addition to the sprouting of community gardens and farmers markets, which focus on the local production and consumption of organic foods, cities like New York and Los Angeles have launched ambitious green campaigns to plant 1 million trees and other policies to create greener cities.

While all of these efforts represent a breath of fresh air, especially after eight years of anti-environmental policies and practices under the Bush administration, what is missing from this green movement is the credit deserved for those responsible to making cities like Los Angeles a greener, cleaner and more beautiful city: Mexican immigrants.

More specifically, I’m referring to paid Mexican gardeners, or what I call green urban workers, who toil from dawn to dusk, seven days a week, mowing our lawns, creating attractive landscapes, planting our trees and controlling pests.

Through their daily labor and creativity, Mexican gardeners help reduce pollution in cities and suburbs. In a 2005 article in Environmental Management, researchers found that green turfs (which includes front lawns and parks) provide an array of ecological benefits, such as slower storm runoff, improved water infiltration and offset of what researchers refer to as the urban heat-island effect.

Moreover, by planting and maintaining urban trees, Mexican gardeners help reduce urban pollution. For example, apart from providing shade and beautifying the city, trees filter dust and pollutants, absorb carbon dioxide, release oxygen and help with water runoff.

However, instead of receiving recognition for creating environmentally friendly and healthier places for the average American, Mexican gardeners and immigrants in general get little respect in this country. The popular portrayal of Mexican gardeners, for instance, frequently consists of negative stereotypes. This includes pejorative images and narratives found in Hollywood movies, newspapers, television, legislative bodies and academic arenas, depicting Mexican gardeners, like Latina domestic workers, as ignorant, second-class citizens, public nuisances and, overall, objects of ridicule.

From CNN’s recently departed Lou Dobbs to the late Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard, Mexican immigrants symbolize “social burdens” and “threats” to American society. Internalizing the prevailing negative stigma associated with so-called immigrant jobs, too often Latino actors complain about being typecast in “demeaning immigrant roles” as gardeners and domestic workers. Instead, Latino actors, along with civic leaders and others, should fight to have Hollywood create three-dimensional roles of hired gardeners and domestic workers as honest, hard-working individuals in this country, in lieu of the caricatures that we see on television and in movies.

We can also see the bashing of immigrants in this country during the current health care debate. In his recent speech to a joint session of Congress, President Obama, when speaking about how undocumented immigrants will be excluded from his health care reform plan, Congressman Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted “You lie!” for the world to hear.

What a shame!

Now, bashing immigrants is not new in this country, since Americans have commonly blamed others for their problems, especially during times of crises. What continues to baffle me, however, is that immigrants work in the most dangerous and lowest-paid jobs in America, yet receive the least protection when it comes to abuse in the workplace and work-related injuries.

In the case of Mexican gardeners, these workers not only put in long hours, but also work with dangerous machines and use chemicals that pose serious danger to their health. They also risk their lives when climbing trees without the proper tools and equipment commonly used by city workers. L.A. city workers, for example, can prune trees using an aerial lift found on city-owned trucks. Too many Mexican gardeners have died while trimming trees in Los Angeles and beyond so that we can breathe cleaner air.

It is time that we recognize these green urban workers for all of their positive contributions to making our cities greener, safer and more beautiful, by providing them with the training, equipment and health services that they require to do their jobs. While doing so, we need to recognize that when we speak about the greening of our cities, what we’re also talking about is the browning of American cities.

Thus, it’s time that we provide these honest, hard-working individuals with the respect, dignity and honor they deserve.

By Alvaro Huerta, PhD student in the Department of City & Regional Planning at UC Berkeley and visiting scholar at the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA. Originally published in the Los Angeles Business Journal.

Credits: Art by Salomon Huerta.


  1. It must also be mentioned that these green immigrants often bring with them great cultural knowledge of horticultural techniques which we could gain much from if we just knew to employ them for it. We should actually be employing them to cultivate gardens with more ecologically sensitivity and to preserve the rich biodiversity of food plants...and to teach us how to do it. Many immigrants, when given a chance to farm their own plots, employ these techniques to raise some of the produce of their homeland (which is typically more varied than what Americans are used to enjoying). Jane Jacobs remarked that we need to learn better how to untap the latent hidden resources of immigrant communities. There is a true wealth there to be gained.

    What can communities gain when immigrant communities are allowed the privilege to create their own gardens? How about LA's South Central Farm, until recently, the largest community garden in an American city. Unfortunately, we've just lost this cultural resource.

  2. Very interesting article.I really liked the way you expressed in the article.Thanks for sharing the article.

  3. Alvaro, I share your concerns and have a couple of questions: Is the "Greening" ie. your allusion to sustainability a cause for citizenship rights?
    I would imagine these workers do more that contribute by making the city green. They also contribute to its economy, social life, etc. therefore what is the extent of the benefits you believe they deserve? Better working conditions, or citizenship.