I invited the LA Times into my community, but our stories are still distorted and ignored.

By Argelia León

When the Los Angeles Times writes about energy policy, its writers often express skepticism, if not contempt, of the oil industry. The editorial of today is no different. Even after spending two days in the Central Valley with a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, the editorial writers only begrudgingly admit that Latinos and others who do not live in the wealthiest zip codes cannot afford the rushed transition to an all-electric California future. They admit “Latinos are being left behind in the transition to electric vehicles and equipment. These are valid concerns as wealthier Californians switch to EVs at higher rates, buying Teslas and other expensive models that remain largely out of reach for most lower-income families. We should all demand policies that make that transition equitable and affordable for all Californians.” 

They also admit that there is a diversity of opinion amongst Latinos about electrification but then ignore the concerns that their editorial board member, Tony Barboza, heard and our program Levanta Tu Voz has been hearing for almost a year: current mandates and plans for electrification are too fast, too soon, and out of reach for most Latinos in California. And while everyone supports fighting climate change, it will only work if its solutions are available to everyone not just the wealthy. 

The Editorial Board takes special aim at WSPA’s program Levanta Tu Voz which invites Latinos to express their feelings about California energy policy. 

On August 30, 2023, the full Los Angeles Times Editorial Board gave us an audience. We spoke about new mandates and legislation. We spoke about deadlines and carbon capture, and we spoke about Levanta Tu Voz. Never once did we ever say we oppose climate action. In fact, we pointed out that oil companies have been leading technological advances for cleaner fuels. 

I joined that conversation, where I not only answered the Board’s skeptical questions about the Levanta Tu Voz program, but repeated why I believe it is proving so successful in helping to elevate real stories. Latinos are too often ignored in our state’s public discourse on many issues, particularly energy policy. Levanta Tu Voz is a great platform to share our stories. I invited the full Board to spend time with me in my community in the Central Valley so they could hear firsthand what Latinos are thinking. Tony Barboza, took me up on the offer. His report on his visit also appears in the Los Angeles Times today. While it reports on his meetings with people and highlights their support for future electrification, it fails to “tell the rest of the story”. Every person he talked to said that while the future might be electrified today, there was no way they could afford it. 

That’s why we created Levanta Tu Voz. Its aim is to give voice to tens of millions of Latinos in California with families whose stories are not heard. We launched Levanta Tu Voz in May 2023. Since then, we’ve heard from hundreds of Californians from all over California, in both Spanish and English.  They have told us how Sacramento energy policies will impact their families’ lives and livelihoods. They’ve raised their voices so that we all can better understand their concerns. I’m proud to help lead this work. While the Times does good work giving voice to some parts of Latino culture in California, they have fallen short, so far. There are facts that must be brought to light to show how energy policies impact Latino families who can least afford the consequences of politicians’ choices. 

Here’s what I shared with Tony: when I first joined the Western States Petroleum Association, I did so only after a conversation with my late grandfather. He reminded me of my roots in Huron and Coalinga—a region of our state that is not only predominantly Latino but one that has been attached to the oil and gas industry for more than 100 years. Everyone in Coalinga knows people who work (or once worked) in the oil fields. While Tony mentioned this fact, he had no answer to what will happen when those jobs go away. Today, the future of its people is in question as lawmakers insist, we switch to a costly all-electric future and abandon all forms of oil production. This is a reality occurring all throughout California.  People are worried, confused, and angry – not just about their employment future, but also about the huge new economic burdens they are forced to bear.

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Downtown Coalinga, Calif.

This is what I wanted Tony to hear. We drove around together for nearly two days. I showed him where I was born and where I was raised. I introduced him to dozens of people in both towns, including many family members. We visited a local museum dedicated to the region’s history with the oil & gas industry. Tony saw up-close the poverty in our community, made worse as the oil & gas industry is regulated into obscurity and shrinks to a shadow of what it once was.

This poverty is so stark in Huron in contrast to the Los Angeles Metro and Bay Area that we spent a lot of time speaking of it. 

Every friend, neighbor and resident who sat with Tony and me shared similar feelings: we all want clean air and progress on climate change, but we do not agree with policies that only work for wealthy Californians. And those of us in Huron and Coalinga are not wealthy—my family and neighbors are struggling to survive. Tony graciously heard these stories and acknowledged we must do more to tell stories of inequity in energy policies and focus on solutions. 

I took Tony to Ralph’s Triangle Shop on the main street in Huron. This is the place where the majority of residents come to get a smog check. More often, they get their vehicles repaired and maintained here to pass a smog check. My friend Jose Maria who runs the shop spent time telling Tony about his business. Jose spends his spare time watching YouTube videos getting ready to work on hybrids and all-electric vehicles—a future he sees as being very far away for residents of this region, but one he needs to prepare for. He also shared the difficulty some residents have in paying for even a basic smog certification for their gas-powered vehicles. He told the story of one woman who, when she brought in her minivan, it was full of bottles and cans to be recycled—the proceeds of which would help pay for the smog work.

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Downtown Huron, Calif.
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My friend Jose Maria at Ralph’s Triangle Shop in Huron, Calif.

It was clear in this moment—to me and I thought also to Tony—that an all-electric future is not within reach for these communities. Certainly not right now, nor by 2035. Or even by 2045, for that matter. Tony seemed to acknowledge it. He said to me that just because new gas-powered vehicles were to be banned, the old used ones could still wind up here in Huron for residents to drive. He is right. And they will need gasoline and diesel for years to come. 

When lawmakers think of neighborhoods where the working poor live, they rarely acknowledge that low-income, disadvantaged communities drive used cars. They believe residents need rail and transit networks or infrastructure projects….like bicycle lanes and bus routes. To take our children to school, our moms and dads to hospitals and nursing homes, and to ease our two-hour commutes to work—we need more reliable transportation. I thought maybe I was able to show Tony the unrealistic picture of how unworkable certain ideas can seem in a town like Huron.

My cousin spent time with Tony and shared with him the difficulty of his disability and getting to doctor’s appointments while waiting for hours for ride-sharing services. Again, to his credit, Tony spent time with him and later with our uncle in sharing what real life looks like for people who rely on bicycles and shared car-ride services, especially in a place like Huron where for months at a time the temperature is over 100 degrees.

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My cousin Daniel with Tony Barboza.

We also ate at local restaurants including Mi Rancho, Pit Stop and others—and shared with Tony what a forced electrification of California’s energy system would mean for these small business owners. Banning gas stoves and ranges would dramatically impact their ability to keep the doors open – and they know it. 

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Highway 33 coming into Coalinga, Calif., in the San Joaquin Valley.
The author with her family, friends, and neighbors at the local Pit Stop after meeting with LA Times Editorial Board writer Tony Barboza

Caption: The author with her family, friends, and neighbors at the local Pit Stop after meeting with LA Times Editorial Board writer Tony Barboza

And yet, when the days were over, I sensed that Tony remains skeptical of (if not outright hostile towards) our industry and our work. That was made clear in his writing on the Opinion page of the Times published today, October 20, 2023. But I look forward to spending more time with him, especially discussing the Levanta Tu Voz program. I know more can be done to show him the many and diverse stories of California’s working Latino communities, and to bring these realities into conversations around energy policy.

In the future, we hope for more room to share our story and help policymakers see and hear the realities of the policy decisions they make – and how they affect millions of real Californians.

In the end, we must continue visiting with newsrooms and speaking to Californians about how every Latino family is experiencing this energy transition. We hear from families all of the time about their worries concerning how these policies of bans and mandates will hurt neighboring businesses. We all want a clean future for California, but it should include everyone. Each voice must be raised up and that is what Levanta Tu Voz is making possible. The LA Times Editorial Board doesn’t believe us and the industry, that’s fine they don’t need to. But they should listen to Latinos, ask more questions, and believe them. And that is what Levanta Tu Voz will continue to do. 

Argelia León is the Director of Strategic Partnerships and Southwest Policy at WSPA. In May 2023 when Levanta Tu Voz was announced, she said: “There is more than one point of view when it comes to energy policy in California, Latinos are a diverse community with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. I am proud to help lead this effort and provide a platform to uplift the stories of my community who continue to bear the burden of California’s growing inequality.”

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