Yolanda Herrera

2018

Collection Information

Size: Video recording: 1 MP4 file (47 hr., 22 min.); digital

Transcript: 19 pages

Photographs: 2 interview digital photographs

Format: Originally recorded on a DSLR camera as an MOV file and a portable audio digital recorder as an MP3 file.

Summary: Interview materials of Tucson, Arizona community member and current community co-chair of the Unified Community Advisory Board Yolanda Herrera. The collection consists of biographical materials, including an interview transcript, interview photographs, and interview video. 

Historical Note

Yolanda Herrera (1952- ) had her own interior design company called All Covered Up Interiors and is a community advocate for Southside Tucson, Arizona. She is a second-generation Unified Community Advisory Board member and she is currently the community co-chair and the first female to lead the group. Yolanda was born in Tucson to Manuel Herrera Jr. and Josefina Ann Huerta Herrera. She is a fifth generation Tucsonan and attended St. John's Evangelist School, Sunnyside High School, and Pima Community College. Throughout her community service, she has focused on volunteering with the Pima County Attorney’s Office, Tucson Citizen newspaper, University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman's College of Public Health, and the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association. She currently lives in Southside Tucson.

Provenance

In 2018, the oral history interview was conducted and recorded by Denise Moreno Ramírez. The audio recording of these interviews was later mixed by Robert Campbell and the video recording was edited by Ramani Menjugas. 

Citation

Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Yolanda Herrera, 2018 July 18. Archives of Voice Unheard: Arizona’s Environmental History, The University of Arizona.

Download Oral History Transcript

Transcript 

Preface

The following oral history is the result of a recorded interview with Yolanda Herrera conducted by Denise Moreno Ramírez on July 18, 2018. This interview is part of Moreno Ramírez’s dissertation research at the University of Arizona.

Readers are asked to bear in mind that they are reading a transcript of the spoken word, rather than written prose. The interview focuses on Herrera’s recollections about her life in Arizona and her experience in relation to the Tucson International Airport Are Superfund site located in Tucson, Arizona. 

Oral History Interview

Q:    When did you arrive, uh, in Tucson?

Herrera:    Actually, I was born here in Tucson back in 1952 and my family initially came from Spain back in the 1850s.

Q:    Okay and when did you move to Southside Tucson?

Herrera:    1952.

Q:    Oh wow.

Herrera:    Yeah.

Q:    So, are you [Cross Talk]

Herrera:    So, my parents still live in the original home.

Q:    Okay. So, you’re the second-generation Tucsonan or first generation?

Herrera:    Actually fourth.

Q:    Oh wow. And w--, how, when did your uh? So, it was like your great, great grandparents then that arrived here?

Herrera:    Mm-hmm, Mm-hmm. In the 1850s from Spain.

Q:    Wow. And do you currently live in the area that’s associated with the Tucson International Superfund site?

Herrera:    Yes, I do. I live within a few blocks of my parents.

Q:    And where do you live?  Uh, can you give me the major cross streets?

Herrera:    Near 12th and Valencia.

Q:    Okay. And how did you first hear, read or learn about the contamination that’s associated, uh, with the Tucson International Airport Area?

Herrera:    Actually, from my, my parents, my mom and dad. They, um, were working along with Lorraine Lee when they were finding out that and having conversations, community conversations that people were getting sick. So, they, um, went further in researching what was going on and started raising the flags and started questioning our water system.

Q:    And then can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Herrera:    Well, back when it all started, I wasn’t really involved in it. I just heard about it during family conversations because I had, um, gotten married and even though I still lived in the general area when I was married, then I became a single parent so I wasn’t – I didn’t have time to really get involved with community issues because I was, um, concentrating on trying to raise my son and make a living.

Q:    So, did you notice anything in particular in your community around this time?

Herrera:    Not really. I have to say that I really didn’t. It wasn’t until I started looking into it and listening more to my parents, reading the newspapers because they were doing a lot of um interviews with my parents and families and neighbors and classmates.

Q:    And so, can you tell me some of the most vivid memories that you have when the community was most active here at the TIA site?

Herrera:    They were having community meetings and, uh, gatherings. Again, at that time I couldn’t get – it was very time consuming so that was the other reason I couldn’t get involved. Sitting for hours and hours and hours answering question after question. I just didn’t have time for that, but I heard about it from my siblings who were involved with this and my parents.

Q:    Okay. And do you remember anything as a young person growing up in your – in the – in the household or just coming in as a, a young adult?  Anything in particular that your parents were doing that was of interest to you or kind of you remember from that era?

Herrera:    Well, going back to your other questions, let me just explain that, too. When my sister and my mom got sick, then I started questioning what was – what was going on. That was the other reason that I didn’t take the time to get involved in all this community gathering. I, from my understanding, there were well over 20,000 people that were being interviewed to find out what their concerns and their ills were. So, I didn’t feel like I had any issues, uh, health wise. I felt that I was healthy.

Q:    But it seemed that your family did have some illnesses then.

Herrera:    Yes, they did and –
Q:    And can –

Herrera:    -- the next generation of babies were having, uh, problems. So, it’s not just my parents and my generation, but it’s also my sibling’s children’s generation and their children. So that’s into five generations now.

Q:    And can you tell me some of the illnesses that they were having or the issues that they were having?

Herrera:    One sibling had, had cervical cancer at a very young age. Um, my older sister’s child had heart problems and later on went onto having kidney problems and having to have a kidney transplant. My brother’s grandbaby passed away and we don’t know why. It was not necessarily a stillbirth. There was not any problems with the, um, pregnancy and then my brother’s daughter, one of her children, had heart problems at birth.

Q:    So, it seems that when you started seeing these illnesses then in your family, you started kind of thinking then there might be something happening in the community?

Herrera:    I did and then my concern then was for my son. He was born premature, but it had nothing to do with the water. I had a Placenta Previa so he was born seven weeks early. My concern for him then was how is it going to affect him and any children that he might have. So even though he’s a father now, they did have complications, but it was due to the fact that the baby was, um, breeched.

Q:    Okay. And can you describe some of your past efforts that are related to the Tucson International Airport Area site or the like what some of your early efforts then at this time?  Like when you started becoming involved.

Herrera:    Back in 1993, ’92 era when I, um, became self-employed, I decided to get more involved in the community when I was seeing what else needed to be changed around here. 

Um, I’ve been on so many different committees since that time. I was involved with the University College of Public Health for about four, four years. I was – I’m involved with the University still with the, uh, soil,water, environmental science. I’ve been on that program evaluating and now I’m with Project Harvest, but I’ve also been involved with Environmental Services with the City of Tucson, on trying to see how we can make changes within the community and making sure people don’t continue to contaminate.

If you’re gonna dispose of your electronics, of your oil, of car oils, do it properly.

Q:    And so, what was the first time that you attended a meeting that was specific to the Tucson International Airport Area?

Herrera:    I’m going to say that when I became involved with the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association, which was formed prior to the Unified Community Advisory Board, they were trying to form the UCAB at that time and so they were presenting in front of us.

My dad was one of the individuals that started the Unified Community Advisory Board with Tom Stubblefield and they were trying to recruit more members to sit – to become board members. So that was probably back in 1995, ’94 and so I waited for a while before I actually jumped in with both feet.

Um, I became the second vice president of the association. My dad was the president. He said, “I don’t have time for these meetings. You have to start going.” So, it was a direct order from my dad.

Q:    Mm-hmm. So that – and do you have any memories of your dad?  Like what?  Like anything you want to share of his history.

Herrera:    Well, let me just say that we didn’t see a lot of my dad when we were growing up because he was working three jobs. So, when he retired, he jumped in with both feet as well and got very involved in the water contamination issue. So much so that he was going to Washington. He was going to national conferences all over the United States and having an impact and having people’s ear. He knew he had a voice to make these changes and I think that’s what put, put us on the map like it did because he was not afraid to speak up.

Q:    And do you remember any of the first activities that he was involved in besides, like I don’t know?  If it was just starting local meetings before the UCAB or anything of that sort?

Herrera:    I remember we used to meet over at the Tucson International Airport and – to discuss these issues and they were very well attended and I think that’s why they had to change it to a bigger venue to accommodate more people that were very concerned and wanted to ask these questions.

My dad’s philosophy is don’t just complain about something; make the changes; find the solutions. And so that’s what he was trying to do. He saw a need for – once upon a time the government agencies met separate and the community met separate so there was no true partnership. The left side didn’t know what the right side was doing.

So, dad said, “Why don’t we come together so we can hear what you’re saying and then you can hear what the community is saying? Then we can help solve this and move it forward.” His belief was rebuilding the trust because at that time there was no community trust. 

Nobody believed that it was being addressed because initially the powers that be – I don’t want to point any fingers, um, pretty much lied to the community. They didn’t really tell us what was going on. They didn’t – they were upfront with yes, we’re gonna shut these wells down, but not why they were shutting them down.

So, it became a huge issue. Uh, Lorraine Lee was part of the catalyst with my dad going and she had a very strong voice as well. She was not a shy woman at all. And so that’s why I’m glad that we were able to move the plaque forward and making sure that my dad’s name and Lorraine’s name were both on the plaque and it’s here at the Valencia Branch Library giving thanks to all the people that have involved – been involved since day one.

Q:    So, it seems that that was the different things that were happening then at the community level before the UCAB. Um, can you give me a little bit more of your take, uh, or your memories of what was happening be- just right before the Unified Community Advisory Board, uh, was established?  Do you – do you have any memories of that?

Herrera:    I have – I, I guess my memories would be of all my dad’s paperwork when I would go visit him and it was a family joke. You don’t see Manny because he’s too busy with meetings. My dad was always, always at meetings and my dad didn’t have access. This is – we’re going way back before computers were really – before computers and cell phones. So, my dad did everything longhand and with his little typewriter.

So, I’m very blessed to have been – my mom donated all my dad’s notes to me. I don’t know if it’s a curse or a blessing because now I have tons more paperwork to go through, but just going through it when I have time.

It’s really amazing capturing the history of how all of this started. Having him jot down his little questions and his little notes and why are they doing it this way instead of this way.

Q:    So that’s a big treasure, right, what you have?

Herrera:    Absolutely is. I had no idea that there were – when you read the newspaper it just says, “16,000 people were involved in the law suit.” Or that were compensated. There were actually over 20,000 people that were interviewed and signed up. So that was a huge, huge process and very time consuming.

This didn’t happen overnight. We’re talking at least ten years from Point A to Point B and even longer than that.

Q:    Wow. And so, do you keep this, all this archive – archival material at your house then? [Laughs]

Herrera:    I do. I do, but I, like I say, I would like to go through all the pages. I mean, it’s amazing what – how – what my dad captured and what he saved. So, I get the paperwork honestly from my dad. You know, you have paperwork and you don’t want to throw anything away because it might be important someday. 

So, I’m really glad my dad didn’t throw anything away because it is important today, especially today when you have a new group of people wanting to restart another class action law suit. They think that it just happened overnight, and it didn’t. It, it took well over a decade.

Q:    So, can you tell me also if you were aware of any other organizations or smaller groups that were in the area previous to UCAB or leading up to UCAB?

Herrera:    They had the, um, TCE Subcommittee. That was formed and from that subcommittee then the UCAB formed together with the government agencies. Um, I haven’t gone through all those TCE Subcommittee notes that my dad put together or I can’t tell you how many people were involved in that because again, that was during the time when I wasn’t necessarily involved because I was busy making an income to pay bills and raise my son.

Q:    And then my last question about your family’s history as part of the contamination and then the UCAB, was your mother involved in any of this?

Herrera:    Yes, but not like my dad. She was, um, not as vocal as my dad because about that time is when she got sick and she had to have her – part of her jaw replaced due to a cancer that she received from, from the water.

We lived down the street from a well that got shutdown and so my belief is that at that time moms stayed home; dads went to work. So, the moms would get together and have their coffee and get together and talk about issues with kids and their husbands. So, they were drinking more of that water because of the coffee than say the men because the men were at work and so they weren’t as exposed to this as much as the women were.

When I look at some of my – the female neighbors, they’re gone and, and, by gone, they’re buried.

Q:    Mm-hmm. And so, as you mentioned already, um, you were part of the UCAB. So, you were a vice president then of UCAB?

Herrera:    Actually, I was just a member of UCAB on the – from the get-go initially. Um, but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t holding people accountable or asking questions or being vocal in a respectful way.

It wasn’t until the opportunity arose for the past chairperson decided to resign that I stepped up and felt that I could take that position over.

Q:    And can you tell me a little bit about your early involvement in UCAB when you started as a member?  What was – can you just give me a little bit about the history of what was UCAB up to at that time?  What were some of the issues that you were dealing with?

Herrera:    From the get-go, from the onset we’re, we’re looking at UCAB. We’re -- like we were meeting once a month because back in 1995 when it was formed, they were in the process of forming the, uh, TARP facility. Things were moving slow because the government agencies didn’t really know how to address this; how to move it forward. And then just rebuilding the trust.

So, people, I have to say that back in ’95 and ’96 when I got involved, they were – the room would be packed with people asking questions and we’re not just talking people from the Southside. We’re talking people on the north side that were interested. They wanted to make sure that their water was, um, safe. We used to have our elected officials from the county involved. We used to have Tohono O’odham at the table, uh, and for some reason it just kind of fractured.

Initially I went to the meetings just to get the information, but then as I became more involved, started reading more of the material it does setup a red flag and it does mean that you have to be committed.

It’s not a committee that you can just attend one meeting and think that you’re going to be able to absorb it all. I’ve been in – involved for 22 years and I can’t still absorb it all because things are always changing, especially as they find new contaminants. It is something that we need to be made aware of.

We need – our goal with, uh, UCAB should be to make sure that the public is receiving the correct information. There’s so much misinformation out there that we have to nip it in the bud before it becomes a wildfire.

Q:    And can you let me or tell me a little bit of how and why the Unified Community Advisory Board was established?

Herrera:    It was established so that we can have better communication. So, we can actually speak to the government agencies that were responsible for the water contamination and look them in the eye and ask them the hard questions and make sure that they weren’t going to try to, uh, lessen the effects that we were suffering.

We needed to be in front of them, so they know what they did to this community.

Q:    And can you tell me one of the activities or memories that you’ll never forget when you were a member at the beginning that you were involved in?

Herrera:    Oh, my goodness. It was a drag out, fighting, yelling, screaming, you know, pounding on the table because somebody wanted to make their point. Um, it was frightening actually at times. I would, um – fortunately I was able to build relationships with some of the government agencies and sometimes even pull them aside and say, “How can we make this better?  How can we make this work where there’s not this yelling and screaming and pointing fingers?”  That was – that was tough. That was tough because it fractured UCAB for a time and once something is fractured, it’s difficult to get people back to the table. They don’t know that it’s changed.

One of the biggest challenges I think for UCAB is making sure the elected officials are at the table. We want to remember our elected officials come and go, but this water contamination does not, and I try to remind people that the water contamination is not a ward only issue. It’s a citywide issue. It’s a countywide issue. It’s a state issue. It’s the United States issue and it becomes worldwide because if we don’t fix and learn by this mistake, we’re gonna keep making them over and over again. You take one step forward and five steps backwards.

That’s one of the reasons we’re so committed and passionate about making sure we get more community people at the table. The goal is to also try to get more younger people to the table. When you have a group that’s been involved for 23, 25 years, people are starting to age out. 

Last year we lost two members already. So – and people are just retiring. Not just the government agency people, but our community people are retiring because they can no longer drive the distance at night, but the younger people is where it’s going to have to – they need to be at the table so they can continue moving this forward.

We’re hoping that in my lifetime the water contamination will be a thing of the past, but just in case it’s not, somebody with a strong voice needs to say, “I’ll pick up the flag for you.”

Q:    And can you tell me a little bit about when you became co-chair?  When was that time and how was that for you?

Herrera:    Well, it was somewhat, to step forward and say, “I think I can do this” was a little bit frightening for me because I didn’t know if I would have the backing of the other members, but as it turns out, it was, um, I think I had their respect because the vote was pretty unanimous. 

There was one other person that ran against me, but it was – and I think once your community co-chair, hopefully that’ll be the case, I’ll remain as community co-chair as long as I, you know, feel like I’m being productive in that position. So, I’ve been there as community co-chair now for seven years. I was just re-elected to that position back in April.

Q:    Okay and what was the year that you were elected again?

Herrera:    I want to say it was, um, either – it had to be 2011.

Q:    Can you tell me some of the issues that you were dealing with as – when you came in as a co-chair for the Unified Community Advisory Board?

Herrera:    Oh. It was a huge challenge because not only were they in the process of changing contractors, but they also stopped supplying food. Uh, we had already at that time started meeting quarterly instead of monthly. People were – I, I inherited the board members. 

Um, the charter’s real specific on who needs to be at the table, but that’s okay because the people that are at the table are just as passionate as a community person would be, but just the fact that the contractor changed the challenge of getting the minutes to be accurate changed, the history changed. 

There was no, um, old membership material because once that contractor left, they took everything with them. Material, the attendance and even though I tried to get my hands on it, it was like, “No. Too bad. So sad.”  It was really sad. It really was because even trying to get the names of the people that were involved from day one, it was up to me going back to my old paperwork. 

So it was very, very time consuming and challenging now with the minutes making sure that they get to the public on time and unfortunately people – that kind of reflects on me in my leadership because if they’re not getting the material in time they think it’s my fault and it’s not, but you can’t make up excuses and say well, it’s the, the new contractor. 

So being the person that I am, started sending out emails of concern. So, we’re gonna start seeing some changes. It’s – and I know sometimes people think I’m really tough and I’m really a mean person, but I’m not. It’s my integrity that’s at stake here and I want to make sure that people understand when I say something it’s gonna be done because again, it’s keeping the trust of the community at the forefront.

Q:    And can you tell me a little bit about, um, the 1,4-dioxane?  Was it during your time that you became a co-chair that that was a new issue or was that not --?

Herrera:    Actually, uh, the 1,4-dioxane became an issue back in, um, 2002 when it was brought to our attention. So again, it just goes to show how long it takes the government agencies and EPA to make these recommendations. It’s, um, we started having public hearings or town halls on the 1,4-dioxane in 2002. 

It wasn’t until 2012 that the city actually stepped up and started looking at it and then decided that they needed to be more proactive and that’s why they needed to build a bigger – the, the new plant and they did it in such a way that they said, “Just get it done. We’ll worry about getting reimbursed after the fact.”

And one of our saving graces for that is the fact that our city manager, Richard Miranda, was – grew up on the Southside. So, he knew the history. He knew how important it was for the people to make sure that we were getting safe water delivered. So he was, in fact, a catalyst to move that forward.

Q:    And then just to clarify, from what I understand in, uh, attending the UCAB meeting, the water from that plant from the TARP plant is not being served to the residents of Southside Tucson.

Herrera:    It is not. In fact, our water back in 19 – I believe it was ’91 we started receiving water from Avra Valley well fields, which has no contamination in it or none that has been found because it’s not being delivered, but all that was the consent decree. We were not to receive any of the treated water. South of Irvington receives water from different sections that are not within the plume area or contamination area and that’s one of the things that the general public does not understand.

We did not receive the 1,4-dioxane because it’s being delivered, all the treated water is being delivered to the north side of town north of Irvington. Anybody south of Irvington has not been receiving the 1,4-dioxane since the wells got shut down. That’s real imperative that people understand that. It has not been in our system. 

People have to understand, too, that 1,4-dioxane is found in a lot of our different beauty products, our – granted we’re not exposed to it 24/7, but we’re not exposed to our water 24/7 either. And that’s the other key piece that people have to understand. We really don’t glow in the dark down here.

Q:    And can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with the government agencies, the responsible parties, the different people that attend the meetings that report updates on what they’re doing, uh, with the plume because it seems to me every time I attend meetings that you have a good relationship, but can you tell me a little bit more about how that relationship, uh, is important to you as a co-chair and also UCAB in general?

Herrera:    I think the government agencies and the elected officials understand that I’m not just there because I’m the community co-chair. I’ve been there since before I was a community co-chair. I’m not going to go away. I don’t – I’m not like an elected officials. You get elected in for four years and then you disappear. I’m there for the long term and I think they understand that, and I think I’ve earned their respect because of that.

I think they also understand that even before I was a co-chair, I was very vocal. We were Ignacio and I were sent to EPA Region 9 San Francisco years ago and I was asked by the funding source to go along because I was not afraid to ask the hard questions. I’m not a rule a very shy person. I go before mayor and council. I’ve gone before the board of supervisors and I would go before the state if given the opportunity to and I have made those phone calls. “You need to be down here. You need to understand.”

What aggravates me is when an elected official calls me because somebody called them. It – it’s back on their radar for some reason. “Can you take a few minutes and just explain to me about all this?”  I’m like, “Absolutely not. It’s not a few minute conversation. It’s years’ worth of information that you need to be at the table. You need to understand this just as much as everybody else so you can answer to your constituency.”  And they don’t like that, but you know.

And I’ve gone before mayor and council before and I’ve said, “Everyone here comes and goes. The one constant is me. I’ not going anywhere.”

Q:    And can you tell me a little bit or your relationship with, uh, your fellow UCAB members?

Herrera:    I think the UCAB members understand and I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m grateful that they re-elected me because they understand I’m not going away. I am part of this community. 

We try to do the outreach. Um, we do the town halls. We do the resource fairs. We do Earth Day and they have to understand, too, that their responsibility is not just to attend the meetings quarterly, but the – I request that they help do the community outreach.

My relationship with them is such that I’ve known a lot of them for decades and I feel like maybe I’m a little bit of a mentor as well.

Q:    And so, what is your –one of your proudest moments of being a co-chair for UCAB?

Herrera:    One of my proudest moments?  Um, well I was very honored when Tucson Water gave me their, their little medallion. Their little metal because I, I just do this because it’s the right thing to do. It’s what my dad taught me to do. I don’t do it for recognition by any means, but when somebody does take the time to recognize your efforts and your work, it’s very heartwarming.

Q:    And what do you want others to know?  Maybe something that’s not well-known about UCAB?

Herrera:    Well, that we’ve been around for 23 years. We are one of EPAs largest, most active, best attended Superfund sites nationwide. I think that says a lot. I’ve talked to other Superfund site places where they only meet once a year and they only have a handful of people. We don’t have that. 

We have, because we are doing that community outreach, we have that commitment from our board members and from the community and we’re doing more struggling with getting our elected officials to the table. That’s what is constant. That they understand we are committed and we’re not going to go away.

Q:    And you are considered a Southside community leader. So, you’re not only just involved in the Unified Community Advisory Board or the UCAB, but you’re also involved in other different, uh, groups in the area. Can you tell me a little bit about the other work that you do?

Herrera:    Yes. And I consider myself, um, an advocate. We advocate for positive change. That’s kind of my philosophy. So, I’ve been involved with the Southside Neighborhood Association’s Presidential Partnership, which is a leadership group of, uh, the various Southside neighborhood associations and we’ve been around for 20 years. We just celebrated 20 years.

I’m currently sitting on the, uh, Pima Association of Governments Regional Transportation Authority Citizens Advisory Group. So that’s regional transportation issues for Pima County and this is my second term with that. First term was back in 2006. 

I’m also involved with the Environmental Services Advisory Committee. I’ve been involved with, um, the University College of Public Health, um, the University, uh, College of Soil, Water and Environmental Service. Uh, no service. Uh.

Q:    Science.

Herrera:    Science. Thank you. Um, I’ve been involved with the, um, citizens advisory committee with advising the Mayor Council, the 12th Avenue Valencia Area plan. I mean, I’ve just worn so many different hats. That I was with Pima Council on Aging as an elder connector. I’m with United Way. We do a lot of different various, um, activities with, uh, Days of Caring. 

I’ve done a lot of work with our seniors down here in educating them on what some of the resources we have and there’s just so many others. 

I was with the Underage Drinking Task Force as well and the Pima County, um, Commission on Addiction Prevention and Treatment. I’m a former youth diversion counselor with Pima, uh, County attorney’s office. I did that for four years at TMC. So, and I’ve been involved with youth groups, being their supervisor cleaning yards for our seniors because we have to have safe yards to keep our seniors safe and their environment well taken care of. 

So, a little bit of everything.

Q:    Thinking back on your experience at the Tucson International Airport Area, what would you recommend or like to see future generations learn from this experience?

Herrera:    I think I just want them to learn so that we don’t go back and repeat the same issues and problems that we’re facing today. The history part is very important because lifestyles have changed. Even so much as the landfill. Making the changes at the landfill. I think today’s society needs to understand why those changes even had to happen. 

You just don’t – back when I was growing up when somebody changed their oil, because we didn’t have paved streets, people would just spread the oil on their driveways for dust control. We wouldn’t think of doing that anymore because we don’t – we understand now. Whatever you put on the surface filters down into our water sources. 

Q:    And then how would you like the memory of your experience to be remembered as part of a community member and then also as part of a, a organization like UCAB?

Herrera:    I think I’m going to be remembered in the way that I raised my son. He’s my legacy. He has – he and his wife and their child have elected to become very environmental conscious. They recycle. They don’t buy certain things because it’s just trash that the world does not need. So, he pretty much is my legacy.

As far as my community, either the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association, SNAP, or UCAB, I think people will remember me as being that person, that advocate that advocated for positive change.

Q:    And how do you think that the Superfund site will be remembered, and the contamination associated with it?

Herrera:    I think they’re gonna be remembered by the fact that we never gave up. The fact that we’ve been around for longer than any of the Superfund sites in the nation says a lot and the fact that the people have – are still committed to that and we have people that still want to be on the board, um, but we are being a little bit more on the selective side because it’s not just for anybody. We want the right information being disseminated into the community and no hidden agendas.

Q:    And so, as a community member you had to learn a lot throughout the process of the learning about the remediation of the site and just the contamination on how everything works at the site, like hydrology and things of that sort. What information was most useful to you in your learning?

Herrera:    I think it’s all useful. I think it’s an ongoing learning life. The more things change, the more things stay the same. We’re finding more contaminants so we’re gonna have to address each new contaminant one-by-one.

One of the biggest assets I think that we have is being able to add the tours so that people can have a better understanding and it’s not just a tour of the three hangar sites. It’s not just a tour of the AOP plant, but it’s a tour of the wellfields as well and just the graphs that people show. Just the history of how water flows and how it’s being captured. How it’s being cleaned. I think all of that is important, but until I tell people, “Until you see it, feel it, touch it, you’re not gonna have the best understanding.” So, the tours are very, very important.

Q:    Are you aware of any health studies that occurred in the area?

Herrera:    I think health studies are still being done right now with some of the professors through the university. I think that outreach is still being done. I think that that’s a big piece of this whole history is how has it affected form the past and how is it going to affect us in the future.

I think in my generation of my high school classmates we were most impacted because our bodies were still being formed. Today’s, um, because we’re no longer receiving contaminated water, one of the questions that people had was did it stay in my system where it affected my son and is it gonna affect his daughter and her children. I think those are the studies that people want to see and hear more about.

They want to be reassured that it’s not going to be an ongoing issue for generations. That we’ve nipped it in the bud now. 

Q:    And you talked a little bit about this earlier in your interview, but in your opinion what’s the importance of this site at an Arizona level and then at a national level?

Herrera:    We live in a desert and water is not renewable. It’s, it’s what falls from the sky. It’s what we’re able to capture with our CAP water. It – when you are addressing our elected officials, they are into their little, little worlds where it’s just, “My ward’s being affected, my ward’s being affected.” No, I’m sorry. It’s not a ward only issue. It’s not a county issue. It’s not a state issue. It’s not just a United States issue. It’s a worldwide issue. Without water we have no people. 

Q:    And what advice do you have for the state and federal governments that oversee the clean-up?

Herrera:    To continue funding it. To continue getting the correct information out there. To continue supplying fact sheets in not just English and Spanish anymore. It needs to be looked at with various other languages as we get more influx of people from all over.

If we truly want people to understand, we need to give them the tools to understand it.

Q:    And what community or I mean, excuse me, education or communication recommendations do you have for the new generation that is active at the community level at the Superfund site?

Herrera:    I think our kids today, our youth, our college students, our, um, high school students need to continue to hold our government accountable, their feet to the fire to make sure the EPA doesn’t go away, to make sure that we have proper funding for it, to step up and be the voice for their generation so that the world does not end.

Q:    And what – did your experience with the Superfund site change your thinking about sources of chemical exposures of pollution in your community or at your home?

Herrera:    Actually, yes, but I want people to understand because I live in an older house and because I was in the floor covering industry, I – this is not the first contamination I’ve been exposed to. In the floor covering industry there was asbestos running rampant. 

So, in our homes because our homes were built in the – in the 50s, we had the lead pipes, we have the lead solder, we have the asbestos roofs, we have the asbestos insulation, we have asbestos in our floors, we have the lead paint. So, we live in a contaminated, um, capsule as it is.

What we’re trying to do is make the changes so that we don’t repeat those. Um, educating people when they move into these older homes so that they can understand what they’re dealing with. We deal with the different government agencies that will come in and, um, refurbish these homes so that they are safer for other generations. For the babies that are gonna be crawling around. We don’t want them picking up that paint chip and putting it in their mouth.

For the people that want to do their gardening, we want to make sure that their soil is not being contaminated with everything that’s coming down from the house because of the older homes.

Q:    Is there any story that you want to share as a co-chair?  Like something that people might not know of your work that you’ve done. Is there any story that you would like to share?

Herrera:    I just know the history of what we’re trying to accomplish and what we have accomplished. Get better informed. Understand that this community was not strictly Hispanic. It was primarily Anglo when it was first being built. It was primarily built around the Raytheon. Back then it was Hughes for the different engineers. Back when it was also for the miners because back then we had a lot of mining in the community. People have to understand the mines have contaminated in their own way when you’re looking at tailings.

I think people just have to understand that we contaminate our self. We have to start decontamination – decontaminating ourselves by being more aware of the different industries that are coming in, what we’re using to cook, the microwaves, the popcorn we eat. I mean, if you look at – start reading labels. Start reading labels and maybe you’ll start growing your own food but making sure your soil is not contaminated before you start doing that.

Once I became a label reader, I just cut out a lot of stuff in my – in my – in my diet. It’s scary and the grocery stores, what we’re feeding the people that can’t afford better cuts of meat or better vegetables, that’s really scary. That’s where we need the government to step in and say, “We need to hold everybody accountable,” because contamination comes not just from our water, but it comes from our food.

Q:    Is there anything else that you’d like to comment on before we end this part of your oral history?

Herrera:    Yes. I would like to invite people to come to our meetings and, um, if they think that it’s something that they would like to do, continue to come to the meetings and maybe even apply to become a board member. Preferably we want people that were – that are from this community because that’s where your history is. That’s where the passion is. That’s where the commitment is. 

Sometimes people step up just because it’s something to do, but we want it to be more than something to do. Ask the tough questions. Join me in going to mayor and council meetings and board of supervisor’s meetings and look at who they’re electing because if they elect – know who they’re electing. That who they elect might end the EPA and holding people accountable and having the good relationships with the different government agencies.


[End of Interview Session]

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Interview Photographs

  • Image 1: Yolanda Herrera interview headshot

  • Image 2: Yolanda Herrera interview

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