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Dario Lerma, Sustainability Superhero

Author: Katherine Cushing


“For overwhelming numbers of Latinos in the U.S., protecting the environment . . . is a matter of protecting families and the health of loved ones, safeguarding communities’ way of life, and taking responsibility for the future. It’s a matter of safe jobs and neighborhoods. It’s about being true to one’s core values.”

2012 Sierra Club and La Raza focus group analysis

Dario Lerma is a 69-year old retired, great-grandfather who has lived in San Jose since 1969. Prior to retirement, Dario, a college graduate from San José State University, was a Santa Clara County employee for 30 years. Telling his personal story, he recounts his humble family background and his agricultural roots. “My dad was a farm worker. I grew up doing field work—I picked cotton, tomatoes. There wasn’t any Little League—working in the fields was our ‘summer camp’. When you started back at school in the fall, your knees and hands would be all messed up from working in the fields, from picking tomatoes.”

Lerma was the second oldest in a family of 9 children. As he describes it, “We were a poor Mexican family; everyone was poor in our neighborhood. Everyone shared things. A lot of times, we didn’t pay for things with money. My family paid our barber for haircuts with food.”

Bonita-McKinley neighborhood cleanup with Mayor Sam Liccardo (photo credit: @sliccardo)

The Franklin-McKinley area of San Jose is a set of neighborhoods characterized by a large Latino population with many working-class first-generation immigrants. Dario and his wife, Ramona, have been strong community leaders  for over a decade, focusing on a variety of sustainability issues ranging from creek pollution to community education fairs. As leaders, they help organize neighborhood events including litter pickups and CommUniverCity San José’s annual Safe & Green Halloween fair. Dario estimates that he and his wife have mobilized thousands of volunteers and recruited ten or more people into community leadership positions over the years.



Like many community activists, Dario’s interest in community service began as a general interest in strengthening his neighborhood. He remembers being recruited by a fellow neighborhood leader. Says Lermas, “About ten years ago, I asked myself, ‘What am I going to do now that I’m retired?’ When you stop working, it really opens your eyes to what’s out there. You see what’s happening and wonder why nobody’s doing anything about it. Then you start going to meetings.”

For Dario, an important motivating factor for his activism has been the Latino value of ‘family first.’ “Without family, what do you have? Working on all these community issues, we become friends—when you go to their house, you become friends. They bring you food, like a big old bowl of salsa or serrano chiles. Then you do the same for them. Our community members are part of my extended family.”

The community needs to know what climate change is and what’s going to happen.

When asked what’s needed to engage the U.S. Latino community more in sustainability issues, Lerma cites awareness and having Latino mentors in the field as critical pieces of the activation puzzle. “There’s interest [in sustainability issues], but there needs to be more awareness. I don’t think, in our community, that they are aware of dramatic change that climate change is going to have on their community. There needs to be more awareness and workshops to show people what’s going on. The community needs to know what climate change is and what’s going to happen.”

Lerma feels that children are interested in what they’re exposed to and things that affect them personally.  For example, one time he took a group of neighborhood kids on a trip to a beach in San Francisco. Once there, the kids expressed concerns about ocean pollution and water quality. “When we took them to the ocean, some of them didn’t understand why there was so much trash in the ocean. They asked if the fish eat it and how it affects them. For one kid, the crab season got cancelled [due to toxic algae]. She was upset because her dad was going to take her crabbing, but because of the pollution, they couldn’t go.”

It’s not just about picking up litter, it’s about getting the kids to converse back and forth with you.

As a final piece of advice to aspiring Latino civic leaders, Dario offer the following advice: “It’s not just about picking up litter, it’s about getting the kids to converse back and forth with you. When they come to a community meeting and see how the process works, it’s going to affect them tremendously. Many of us think ‘If doesn’t concern me, I don’t want to get involved’. But if we all do nothing, we’re in big trouble. I don’t want my children or my grandkids to be like that. If you can get two or three kids to get a feel for volunteering, and they become involved in environmental issues within their community–it will hook them for life.”

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