Refusing Death
Immigrant Women and the Fight for Environmental Justice in LA
Nadia Y. Kim




ONE OF THE first actions I participated in with People’s CORE, a Filipin@1 American–led social justice organization, was to help its activists—a handful of staff and K–12 teachers—mobilize Carson and the surrounding community against BP Arco’s renewal of their permit to refine oil. When the day of reckoning had come in September 2008, I walked into a packed room anchored by an all-male panel of four well-dressed officials from government agencies and BP. One appeared to be Latino, the rest, White American. Turning toward the audience I saw mostly middle-aged women and men of color: primarily Latin@s and Asian and Pacific Islander Americans (AAPIs), but also a smattering of Black Americans and White Americans. Per standard procedure, the meeting began with the panel’s presentations on various dimensions of BP’s operations and the renewal of their permit.

When it came time for the official public comment period, one soft-spoken elderly woman of Japanese American descent slowly approached the mic. In a calm but apprehensive tone, she shared that she did not come to attack them but to share her concerns as a Carson resident, adding, “My husband worked his whole life at your refinery, and, please, don’t get me wrong because I’m not saying that BP caused his cancer, but after he retired he did get cancer, and he passed away.” Subtle sighs came from the audience. Amidst the muttering and headshaking, the officials did not express sympathy for her loss but instead chose to quickly reassure her that BP met legal regulations and that cancer rates were down and still within their allowable limits—a poster child for Foucault’s claim that the state uses race to justify the deaths of Others so that the racially superior can live; that is, industry is “allowed” to cause a certain number of deaths. The non-emotionality of the representatives of BP and of the Air Quality Management District (the state regulating body) ultimately served to delegitimate any possible link between a BP employee’s death by cancer and the BP oil refinery itself. Indignant, the typically calm Cindy, a Samoan American K–12 teacher, raged into the mic, which I had never before seen her do. As I jumped in my seat and straightened my back, she, with palpable exasperation, inveighed against the BP officials for being less than truthful about the frequency and severity of the oil refinery’s illegal flaring (a major release of toxic gases), all to the great detriment of the air. Making our ears ring slightly, she punctuated her remarks with, “I am so angry! I am so tired of being sick, of seeing sick children at my elementary school where I work: we’ve all got asthma, constant bloody noses! You know, it’s very possible that her husband’s cancer was caused by all of this pollution.” [Turning to the elderly widow] “I’m really sorry for your loss.”

What struck me most was not Cindy’s rage piercing the air and our eardrums at an otherwise hushed and understated public gathering. Her rage was understandable, and over the years, I had seen many activists across myriad movements shape-shift emotionally. Thus when women like Cindy chose to tell officials of the regulatory agencies and industry about running in horror to ERs with blue-faced children seemingly choking to their deaths as they bobbed and flailed in their arms, of how their “baby” contracted asthma as early as two, of how the children cry because they cannot study in school nor exercise outside in brown air, the tears sometimes flowed or the spit sometimes flew. For me, the take-home point, rather, was how she strategically denormalized the officials’ emotions (that is, apathy) as inappropriate (and broke “feminine” ideals in the process).2 Long before the meeting, she, and all of us, knew that BP’s permit would be perfunctorily renewed. Nevertheless, Cindy was sure to make a political splash by showcasing her unapologetic conviction that the emotion had to match the crime. She did so not by focusing on the fancy statistics and chemical names that she was intimately familiar with, but by delving into the politics of the body and of feelings. After she relayed the emotional and physical toll of being sick (“I’m so angry . . . tired!”), she followed up with an offer of emotional support to the widow (“I’m really sorry for your loss”). By being sad and enraged for the widow while the mostly White and all-male officials sat stonefaced, Cindy did not just legitimate the widow’s conjecture that a lifetime of work at an oil refinery and a death by cancer were more than coincidence; she also worked hard to paint an image of callous jerks, the very image the male officials worked to undermine precisely (and ironically) by presenting “professionalism”—emotional apathy—as normal.

Another affective touchpoint for the immigrants’ politics was their disquiet over officials and outsiders frequently quipping, “Why don’t you just move, then?” when mostly mothers raised concerns about their dirty, unbreathable air and their asthmatic children. Notwithstanding the bias and privilege enmeshed in a “just move” retort, even a slight difference in air quality could mean the difference between an asthma attack or a preempted one, between, in the ultimate, life and death. When I asked the activists why they roundly rejected “moving to another part of LA” (although I could conjecture why), they echoed the sentiments of Tanya, a Mexican immigrant mother of high schoolers who lived in a vortex of diesel in West Long Beach. Thinking first of her neighbors, whom she cared for as fictive kin, she huffed, “Well, if I want to leave, I’ll leave! If I don’t, I won’t! I would be leaving them all alone (shaking her head)!” Tanya was indignant not just because the question was infused with social privileges, but because it had no regard for the value that she and other immigrants placed on fighting for one’s neighbor and community. If she stayed put, yes, she might be subjecting herself and her children to an early death, but if she “escaped,” who would fight for her community? Certainly not the government and certainly not BP Arco. Yet activists like Tanya were far from unclear on the deadly consequences of her “choice.” Arrayed against raced, classed, and gendered neoliberal power, Tanya was so dejected by the elites’ empathy deficit that she proposed that her two grassroots organizations—Community Partners Council (CPC) and Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma (LBACA)—adopt the most embodied strategy, one of last but necessary resort:

TANYA: They need more like—for example, every person that’s dying of asthma—take a picture of them and all the people who are dying of asthma to show them. It’s not enough, but it might help a little bit; we have to give the government even more of these images, and the City of Long Beach.

NADIA: Because you don’t think they’ll do anything for you without pictures of death?

TANYA: Not if I don’t fight, no.

Striking about Tanya’s macabre strategy is that she herself was not even convinced that forcing photographs of dying or dead children would be “enough” to move the elites, so deep was their emotional apathy. Also striking is that Tanya, as Foucault theorized about state racism, was well aware that the state—rooted in neoliberal3 racial capitalism4—was “letting die” immigrants of color like her, while it privileged whiter and richer “legals” with health and life. In fact, Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007:28) conceptualized it more capaciously and precisely than Foucault when she wrote, “Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Yet Tanya knew—as Cindy knew of the Japanese American widow—that the state’s and industry’s full knowledge that they were causing premature deaths, even of children, would likely still not be enough to move the system to care.

I devote most of the pages of this book to understanding moments like these. After all, Cindy and Tanya are among the growing number of Asian and Pacific Islander and Latina immigrant women who have assumed the helm of grassroots community organizing for environmental justice.5 While we may not know these women, they are part of a broader collective mobilization that has finally gotten Americans to pay attention to environmental racism: the Flint water crisis, the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Mauna Kea telescope, and the disproportionately compromised lungs of Black, Brown, and Pacific Islander people under COVID-19. Immigrant women have not stopped at EJ movements, however; they have also led on immigration reform (Pallares 2014; Milkman and Terriquez 2012; Zepeda-Millán 2017—see also García Bedolla 2014), schools (Pardo 1998; Terriquez 2011), labor (Milkman 2006; Terriquez 2015a), domestic violence (Coll 2010), welfare (Fujiwara 2008; Naples 1998b), and social service reform (Võ 2004; Carney 2014—see Fujino 2008).6 For a population that has been racialized as America’s foreigners and “illegals” and gendered as hyperfertile mothers, their marginalization by the electoral system has not tempered, but rather buoyed, community organizing (see Fujiwara 2008; Ishizuka 2016; Nicholls 2013; Truax 2015; Võ 2004; Zepeda-Millán 2017). Furthermore, this pattern, as Refusing Death explains, owes to immigrants no longer viewing formal citizenship as the only avenue to political legitimacy and efficacy. In this context, the women of my study, alongside immigrant men and their children, are changing the political landscape of global cities like Los Angeles and less glittery cities across the nation. They do so while being slowly choked by neoliberalism’s physical and emotional violence, as we just witnessed in the lack of action and empathy for those who die from oil refineries, or in flip comments about moving.

To understand these change-makers whom we know little about, I spent close to four years with these fierce activist women (and men and youth) in the port-industrial belt of South Bay Los Angeles and Long Beach. Society would deem improbable their existence and political significance. Studies have shown that, despite improvements, Asian Americans broadly have been weaker politically than their non-White counterparts, in part because of barriers and cultural issues such as language (see Lien 2017; Wong, Ramakrishnan, Lee, and Junn 2011); similarly, studies have shown that immigrants of Mexican ethnicity who do not speak English, are low income, and are unauthorized (the vast majority of the Latin@s in this study) tend to be less civically active than their Central American7 and other non-White peers (Feliciano 2005; Jones-Correa and Andalon 2008; Leal 2002; Turney and Kao 2009; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995; Wong, Ramakrishnan, Lee, and Junn 2011). Yet the mostly Mexican as well as Filipin@-led Asian immigrants in LA have gone from being barely legible in the US polity—especially the women, who until the 1990s were missing in leadership—to relentlessly fighting polluting behemoths and their tentacle reach into schools. These organizers buck every trend line, and thus we should know who they are: a growing chorus of Asian and Latin@ immigrants who galvanize everyday people to bring truth to power despite power killing them quietly.8 Save for intermittent coalition work, the Asian and Latin@ ethnics tended to work discretely from each other given mostly insular organizations and neighborhoods: Mexican (and Central American) immigrants in Wilmington and West Long Beach and mostly Filipin@s and other Asian Americans in Carson. Yet I was able to draw conclusions from taking together their mostly independent movements, a rare but eye-opening comparative approach to environmental justice and other community mobilizations.

As noted, a potent similarity I learned was the attentiveness to inequalities of the body among the Latin@ and Asian immigrant organizers, which I detail throughout Refusing Death. Of course, one might expect activists who fight disproportionate environmental poisoning of their communities to center embodiment; what, then, was so interesting about that? Yet I was struck by how much the immigrants, in the fight for environmental justice, recast the ambit of nativist racism and classism by spotlighting not just their bodily injustices but their emotional ones. In other words, grassroots leaders like Cindy and Tanya saw an arc of physical and emotional neglect in the racism and classism endemic to environmental injustice. Such a perspective, affirmed by transnational experiences, prompted the immigrants to identify and draw boundaries as an embodied community, one that carried and felt the hazards, sickness, and beauty of their collective in their bodies. To fight “the (White) healthy wealthy,” a neoliberal system built on privileging some bodies and emotional lives at the expense of others, the activists stepped into these gaps by practicing what I call embodied citizenship. More than the language of assimilation, voting, campaigning, and rights (see Boggs and Kurashige 2011), then, these immigrants used the emotive metric of care to define “good” and “moral” citizenship and to contest corporatist state violence. Therefore, they innovatively remapped environmental justice movements. Unfettered by political party and social movement conventions, their activism for clean air often seemed to integrate seamlessly issues of education (and immigration) justice, as explored in Chapter 3. Of course, political creativity is not without its surprising contradictions, as the immigrants’ liberty and latitude to redefine often yielded inventive and confounding politics. Beyond informing theories and studies of environmental justice, movements, race, class, gender, citizenship, migration, transnationality, and embodiment, these grassroots actors challenge and stretch Foucaultian biopolitics (and biopower9), a running thread throughout this book that, at its end, I stitch together into a full theoretical tapestry (see Chavez 2007; Cisneros 2016; Halse 2009; Brendese 2014; Carney 2014).


1. In this book, I mostly use the “-@” in Filipin@ and Latin@ to refer to the activists whom I studied, since gender was an axis on which the movements were organized (e.g., most activists were women) and gender dynamics shaped everything from the activists’ identities to their political methods. Whenever it is not my aim to do this type of gendered analysis I use the “-x” in Latinx and Filipinx. When I refer only to women, I use “-a” or “-as” and when I refer to men only, I use “-o” or “-os.” When I am quoting other authors, I use their designations. Please note that every person in this study identified as cisgender male/man or female/woman. One person identified as queer.

2. Although some scholars distinguish their operationalizations of “emotion” and “affect,” I found that those distinctions did not make sense in my case and confused more than they helped. Therefore, I use these terms interchangeably unless specified otherwise. I provide more explanation in the subsequent chapters.

3. In addition to this chapter’s discussion of neoliberalism, it is defined by the shift and diffusion of power from federal to state levels. Discursively, neoliberalism is also about the margins having to be “respectable,” which itself rests on disavowing the racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, etc., of dominant society (hence, “You should be respectable”) (see Hong 2015).

4. Working within the “black radical tradition,” Cedric Robinson (1983) rewrote Marx to show that not only did capitalism emerge from feudalism (rather than as a break from it) but so did racism; both worked together to form a modern world system rooted in institutions of enslavement, imperialism, and genocide. As Western feudal society was already categorically racial—the first proletariat were racialized (Irish, Jews, Roma/Gypsies, Slavs) and European racialization was a colonial process involving “invasion, settlement, expropriation, and racial hierarchy” (Kelley 2017)—Robinson bucks Marxian precepts that race is a tool to divide the proletariat or to justify enslavement and privation.

5. Sometimes referred to as “EJ.”

6. Although more men than women led the CBOs during my three-and-a-half-year period of fieldwork (including staff changes), this book conceives of the women as truly leading and shaping the movement since they ran the remaining organizations, were the vast majority of the membership or unattached activists in each community, and were the ones who indelibly influenced the male leaders; that is, the male leaders often had to defer to the women activists’ vision and wishes lest they lose the lion’s share of their constituency.

7. Owing to the political histories and conditions of Central American nations, they tend to be more politically socialized than Mexican immigrants upon arrival.

8. See, for example, Abrego (2011); Escudero (2020); García Bedolla (2005); Gonzales (2015); Menjívar (2010); Milkman (2006); Nicholls (2013); Pallares and Flores-González (2010); Pérez et al. (2010); Terriquez (2011); Terriquez and Rogers (2011); Voss and Bloemraad (2011); Zepeda-Millán (2017).

9. At its simplest, biopower is power and control over bodies. On biopower, Foucault writes in his 1978 Security, Territory, and Population lectures,