"Please, give a voice to the voiceless. Find your voice if you haven't found it. And be the one that gives hope for those that have lost it." - Erica Fernandez
|Erica Fernandez speaks at the 2011 MY HERO International Film Festival
Even in the face of adversity, when nobody expects you to come out victorious, when one person goes up against a billion dollar corporation, there is no room to let down or give up. Erica Fernandez is the prime example of this; a young Mexican-born Latina who stood up for her community and fought for a cause that many thought was worthless because of who she was going up against. Not only did she succeed in her quest, but she also gave "a voice to the voiceless". She stood up for what was right and achieved the unexpected.
Her name is Erica Fernandez. She was born and raised in Michoacán, Mexico until the age of 12. At that time, her family migrated to the United States to the agricultural city of Oxnard, California. One of her biggest obstacles at the time was the language barrier. Neither her parents nor herself could speak English, a language that to this day her parents don't understand. After a few years of living there, she developed a strong sense of community through familiar experiences and relationships with the people in Oxnard.
"Eres mi héroe madre" [You are my hero mom]
|Erica Fernandez speaks at the 2011 MY HERO International Film Festival
One day, Erica got word of the proposal of BHP Billiton, the richest mining corporation in the world, to build a natural liquefied gas (LNG) facility off the Coast of Ventura County. This proposal would have had a 36-inch pipeline routed through low-income neighborhoods in Oxnard. The proposal was first presented to richer communities like Camarillo and Ventura but was rejected. The company then added 10 miles to the project so that it can go around these richer communities and only affect Oxnard. This pipeline, had it gone through, would have caused 280 tons of air pollution each year, not only affecting the health of Oxnard residents, but also causing their crops and farmland to be affected tremendously.
Seeing that her community was going to be taken advantage of, she figured she had to do something about it. Erica knew that her community was targeted because most of the residents there are Mexican and don't speak any English, therefore the corporation would receive no opposition. Little did they know that in this community lived a young girl who would fight for what was right.
|Erica Fernandez and her mom are embraced by Kathy Eldon at the 2011 MY HERO International Film Festival
Erica decided to join forces with local community organizations like the Sierra Club, Latinos No on LNG and the Coastal Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, to stand up to BHP Billiton and stop this proposal from going through. She organized protests at the BHP Billiton offices, led marches through the neighborhoods that were going to be affected the most, reached out to the media to get coverage on this injustice, and gathered more than 250 high school students to a rally that was critical to their success. All of Erica's efforts became worthwhile after her passionate speech before the California State Lands Commission, which influenced not only for the project to be vetoed and the Commission urging the Governor to do the same, but it also led to the creation of SB412, a bill introduced in the California Senate that entitles communities to have a say in coastal construction proposals.
"Everyone of you, I know that you have your heroes and each of you are a hero yourself"
|Erica Fernandez gives a passionate speech alongside her mom at the 2011 MY HERO International Film Festival
Standing up to a billion dollar corporation of any sort would have made a successful businessperson's knees tremble, and for a young girl, at the age of 12, to do what she did and succeed; that is truly admirable. She does admit that at a point, it seemed like they would not get anywhere because there was only so much she, and the groups that backed her, could do. But her persistent efforts and courage to keep fighting made it so that her community could live comfortably. Obviously Erica didn't fight this alone, if it weren't for the groups that helped her and the thousands of people who protested with her, the pipeline would have not been rejected. But what is amazing is how Erica brought this issue to life. Not many people knew what was going on, or maybe they did but weren't going to do anything about it. It was Erica who reached out to the organizations, it was Erica who organized the protests, and it was Erica who informed the community what they were fighting for. Like she says, "The protests were not just people yelling for no reason, they knew what was the final result that they wanted." and they knew because she had done anything and everything to inform them of it.
Erica is a hero not only because she had the courage to organize for such an important issue, but also she is an outstanding student-athlete that has overcome many obstacles. In high school she was ranked fourth in her graduating class of more than 500 students. She took advanced placement courses and maintained a 4.4 GPA, all while being part of the Varsity Cross Country and Track team, plus being the captain of the Varsity soccer team. Now, she is studying environmental justice at Stanford University, where she got a full ride, and she works with "SEEDS", a group that introduces local high school students to ecology. Not to mention, she didn't speak any English until she got to the US at the age of twelve, yet she has accomplished everything she has due to her commitment and dedication to succeed, even in the face of adversity.
¡Sí se puede! [Yes we can!]
|Erica Fernandez and her mom pose with their bird trophies at the 2011 MY HERO International Film Festival
Having spoken to Erica and her mother personally, I know she is a very genuine person who is all about family. Her mother talked to me about how proud she is of her daughter and everything she has accomplished. Erica has received countless awards and is getting her school paid for because of her hard work. She has traveled around the nation thanks to her efforts; but apart from all that, Erica never forgets where she came from. Her mother said to me that Erica enjoys talking to people about having the ability to act and make a change but what stood out to me was when she told me that Erica always wears her "gabán" which is sort of like a big scarf but it goes over your shoulders, commonly used by women in Mexico as an accessory. She says "When I was a baby, my mom carried me in a rebozo - a shawl. Now I always have one when I speak to remind me that women are powerful at home and in society."
This made me realize that Erica is proud of her roots and doesn't shy away from them even in the biggest of stages. She never takes full credit for her success and she always acknowledges the people that have helped her be where she is today. Erica says that her hero is her mother. She says that she knows everyone has a hero and everyone is a hero themselves. Her actions are ones to look up to and her family's humbleness is truly remarkable.
Talking to Erica and her mother really reminded me of my parents and myself. I can relate myself so much to her because of the way she carries herself and because of the respect she has for her mother. She is so thankful for what her parents have done for her and always keeps them in mind when success comes her way. We have very similar backgrounds and our parents have taught us similar values. She has gone above and beyond what anybody expected of her and has never been ashamed of where she comes from. Erica, at her young age, has already done what many accomplish once in their lifetime. She saved a community from a potential deathly situation, but most importantly she is teaching us how to live life the right way. We must follow in her footsteps and always acknowledge your roots and where you came from. Be appreciative for the people who have allowed you success and most of all, make a difference. Regardless of the situation or whom you're up against, you can make a difference!
INTERVIEW WITH ERICA FERNANDEZ
Who is your hero(es)? Why?
I have many Heroes or what I called them Angels on my shoulders. First of all, is my mother, father and the rest my siblings. And other iconic Heroes that I admire and I look up to them are people like Cesar Chavez, Dr. Jane Goodall, Dolores Huerta, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and everyone who is willing to fight non--violently for justice like my community of Oxnard.
What is your advice for young people who are trying to make a difference?
To speak up and to take action. Believe in yourself and go change the world, ¡si se puede!
What are some of the awards you have received?
Red Cross Young Women of the Year 2008
2009 Jane Goodall Global Leadership Award
Cosmo-Girl Born to Lead Award
Brower Youth Award
Gates Millennium Scholarship
Glamour- Top Ten College Women of 2011
2011 Daniel Eldon Activist Award
What's the best part of being a young hero?
Others can look up to you and they can identify with you and be heroes themselves. You get to meet amazing people that are changing the world!
What are your future goals?
I am doing a Masters at Stanford University next year. Future plans is to go to law school and a joint program in Public Policy. I want to continue empowering communities to take action and help my family.