Kettleman City, California is a small town located in the heart of the Central Valley. Over ninety percent of the population has migrated from Mexico, they lack education, live in poverty and don’t speak English. Such factors have resulted in the exploitation of the small town by the state whom has located the largest waste dump, diesel fuels, pesticides and arsenic all within this community. The effect, the largest birth defects among children. The causes are a mystery yet the answers seem obvious. Today, women fear future births due to a lack of support from the government and the extreme exploitation they continuously face due to their gender and education. Although the children are the most affected, we seem to forget about the women, the mothers perspective and pain as the hopes to solve this mystery are subsiding.
The Waste Management Facility located in Kettleman City is the states largest chemical waste. Their mission statement that their top priorities are the safety of their employees, the community and the environment. While browsing their website you can find their think green initiative in which they state that, “we conduct daily, weekly and monthly inspections to ensure that we meet or exceed all local, state and federal laws related to proper storage and disposal of hazardous and non-hazardous waste” (Waste Management). They even state that they provide community support creating community projects and substantial funding for public health, environmental, educational and social service projects at the local and national levels creating positive ties within the members of Kettleman City.
In 2009, the Kettleman site accepted 356,000 tons of hazardous waste, consisting of tens of thousands of chemical compounds including asbestos, pesticides, caustics, petroleum products, and about 11,000 tons of materials contaminated with PCBs (Leslie, 2010). The waste management affects more than just the area it covers, it also affects groundwater, air quality, gas and littering. According to the department of Health Services, chemicals can enter the environment from many different sources one of them being landfills and human exposure to hazardous chemicals can occur at any place. These chemicals can also get into the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink (Missouri Dept. of Health). When the hazardous waste facility moved to Kettleman City things began to change. Citizens began to see, smell and taste differences in the environment, yet nobody complained since the facility began to create ties with the schools and local projects to better the community through monetary support.
The first case was in 2007, America was born with down syndrome, two heart murmurs, and part of her upper lip missing. The case of America became a ripple effect. Since then, large number of birth defects and infant deaths in Kettleman City all with similar characteristics are constantly occurring, “the children have had cleft palates along with a variety of other ailments that include facial deformities, heart and brain problems and limb defects” (ABCnews) Magdalena, mother of America said she thought her daughter was the only one with a deformity. But when it began happening to other babies, she knew there was something abnormal in the community. According to the department of Health Services, when chemicals are introduced into the body of a child, these can alter cell development causing organs to be destroyed and imparting proper development to a mature organ making the fetus the most susceptible (Missouri Dept. of Health) exactly what was occurring to the children in these cases. Studies such as these supported the idea that emerged among many of the women, their children’s birth defects were due to the toxic chemicals.
Mothers began to ask themselves what could possibly be occurring and began to question their surroundings. Unfortunately, most of the mothers lack education, are undocumented and don’t speak English so they remained quiet. It wasn’t until Maricela Mares-Alatorre decided to confront the issue. Maricela has lived in Kettleman city all of her life and knows all of the women whom have suffered seeing their children in these conditions. She interviewed several women and began to make connections to the birth defects and the waste management facility. “And a lot of the moms we work with that have had the cleft palette children they tell us, you know what we used to think you were crazy, but now I am so angry and I want them to hear me and I want them to listen, and they don’t, and I say Well, welcome to the fight.” (Alatorre)
Unfortunately, speaking up has been the hardest part to this issue. While many of the women are undocumented, they lack resources. Although many stood up and decided to file a law suit against the Waste Management company they were shut down. The multi million company has found ways to intimidate the women by using their lack of education against them. During several press conferences, the waste management facility has blamed the mothers for their lack of health care and preventative measures when pregnant assuming that their children’s defects are due to their ignorance. The waste management states that “There is no link between birth defects in Kettleman City and any activities at the Kettleman Hills Facility and no patterns among birth defect cases in Kettleman City to suggest a common cause. The census tract that includes Kettleman City experienced the same types of cancers as found elsewhere and fewer cancers than were expected for the area. No occurrence of the most common form of childhood cancer was found in Kettleman City.” While the state continued to ignore the complaints and evidence provided, they disregarded the correlation to the waste facility leaving the cause of the birth defects as a mystery and instead decided in 2014, to approve the expansion of the chemical waste by 50 percent (Smith, 2014). Once these women began to speak up, the waste management facility began to cut ties within the monetary support and sponsorship they had created in the community. The town became divided and instead encouraged the women to remain silent in order to continue to receive support from the facility.
The birth defects and infant deaths continue. Many miscarriages and several cases of childhood cancer are still present in the community and will continue to be until the voices of the mothers are heard. Several women have united with the Greenaction inactive, a multicultural grassroots organization who works with low-income communities to create awareness of the issues that pertain to the “working class urban, rural, and indigenous communities to fight environmental racism and build a clean, healthy and just future for all” (Greenaction.org) Along with Greenaction, they have convoked several hearings in Sacramento and local movements to raise awareness.
“You can’t say anything; if you say oh they chose Kettleman City because it’s a Latino community – oh, you’re playing the race card. If we say they chose Kettleman city because it’s an impoverished community because people don’t have the means to fight back. Oh, you’re playing the poverty card. I think we’re playing with the cards that we were dealt and that’s a fact. You can’t deny that. We know that they might say they chose this place because of the geology, it’s so great, but we know deep down that they choose places like ours because of politics way more than the geology”- Maricela Mares-Alatorre
Who is to blame. This raises the question, had the situation been different, for instance, these women had received proper preventative health care, the waste management facility didn’t exist or they lived in another town, would this have happened. The state and the waste management facility have targeted these women and turned the blame on them, stating that these women need to stop having so many children, their ignorance and lack of attentive measures towards one child is the reason for this situation. Not only are they questioning their abilities as mothers, they are also attempting to deny them their reproductive rights. In that case, they would lose one of their most valuable labels, the label of being a mother.
The mystery is still present, the issue has been ignored, yet, the mothers are still there fighting this battle. Throughout history, women have been marginalized and ignored even when they have spoke up for justice. Las madres the Kettleman city are a reflection of this issue that lies within our society. Women are raised with the mentality that they are going to be mothers one day and when that day comes everything will change. For many women this is the case, but not everyone lives the same life. While many women will solemnly devote their time to their children, others will need to work. Some will work against the odds, they have migrated into an unknown country, they are undocumented and work restless hours under the hot sun of the Central Valley. Not only have these women endured the pain of losing a child, they face other issues as well and their cry is more than just awareness regarding health concerns, they are fighting to be recognized by a country who believes they are invisible.
“When you carry a life and it’s there and then gone, a part of your soul dies forever” -Casey Wiegand
Jaques, L. (2010) What is killing the babies of Kettleman City. Mother Jones. http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2010/07/kettleman-city-toxic-birth-defect-cluster
Netter, S. (2010) Birth Defects Plague Tiny California Town. ABC News. http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Wellness/birth-defects-plague-california-town-kettleman-city/story?id=9757487
Rural Rabble Rousing. Living on Earth. http://loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=10-P13-00012&segmentID=3
Smith, S. (2014) California Approves Expansion of Toxic Waste Site. Washington Times. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/may/21/california-approves-expansion-of-toxic-waste-site/