In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environmental Issues in Latinx Studies

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Reference Texts
  • Empirical Studies on Environmental Attitudes
  • Im/migration and Displacement
  • Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice
  • Recreation and Access to Green Space
  • Food Justice
  • Ecocriticism and the Environmental Humanities
  • Spatial Imaginaries and Place-Making
  • Gender in Latinx Environmentalisms
  • Latin America and the Caribbean: Issues and Influences

Latino Studies Environmental Issues in Latinx Studies
Christina Holmes, Mayra Leon Coss
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0154


To expand the lens of what is considered an environmental issue in Latinx studies, this overview includes a hemispheric approach even if the focus remains on US Latinx populations, primarily because Latinx and Indigenous peoples across the Americas draw on centuries of knowledge tied to caretaking of the land and that environmental ethic continues to be evidenced in many ways. We can measure high Latinx participation in mainstream environmentalism, look to the many grassroots movements that respond to local, national, and transnational environmental justice concerns, and recognize how Latinxs have redefined the very ideas of “nature” and what counts as an environmental issue. We also read across disciplines, including ecocritical scholarship that shows how writers contribute to the development of a sense of place and connect readers to an environmental ethic; research on politics and policymaking reveals both the negative impacts of environmental and economic policies on Latinx groups as well as the consistently pro-environmental attitudes Latinxs demonstrate in surveys. Revisionist and recuperative histories bring our attention to activists and actions that broaden our awareness of what counts as an environmental issue, such as the reckoning the Alianza Federal de Mercedes brought in the 1960s for the restoration of land grants in New Mexico. Gender studies approaches show that women are leading environmental movements in Latinx communities (as they do around the world). We see that, for many Latinxs, displacement and place-making play a large role in mediating relationships with nature—this is evident as much through literary analysis as it is through critical geography studies. Finally, we look at the topic of environmental justice, which is large enough that we pulled themes such as food justice and green space access out for development in their own sections while attending to different notions of environmental justice and the different kinds of environmental harms experienced by activists and environmental defenders in the United States and throughout Latin American and the Caribbean. In the United States, Latinx environmental activism was highly visible in the 1960s when the United Farm Workers campaigns gained national prominence; however, a land-based and environmental ethic among people of Mexican descent is evident much earlier than even the 19th century when Mexican territory was ceded to the United States. While much has been written about Mexican Americans’ relationships to the environment, emerging research seeks to uncover environmental attitudes and issues that impact other Latinx groups. Puerto Ricans, for example, are the second-largest Latinx group in the United States, and Puerto Ricans on the island developed a robust environmental movement though anti-colonial mobilizations in the 1960s. Further, recent migrants to the US mainland bring an awareness of the impacts of neoliberal globalization, extraction economies, and development driven environmental degradation that is especially acute, from hurricanes that displace people from their homes in the Caribbean to droughts, floods, and rising sea levels that impact Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and other countries across Latin America. For many, those very issues, including increased violence as a result of environmental and economic conflicts, drove their migration. This work serves as a starting point for researchers interested in environmental issues in Latinx studies, and more comparative research on environmental issues across the hemisphere remains to be done.

General Overviews and Reference Texts

The reference texts cited here offer detailed and comprehensive understandings of the environmental histories of the regions they cover. While United Nations Environment Programme 2010 is an atlas focusing on changing features of the natural environment, Hillstrom and Hillstrom 2004; Kronik and Verner 2010; and Reyer, et al. 2017 analyze how changes in environments impact the communities that inhabit them. The Environmental Justice Atlas is a resource that is frequently updated with details surrounding environmental conflicts around the world--it list the central conflict, the actors (political, economic, NGOs, activists, and defenders) involved, the level of conflict, and the strategies undertaken by environmental defenders. Unlike the reference texts, most texts that offer a general overview of the field of Latinx environmental studies emphasize the importance of environmental histories and historiographies—that is, they recognize that the work of identifying environmental issues relevant to Latinx communities requires specifying and contextualizing the community and “environment.” Lynch 1993 demonstrates the differences between notions of the ideal environment, the expression of environmental consciousness, and approaches to environmental problem-solving in environmental justice analyses and actions among different Latinx groups and compares them to environmental beliefs popular among mainstream environmentalists in the United States. Peña 2003 differentiates between different concerns, such as US militarism in Puerto Rico versus land rights in New Mexico or gentrification in Los Angeles, Chicago, and other major cities. Environmental histories and historiographies also chart the evolution of Latinx environmentalism across time. Peña 2005 offers a readable textbook on both the biophysical characteristics of the American Southwest, in which a large portion of Mexican Americans live, and notes the environmental issues and adaptations generations of Mexican Americans have made to that environment, which merges with the call made in Wakild 2013 not to separate social histories from natural histories or histories of the physical environment as some of the reference texts have done. Fingal 2019 traces a broad array of issues in Latinx environmentalism, from environmental justice concerns over pesticides, pollution, and pipeline spills to access to national parks, beaches, and other recreational spaces. It then provides some suggestions for where scholars may locate additional primary sources to further develop the historical record. Several of the texts in this section and others emphasize the need to attend more closely to how place-making and identity formation are related, and they serve as sources for resistance against diverse forms of environmental racism, efforts at displacement, and unsustainable forms of development (see Wald, et al. 2019, in particular).

  • Environmental Justice Atlas.

    A comprehensive online database of the social conflicts surrounding environmental struggles. Searchable by region, country, population size, type of conflict, stakeholders, types of mobilization or resistance, and more. Available in multiple languages.

  • Fingal, Sara C. “Latinx Environmentalism.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Edited by Jon Butler. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    Provides a brief historical overview of the three waves of environmentalism in the United States as they intersect with Latinx environmental concerns. After reviewing Latinx environmental struggles the author argues for the importance of recuperating a Latinx environmental ethic.

  • Hillstrom, Kevin, and Laurie Collier Hillstrom. Latin America and the Caribbean: A Continental Overview of Environmental Issues. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004.

    An overview of environmental challenges facing Latin America and the Caribbean and the regions’ responses to them in the 21st century. Addresses the following topics: population and land use; biodiversity; parks, preserves, and protected areas; forests; agriculture; freshwater; oceans and coastal areas; energy and transportation; air quality and the atmosphere; and environmental activism. Very detailed on changes in land-use policies over time, levels of biodiversity, and threats against it.

  • Kronik, Jakob, and Dorte Verner. Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change in Latin America. Washington, DC: World Bank, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1596/978-0-8213-8237-0

    Based on field research with rural Indigenous communities, the authors gather empirical evidence on sources, threats, and effects of climate change as well as mitigation, adaptation, and survival strategies. Centers Indigenous people’s understandings of climate change and its impact on their lives and puts forward culturally relevant guides for addressing climate change. Separate chapters focus on different regional or “ecogeographical” challenges and the communities that struggle with them.

  • Lynch, Barbara Deutsch. “The Garden and the Sea: US Latino Environmental Discourses and Mainstream Environmentalism.” Social Problems 40.1 (1993): 108–124.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.1993.40.1.03x0075w

    Excavates environmental discourses from literary criticism and social movements to look at how “environment” is constructed by various groups of Latinxs. Advocates for historicizing Latinx environmental discourses as a necessary first step in bringing a sociological analysis to environmental issues.

  • Peña, Devon G. “The Scope of Latino/a Environmental Studies.” Latino Studies 1.1 (2003): 47–78.

    DOI: 10.1057/palgrave.lst.8600009

    An interdisciplinary review of the field, including the importance of revisionist, anti-racist environmental histories of regions populated by Latinxs, and awareness of issues that impact Latinxs, including water rights, land grants, gentrification and lack of housing, food insecurity, and US militarism.

  • Peña, Devon G. Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida. The Mexican American Experience. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2005.

    A textbook on Mexican origin people’s relationships to the environment. Offers an overview of different topics, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading in each chapter. Chapters consider scientific ecological concepts, pre-contact and Spanish colonial environmental histories up to present-day environmental issues.

  • Reyer, Christopher, Sophie Adams, Torsten Albrecht, et al. “Climate Change Impacts in Latin America and the Caribbean and Their Implications for Development.” Regional Environmental Change 17.6 (2017): 1601–1621.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10113-015-0854-6

    A meta-study on the most likely environmental fallout across Latin America and the Caribbean at low and high levels of anticipated warming (from glacial melt and species migration to increases in number and severity of storms, droughts, and incidences of coral bleaching). The authors discuss these effects with respect to population spread and densities and identify those most vulnerable to the bio/physical effects of climate change.

  • United Nations Environment Programme. Latin America and the Caribbean: Atlas of Our Changing Environment. Panama City, Panama: United Nations Environment Programme, Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, 2010.

    An atlas of regional and nation-based data on physical environments in Latin America and the Caribbean produced by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). Satellite images, maps, and other graphics detail changes in ecosystems and landscapes, especially in the face or decades of rapid urbanization.

  • Wakild, Emily. “Environmental Justice, Environmentalism, and Environmental History in Twentieth‐Century Latin America.” History Compass 11.2 (2013): 163–176.

    DOI: 10.1111/hic3.12027

    A Latin American environmental history that captures the relationships between nonhuman nature and humans. Rather than exploring environmentalism through topics and subtopics such as science, technology, economics, etc., Wakild argues for fusing the environment with social histories and processes.

  • Wald, Sarah D., David J. Vásquez, Priscilla Solis Ybarra, and Sarah Jaquette Ray, eds. Latinx Environmentalisms: Place, Justice, and the Decolonial. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2019.

    In this contribution from and intervention into the environmental humanities, contributors focus on how narratives shape perceptions of people, places, plants, animals, and ecosystems and how Latinx writers envision anti-racist and decolonial environments.

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