SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The California Environmental Agency, for the first time in history, is under the stewardship of a Latina. Yana Garcia was appointed to CalEPA secretary two months ago by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The Oakland native lived in Mexico as a child during the time the North American Free Trade Agreement was enacted.

“I saw firsthand the impact that something like an international trade agreement can have on the day-to-day lives of people, people who rely on the land, who rely on water quality,” she said.

Living in Mexico gave Garcia a firsthand look at how important it is to advocate for clean water and air. Before she worked in government, Garcia was an environmental justice advocate.

“I feel a great deal to represent not only the Latino communities who are bearing the brunt of pollution, and really the intersection of pollution and poverty, but all of our communities of color,” Garcia said. “Latinos certainly are among them, and Black and other brown communities also have a big impact that they experienced from pollution.”

The experiences Garcia had as a child and young adult inspired her to get involved with environmental justice as a career. Before being named the CalEPA secretary, Garcia served as an environmental attorney for state Attorney General Rob Bonta.

Now in a leadership role, Garcia noted her priority is making sure those who need environmental protections the most get them immediately.

“Latinos matter and communities of color matter at the decision-making table for creating what is next to come. We certainly have to be there to understand what is affecting our communities the most in terms of burden but also in terms of building the future we want to see for our children,” Garcia said.

CalEPA leads the charge in the fight against climate change. It oversees three departments, two boards, and one office, including the State Water Resources Control Board, the Air Resources Control Board, and the Department of Pesticide Regulation.

Though Garcia understands how important it is to solve the climate crisis, she is also fully aware of how important her role is in representing the Latino community.

“This is a really pivotal moment for Latina leadership and that’s really fun and exciting. I think what we’re showing is we’re not a monolith. We’re a very diverse community and a majority/minority in the state of California,” Garcia said.

Newsom has appointed several Latinos to leadership positions, including the first Latina Supreme Court Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero. While there’s still progress to be made, Garcia believes California is heading in a positive direction for representation.

“One of the most important things about the leadership that we’re now seeing at such a high level throughout the state is that there’s no turning back so we have the ability to carry this mantle of diversity forward into the future,” Garcia said.

Now tasked with ensuring necessities like clean drinking water and regulating air pollution in California, Garcia is ready to set an agenda to benefit vulnerable communities.

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