Magdalena Cerda-Baez

Sweetwater Adult Education

Nominated in 2012

Since March 2000, Magdalena (Nena) Cerda-Baez has been working with Environmental Health Coalition (EHC), an environmental advocacy group "dedicated to achieving environmental and social justice." EHC defines environmental justice as "the right of all people and communities to live, work, and play in a clean and safe environment." Nena currently serves as the Director of the Border Justice Campaign managing community organizers to address environmental issues through the Colectivo Chilpancingo office in Tijuana, Mexico.

As a community organizer, Nena developed a work group of community members which completed projects of historical significance. One example is the clean-up of the "infamous" Metales y Derivados toxic waste site in Tijuana, which was ultimately brought to the United Nations for resolution. The site, adjacent to the Tijuana neighborhood of Colonia Chilpancingo, was a serious threat to children, families, and workers, exposing them to 23,000 tons of contaminated waste. Neither the United States nor Mexico was willing to provide the funding necessary to clean up the site until the threat of economic sanctions from the UN.

At the culmination of the more than ten year struggle, Nena said, "The cleanup of the abandoned Tijuana lead smelter known as Metales y Derivados, completed in 2008, represents a binational environmental justice and public health victory. The cleanup of Metales y Derivados is a huge victory for us. We hope it can inspire and guide other communities seeking solutions to environmental injustices like this one."

Nena's current efforts with EHC focus on preserving the Arroyo Alamar, a tributary of the Tijuana River, from canalization.

Nena grew up and completed high school in Mexicali, Mexico, located on the border between Baja California Norte and Imperial County, CA. Her brothers and sisters went on to higher education and became teachers and school administrators. But, because she had difficulty reading and comprehending, Nena was sure she would never be able to complete college.

When she moved to the United States in 1995, Nena knew she would need to learn English, but she doubted that English classes would be helpful. She decided to try anyway, and enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at Montgomery Adult School in the Sweetwater Union High School District near San Diego. The ESL classes revealed that Nena's reading problems were due to dyslexia which caused her reading to be very slow while her oral comprehension was described as "extremely keen." She persevered, and though she struggled with reading, completed all levels of ESL while she also completed Parenting classes.

Nena often mentions that her experience as an adult education student is what prepared her to be a successful mother and environmental activist. Her studies helped to boost her self-esteem and prepared her to seek employment while she helped her children do well in their studies. She learned that many people have to overcome learning difficulties or educational barriers, and that these barriers should not stop a determined and dedicated individual from reaching their goals. When Nena joined EHC in 2000, she was technical coordinator for the Mexican government agency INEA (Instituto Nacional de Educacion para los Adultos [National Institute for Adult Education]), where she worked with adult literacy programs in the border region.

Having overcome barriers of her own, Nena also worked tirelessly and has actively sought help for her own children and others to overcome educational barriers. All three of her children graduated from high school in the Sweetwater district and have gone on to college. Her two daughters are graduating from San Diego State University, and her son is currently in his junior year at San Francisco State University.

Nena's efforts to serve her community have led to accomplishments and recognition that she would not have believed possible as a struggling reader in Mexicali. She served as president of a community group in Colonia Guadalupe Victoria in Tijuana that secured land rights and infrastructure from the Mexican Government. In 2009, she received the Grass Roots Organizer award from the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries.

Nena likes EHC's environmental and social justice efforts to create a world where many worlds can co-exist. Her family and friends are her joy, strength, and inspiration; dancing is her therapy. She enjoys spending time with her family and friends, dancing, gardening, traditional Mexican cooking, sewing, and arts and crafts.

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