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Disproportionate Burden

As an undocumented woman, my life is filled with insecurities and false hopes. And on a cold winter day in early January, I lost control of the one thing I thought I had left: my life.

On Monday morning, a few days after my partner and I welcomed the new year, I woke up with a fever. I had no chance to rest, as I had to make it to my appointment with the immigration office in Salt Lake City. If I missed that appointment, it would mean giving up on my case, jeopardizing my entire future. As I then rushed to my late-night class at Weber State in Ogden, my temperature climbed. I took some last-minute medication, but between work, class and appointments, I couldn't give my body what it really needed: rest. By day three, what had started as a sore throat had evolved into an infection. On that night, desperate, we called the hospitals, but they were packed. The next morning, we went to InstaCare, which will see you immediately but charges a higher fee.

But what happens to those people who can't afford the higher fee? What happens to the families who live in places closer to the refineries, because this is all they can afford, whose immune systems are broken down by the stress of having no control over the things that matter most? What happens to the undocumented, to the poor, to the broken?

The clean air movement claims we all breathe the same air. However, some of us have the right to recover, while others do not.

After some X-rays, the doctor explained that the air conditions in the valley had triggered a severe asthma flareup, which had almost turned into pneumonia. He advised me to get a humidifier in order to create a healthier environment indoors. But what about the day laborers who work outside and couldn't afford one anyway? Or the single moms working two low-paying jobs who can't take the time off to recover because their kids need to eat?

The oppressions we face pile up, and they make some of us far more vulnerable to health problems than others. Getting sick is a privilege that a lot of people cannot afford, and getting well is a luxury that a lot of people cannot obtain.

Consider, too, that 60 percent of Salt Lake's west side residents are people of color, and two-thirds of them are low-income. Many live by heavy sources of pollution, like the Tesoro refinery and Gadsby power plant.

I fear that many of my fellow undocumented people are dissuaded from talking about their health conditions because their whole existence and, by default, their health, is seen as a criminal act. We are shamed into believing that, as "criminals," we do not have the right to talk about what's just. We are told that the answer to our health problems is to "take better care of ourselves," when our living conditions are not livable to begin with. Blaming us displaces blame from the real culprit—corporations, which are not only profiting from our lives by hiring us as cheap labor, but also from our deaths.

If the clean air movement wants to truly represent those most at risk from bad air, it must acknowledge the cumulative impact of oppressions on our health. Until we address the environmental racism towards my people, and the oppression of all poor people, this system will continue to exploit us for our labor, in dismal working conditions, and punish us for not meeting its demands.


This piece was originally published in The Salt Lake Tribune in 2015.

Ella Mendoza is an undocumented artist, and writer; born and raised in Lima, Peru, but currently living in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is self-taught and her work centers on personal experiences of nostalgia and trauma, and the intentional healing happening in our communities, via education, representation, and art. b. 1990

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