Death in the fields: U.S. Migrant farm workers are dying as extreme heat rises

Increased extreme temperatures throughout the U.S. are contributing to heat-related deaths among migrant farm workers. 

Photo by Akin on Unsplash

If you live in the northern hemisphere, then you’ve probably noticed the summer season has been especially brutal this year. The increase in temperatures has been a trend in recent years, with summer after summer breaking new records. Extreme heat waves have been reported across the U.S. over the past few months, with June 2021 becoming the hottest June on record in the U.S.  

These record-breaking temperatures are contributing to a rise in heat illness, which includes heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.  According to the CDC, about 700 people die in the U.S. each year from heat-related exposure.

For those working outdoors during this hot climate, the dangers are even greater. Long hours of direct exposure to heat can quickly lead to life-threatening conditions. Already, farmers and field workers are seeing the devastating effects of rising heat as workers die on the job. 

Death on the job: The deadly effects of heat illness

A recent Bloomberg article detailed the plight of U.S. farm workers who are battling the extreme heat with little to no protective measures in place to ensure their safety in the workplace. According to data collected by Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, nearly 70,000 U.S. workers were seriously injured due to excessive heat between 1992 and 2016. Additionally, there have been 783 workplace deaths attributed to excessive heat in those years. 

These dangerous conditions have already resulted in at least three deaths, according to the labor union, United Farm Workers, who have been attempting to track cases of heat-related deaths. 

Florencio Gueta Vargas, a 69 year old farm worker from Washington, was one of the individuals whose recent death has been attributed to heat-related causes. Gueta Vargas was found by his boss slumped over a tractor on Thursday, July 29th. That day the temperature had risen to the triple digits. 

His daughter, Lorena Gonzalez –one of six children that Gueta Vargas worked to support– blames working conditions and the family believes his death could have been prevented. On a GoFundMe to raise money for her father’s funeral she wrote, “Due to these high temperatures and working conditions my father was found dead at work due heatstroke.” 

Heat stroke is one of many heat illnesses and often fatal. Early symptoms of heat illness include headaches, dizziness, or extreme tiredness. Symptoms of heat stroke include: 

  • Change in mental state, such as confusion, hallucinations (seeing or hearing things) and slurred speech
  • Increased body temperature — 104 degrees F or higher
  • Hot, red, dry skin with no sweating
  • Rapid breathing
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Trouble walking
  • Seizures

[Source Mayo Clinic

Heat temperature alone is not the only concern when it comes to heat illness. Humidity is another important factor that affects the body’s experience of heat. Humidity actually makes it harder for our bodies to cool down. When there is humidity, it becomes harder for sweat to evaporate off the skin. The evaporation of sweat is what allows our bodies to cool down. 

Since her father’s passing, Lorena Gonzalez has visited her father’s worksite every day. In a PBS article, she describes the temperatures in the fields: the high humidity and smoke from nearby wildfires are heavy weight on her chest. She notes that her father was constantly exposed to these elements driving a tractor with no roof. The lack of protective measures for farmers from the equipment used to lax protocols for dealing with heat and taking breaks all contribute to the unsafe working conditions farm workers are facing today. 

“I just wish they would understand he was a person, that this is so hard on his daughters. My dad — God knows how long he was out there,” said Lorena.

Increasing safety in the workplace for farm workers 

Due to the increasing climate related dangers facing farm workers, advocates are now pushing for OSHA regulations to issue federal heat standards. These standards would require water, shade, and rest breaks to all farm workers. 

In an article by The Guardian, Florida farm worker Tere Cruz said, “It would be really good to have a broad rule so when farm owners see that temperatures are way too high they need to stop and allow people to rest. Things as they are right now, you can see when it’s really hot that by 1 or 2 in the afternoon, people just can’t work any more. But there’s this real pressure to keep working and keep working.” Cruz added, “We’re not animals, we’re human beings, but there’s this feeling that no matter what happens, even when people can’t seem to work any more, the bosses keep pushing and pushing.”

Currently, there are no OSHA regulations to cover heat illness, however efforts are being made to change this. According to Bloomberg, a letter was recently signed on August 3rd by several senators asking the health agency to take action  by creating permanent and enforceable heat standards to ensure safety in the workplace. Ohio senator Sherrod Brown said, “Protecting workers from heat stress is essential” as temperatures continue to rise due to climate change. 

So far, both Oregon and Washington have issued emergency rules to address the heat issue and ensure safety in the workplace, but advocates say these measures are not enough. 

“These are not financial policies, these are health and safety protections,” said  Elizabeth Strater, an organizer with the United Farm Workers. “These are actual men and women and children going out into the fields to work and die to feed the rest of this country, and they are being treated as though they are this human buffer to ensure that there continues to be a well-stocked fridge in your air-conditioned kitchen.” 

You might be interested: Poultry farms and Latino workers at the forefront of COVID-19

Additionally, many farm workers are undocumented migrants. This makes it difficult for workers to challenge unsafe working conditions or seek legal aid. Many do not speak out, fearing deportation, cut hours, or job loss. Due to these factors, many safety violations go unreported. A set standard for heat-related stress and illness at the federal level would ensure that all workers are protected. As advocates, we need to continue to push for better practices and workplace safety regulations because in the words of Lorena Gonzalez, “No one deserves to pass away at work.” 

heat wave, sunset,

A world on fire: How to survive the rising heat

During the past few months, we have witnessed some of the dangerous effects of climate change. We have seen drought, wildfires, and superstorms ravage communities. Earlier last month, the ocean burned when a gas pipeline burst in the Gulf of Mexico. These are some of the extreme events recently brought on by climate change and harmful human practices. But there is another dangerous crisis at hand that is affecting thousands of lives, and that is heat illness. 

heat wave, sunset,

Photo by Jeremy Zero on Unsplash

In the northern hemisphere we have been experiencing the summer season, a warm and sunny time of the year many look forward to as a pleasant and relaxing season. However, in recent years, this season has become a dangerous time for some. Just last month, many countries  experienced extreme heatwaves and record-breaking temperatures, putting many individuals at risk for heat-related illnesses and even death. 

Many areas, especially far up north, are not built to handle extreme heat and in fact, some northern buildings were built specifically to keep heat in! 

As the climate change crisis continues to impact our lives, it’s important we learn how to navigate these rising temperatures and keep ourselves and at-risk individuals safe. 

Watch for symptoms of heat illness

According to the CDC, about 700 people die in the U.S. each year from heat-related exposure. Most often these individuals are older adults, young children, and people with chronic illnesses. 

Heat illness is also unfortunately more likely to affect low-income individuals as low-income areas are often less protected from heat or not equipped to properly handle increasing temperatures. Historically, low-income and urban housing has been occupied by minority ethnic groups and people of color, meaning these groups are likely to suffer more from the effects of rising temperatures. 

Be on the lookout for symptoms of heat illness. Common heat illnesses include, from mildest to most dangerous: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Anyone experiencing symptoms of heat illness should rest, stay hydrated, and remain cool. 

Early symptoms of heat illness include headaches, dizziness, or extreme tiredness. Symptoms of heat stroke, which is life threatening, include: 

  • Change in mental state, such as confusion, hallucinations (seeing or hearing things) and slurred speech
  • Increased body temperature — 104 degrees F or higher
  • Hot, red, dry skin with no sweating
  • Rapid breathing
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Trouble walking
  • Seizures

[Source Mayo Clinic

Staying cool during unprecedented heatwaves 

This summer temperatures have risen to record highs in parts of the world that have never had to grapple with intense heat. 

While southerners may scoff at what some consider “hot” we need to remember that many areas up north historically were built with the purpose of keeping heat inside. Before rapid global warming, northern regions typically did not experience high temperatures and remained fairly cool throughout the year. Homes and buildings were created with the purpose of keeping inhabitants warm throughout the harsh winter months. Now, these buildings are becoming hazards to individuals as the summer months have shifted from pleasant temperatures to scorching heat. 

Heat alone is not the only concern. Humidity is another important factor that affects the body’s experience of heat. Humidity actually makes it harder for our bodies to cool down. When there is humidity, it becomes harder for sweat to evaporate off the skin. The evaporation of sweat is what allows our bodies to cool down. Because of this, humidity is often factored in with temperature in what is known as the “heat index.” The heat index describes what temperature it “feels like” to our bodies, since humidity can often make temperatures feel hotter than the number on the thermostat. Those living in humid areas should keep an eye on the heat index and not only the temperature. 

To keep yourself cool during unprecedented heatwaves and avoid heat illness, there are a few key strategies to follow. 

Stay hydrated. Drinking water or sports drinks is best when battling the heat. Avoid alcohol as it can actually make you more dehydrated. 

Dress appropriately. Wear light-colored, loose clothing. Dark colors will absorb heat, which will only make you feel hotter. Light colors will reflect sunlight, keeping you cooler. 

Remain in cool, shaded areas. An air conditioned indoor area is best for staying cool during extreme heat, but if AC is not an option, then remain in shaded areas with good air ventilation. During the day you can practice “passive cooling” techniques such as putting down the shades on windows as soon as the sun comes up, installing reflective materials or painting roofs white, and taking advantage of natural shade from nature. Using fans indoors is also recommended but only if the temperature indoors is below 95 degrees. Fan-use in higher temperatures actually makes it more difficult for the body to cool down

You might be interested: Young Latina Daphany Sanchez leads energy democracy movement in NYC

The passive cooling movement is particularly effective for those who live in buildings where AC is not an option. AC use also contributes to much of the pollution affecting the atmosphere today and causing the rise in temperatures. Part of the movement to combat heat illness and issues includes advocating for green policies and reforms. Individual action will not be enough to combat the effects of rising temperatures moving forward. Communities need to come together to plant more trees, providing more shade and shelter, especially in urban areas that are prone to becoming urban heat islands. Other community initiatives to combat rising heat dangers include replacing materials in buildings to retain cool temperatures, such as installing tile on floors, painting roofs, and adding external shutters to windows. 

Supporting these initiatives and staying informed about the dangers of heat illness and rising temperatures is the first step to combating this climate crisis and reversing the effects of climate change. 

nature, hiking,

Unplug and unwind in nature during Latino Conservation Week 

July 17th to the 25th marks Latino Conservation Week, where Latinos across the nation gather to participate in outdoor activities to raise awareness of environmental issues and protect our precious natural resources. This week, give yourself a much needed tech-break and unplug from your devices to unwind in nature. 

This year, the environmental crisis has been a critical issue on our minds as rampant wildfires have spread throughout the west leading to massive damage, deforestation, and hazardous air quality. The impact of these wildfires is so great that even the East Coast is suffering. Currently, NYC and the surrounding tri-state area are experiencing hazy skies and unhealthy air quality from the western wildfires over 2,500 miles away

Now more than ever we need to make our planet a priority. Latino Conservation Week: Disfrutando y Conservando Nuestra Tierra, an initiative of Hispanic Access Foundation (HAF), encourages Latinos to get outdoors and participate in activities to protect our natural resources. 

Latino Conservation Week, July 17 – 25. (Image via Twitter)

During this week, community, non-profit, faith-based, and government organizations and agencies hold events throughout the country, from hiking and camping to community roundtables and film screenings. These activities promote community conservation and provide an opportunity for Latinos to show their support for permanently protecting our land, water, and air.

Launched in 2014, Latino Conservation Week has grown tremendously over the years and has resulted in broader media coverage and recognition from local, state, and national elected officials of the important role Latinos play as stewards of conservation. Latino Conservation Week has emphasized the Latino community’s passion for the outdoors and also highlighted the importance of preserving not only natural resources but also natural Latino heritage sites. 

Take a tech-break and explore the great outdoors 

I’m sure every Latina entrepreneur and business owner can relate to the struggle of unplugging and taking that much needed tech-break. We always come up with some excuse to stay glued to our devices. But this week, give yourself permission to take that break and indulge in nature. 

Check out ways to get involved on the Latino Conservation Week site or create your own event or outing with friends and family or a local community organization. Events can take any shape, from a private event for members of a congregation to a community-wide public event at a nearby National Park or Wildlife Refuge. 

You might be interested: 8 Relaxing summer recharge activities to try 

Latino Conservation Week

Get involved this Latino Conservation Week. (Graphic source)

ENGAGE – This week is about providing an opportunity for Latinos to come together and to demonstrate their passion for the outdoors — both its enjoyment and preservation.

EXPERIENCE – For many, caring for the environment grows out of our experiences of enjoyment. This week many activities are being offered to help foster that connection.

ADVOCATE – This week is an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the Latino support for conservation and stewardship of our outdoors.

Share your outdoor adventures on social media with the hashtag: #LCW2021 and help spread love and awareness for our wonderful planet. 

Global Climate Action Day: Organization calls legislature to demand climate justice NOW

Today, Puerto Rican climate justice organizations are calling for action, demanding “no more empty promises” in regards to the climate crisis. Amnesty International and Sierra Club summon citizens this March 19th to “a call” to the Puerto Rican legislature to demand climate governance. 

climate justice

Climate Action NOW. Call Puerto Rican legislatures to demand for climate justice.

In the midst of the various public health, socio-political and economic crises that the world continues to face this new year, as part of the Climate Action NOW Campaign, the organizations Amnesty International Puerto Rico and Sierra Club Puerto Rico are demanding immediate and concrete action by legislators in response to the current climate crisis on this March 19th, Global Climate Action Day.

Latinas in Business board member, Maria Santiago-Valentin, has been actively involved with these organizations and other grassroots movements to push for climate justice. She is also the founder of the Atlantic Climate Justice Alliance whose mission is to  “[apply] the power of deep grassroots organizing to win local, regional, statewide, national and international shifts” regarding climate change and unjust exposure of marginalized communities to its damaging effects.

The “call-athon” hopes to bring legislatures attention to the important climate issues in Puerto Rico. Part of what activists want to emphasize is the urgency to take immediate action and to consider three urgent elements to legislate and ensure climate action. 

climate justice, Global Climate Action Day

March 19: Global Climate Action Day. Organizations summon citizens to call legislatures to demand climate action in Puerto Rico.

The 3 key elements to consider are:

Make sure PUBLIC FUNDS RESPOND TO THIS CRISIS.  We have a unique conjuncture: millions of dollars in mitigation funds for infrastructure, research, database creation, jobs and recovery. The use of these funds requires a common thread with the climate issue and social and racial justice.

That they ACTIVATE AND LEGISLATE SO that land use planning responds to sustainability in the face of the climate crisis. The current Joint Permit Regulation will worsen the crisis. It is vital to repeal them and begin a broad process for a new regulation in keeping with what is stated here. 

That it be INSPECTED AND LEGISLATED FOR THE PROTECTION OF OUR COASTS. We already see the impact of the increase in sea level on our coasts. In other places they are preparing to protect the coasts while here construction continues in the maritime terrestrial zone. It is time for them to STOP the sale and destruction of our shores and beaches. OUR CONSTITUENT COMMUNITIES, PROPERTY AND ESSENTIAL INFRASTRUCTURE ARE AT RISK.

Hernaliz Vázquez Torres, from the Sierra Club organization, declared that “what we need now are not false promises. The climate crisis is here and the most affected people and communities have to deal with floods, displacement, deforestation, air pollution, food insecurity and loss of homes. Our lives depend on immediate action.”

For more than two years, Amnesty International Puerto Rico and Sierra Club Puerto Rico have taken to the streets demanding climate justice. Currently, with the COVID-19 pandemic, actions will take different forms and they make a call for # NoMásPromesasVacías calling on all people to join in making a “call” to the legislature asking them in phone calls to their offices to sign and publicly commit to the Citizen Declaration for the Climate Crisis.

This today, the organizations summon all citizens to call the legislature to demand Climate Action Now. “We are fed up with empty promises,” Vázquez declared.

Reopening Schools

Reopening schools during Covid-19? Educator and activist Maria Santiago-Valentin weighs in

As we near the end of summer, schools across the country are preparing for the start of a new year. But what will this school year look like for students and parents? The central debate among districts, educators, and families is whether reopening schools during Covid will be possible or safe. It may seem like a no-brainer, stay home! But the issue becomes more complicated when you begin to factor in the fact that not all parents have the luxury of being able to work from home during these times. The truth is, many families rely on schools as childcare during the work-week.

Reopening Schools

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The uncertain future of education

Maria Santiago-Valentin is an activist and educator with over 25 years of experience in her field. She is passionate about education, having taught in Puerto Rico, Connecticut, and New Jersey. A life-long learner herself, she knows and values the importance of a quality education.

“Education is a crucial foundation for our youth,” she says. “We need quality education to help younger generations pave the way toward better futures for our society.”

However, the future of education for our youth is currently uncertain as Covid threatens another school year.

Since spring, schools have been getting by through online instruction. This has helped lessen the spread of the virus by keeping student populations distant as they learn remotely from home. But this was never meant to be a permanent solution, and many school districts simply are not equipped to provide long-term online instruction.

“At the beginning I thought it was going to be a three-week lock-down, but it turned longer,” says Maria, reflecting back on the early days of the outbreak back in March. “I continued working for my school remotely during this time, I am a Child Study Team member in a public school. In the evenings I continued with my online classes with Walden University. I am in the last course before starting my dissertation. There were some inconveniences, but I adjusted to the new normal and I am very thankful to God to be here today.”

The debate: reopening schools during Covid

Online education has helped us all stay afloat during these uncertain times, but the big question on everyone’s minds is when will things ‘go back to normal?’

Reopening schools during Covid has brought on a fierce debate. Parents and teachers worry over health and safety, while others also struggle with the harsh reality of having to juggle their careers and parenting. Without schools, many working parents will have no one to look after their children should they have to attend online school.

Working from home

Working parents struggle to juggle their careers and parenting. Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

In a recent press release, New Jersey’s teacher union head said it’s “not plausible” to reopen schools on time in September amid the coronavirus crisis, contending that Garden State’s educators, staff, and administrators don’t have nearly enough time to get ready.

As an educator and champion for Latino families, Maria weighs in on the issue of reopening schools during Covid.

“My take is that there are many issues that need to be taken into consideration,” says Maria. “Covid-19 can easily spike if a school district is not following precautions for children and staff, causing deaths. However, many working families, among them many Latinos, do not have a caregiver nor the money to pay a caregiver to leave their children with while working.”

fighting for education

Maria Santiago-Valentin, Educator and Activist for classroom inclusion and environmental sustainability

Maria has always fought for education, and she is prepared to continue that fight against the threat of Covid-19.

“I am an educator since 1992. I understand some teachers have sick relatives they have to take care of because of Covid-19. I understand we are getting paid with the taxes of working families. I understand we chose this career for the good and the bad. I feel we need to show up to work. Imagine a military not wanting to go to war. Our war is Covid-19. We show up y que Dios nos proteja.”

In the end though, this is a debate that has no clear solution. “Covid-19 is totally unpredictable,” says Maria, “and all the solutions we have are the ones prior to the pandemic. We need a plan for a new, green, sustainable normalcy.”

Fighting for a sustainable future

In addition to her work as an educator, Maria also works with various organizations as an activist and leader. During the pandemic, she was appointed administrator of the ALL Ladies League Chapter in Barcelona of the Women Economic Forum (WEF), Spain. “The WEF is an associate of ALL Ladies League (ALL), the world’s largest All-inclusive international women’s chamber and a movement for the Welfare, Wealth, and Well-being of ALL. As a superhighway of ‘Internet of women’​, ALL is a worldwide web of women’s leadership, friendship and entrepreneurship.”

Maria was appointed the 2020 Chairperson for the ALL New Jersey Chapter for Business Networking and was the recipient of the highest and most prestigious WEF Global Award by the judges of the WEF Bangalore Committee: “Iconic Women Creating a Better World for All.”

Maria’s commitment to making a difference in the world extends to the environment as well. As a devoted climate change advocate, Maria has co-founded the Atlantic Climate Justice Alliance. Founded with 7 other Latinos living in the Diaspora and a member from Trinidad Tobago, the non-profit is an environmental justice organization for humanitarian relief, advocacy, and education purposes.

On the topic of climate change and it’s effect on the pandemic, Maria says there are a couple of intersections within the topics of climate change, environmental justice, and Covid-19.

classroom inclusion environment

Maria Santiago-Valentin, speaker at climate change rallies in New Jersey

“The impact of climate change in communities of color has shown how vulnerable our communities are to Covid-19 with health prevalent conditions that aggravates the situation. Environmental justice issues such as poor water quality, indoor/outdoor air pollution, and poor ventilation increase the spread of the disease. The climate crisis that is changing the intensity of the meteorological systems is intersecting with the public health system and Covid-19. If, in addition, we take into consideration the economic crisis, and the disparities in communities of color, the recovery of those communities is compromised. For example, systems like Isais, storms and fires. Florida had to close the Covid-19 testing sites prior to the storm. These events accelerated by climate change expose the level of preparedness and response our governments and agencies must deal with both circumstances at the same time (Covid-19 and a hurricane).”

These are also the same communities likely to be the most affected by the issue of not reopening schools during Covid. Facing environmental and economic difficulties, these communities will continue to be hit the hardest by the pandemic.

You might be interested: Ojala Threads social entrepreneur supports underserved communities during the pandemic

While there are no definite solutions to these issues, we can only continue to work toward a better future that will help and protect all, including our most vulnerable communities. That is what Maria will continue to do across all her platforms, as an educator, environmental activist, and leader.

Through her experiences during the pandemic, Maria has learned not to take like and routines for granted, since the future is uncertain and “to thank God everyday for the miracle of life.”

fighting for education

Latina activist and educator Maria Santiago-Valentin advocates for classroom inclusion

Maria Santiago-Valentin is a fierce activist and educator who has used her platform to advocate for classroom inclusion and the environment. A passionate, energetic and creative educator with over twenty-five years of experience in her field, she has taught in Puerto Rico, Connecticut, and New Jersey, and has been recognized for her achievements nationally and internationally. 

Lifelong learning

“Education is a crucial foundation for our youth. Now more than ever we need quality education to help younger generations pave the way toward better futures for our society,” said Maria Santiago-Valentin, one of the many great educators who are fighting for education and advocating for our youth. One of the founding members of CURE  — Community United for the Renaissance in Education– a bilingual parent advocacy group working to improve the educational system in New London, Connecticut and an educator for over twenty-five years, Maria has dedicated her life to the pursuit of knowledge.

“Education is a lifelong experience,” she shares with Latinas In Business. “To achieve success one must acknowledge that they do not know everything.  We need to update our skills and open ourselves to other cultures, to opposition, to failure and strive for classroom inclusion to see what we need to work on internally to be where we want to be in order to have an impact in our field.”

Maria has lived by this motto all her life as one can see by looking at her extensive list of degrees and certifications. Living in Puerto Rico she studied Language, Literature, and Translation in English, Spanish, and French. In 1991 she began her career as an ESL teacher in Puerto Rico where she taught for several years. Later her love of language lead her to the United States where she pursued her second M.A. in French and Francophone Literature at the University of Connecticut which she completed in 2002.

Challenging herself to reach new heights, Maria sought to become a certified Learning Disabilities Consultant / Case Manager and now works at a public high school in New Jersey to help meet the learning needs of students who require extra attention and inclusion in the classroom. 

And with several M.A.’s and certificates under her belt, it is only natural that Maria is now pursuing her Doctorate in Education, specializing in Reading, Literacy, and Assessment. The learning never stops!

Sharing messages with future generations

classroom inclusion

Maria Santiago-Valentin receives a recognition from Sira Macias Chacon, Human Rights International Commissioner and President, Caminando Juntos por el Cambio in Santiago de Guayaquil, 2018.

“The message and principles we share with the future generations in our homes and our schools is what is going to bring changes and paradigm shifts in society,” says Maria.

This is the core message Maria imparts to others, especially the youth. “In order to advance, there must be continual knowledge and education both at school and in the home. Children must always be learning to become adults who will continue to learn and be open and tolerant to new experiences, cultures, and ideas. Our futures depend on our children, so we must equip them with the necessary tools for success, and that all begins with education,” she affirmed. 

This educational foundation extends to all children regardless of their background or abilities. Always striving for acceptance and inclusion in the classroom, Maria has used her experiences as an educator and Learning Disabilities Consultant to write a book for educators on the topic of mental health. Her book Bipolar Disorder: Etiology and Treatment Overview: Mindfulness, Medication, Digital Psychiatry and Classroom Accommodations explores ways of approaching issues of mental illness in the classroom and how to accommodate for these students so that they may receive the proper attention and care. Maria works diligently as an educator to ensure that all students have the opportunity to receive a quality education as it is the foundation that they will build a lifetime of learning upon.

Her call to advocacy

During her years in Connecticut, Maria first became rigorously involved in the education advocacy community. Working at public schools in New London, Connecticut, Maria saw that there was much work that needed to be done to improve the quality of education. Two of her main areas of focus were to incorporate multilingual programs into schools’ curriculum and to fight for public school funding.

A staunch supporter of multilingual studies—being that she is fluent in Spanish, English and French— Maria has championed for multilingual programs in schools since her time teaching in the New London Public School District. With CURE, Maria helped support local public schools and bring awareness to multilingual studies by organizing a variety of events including parades to the public library, translated events, and community forums.

classroom inclusion

Maria Santiago-Valentin, Educator and Activist for classroom inclusion and environmental sustainability

From 2004 – 2007 Maria also served as one of the plaintiffs of in the “Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding” which sought to ensure that adequate funding was being “distributed equitably based on student learning needs, fair measures of town wealth, and fidelity to the tax equalization principles underlying the ECS.”

In March of 2015, Maria’s advocacy work was honored with an award presented by the New Jersey Hispanic Newspaper Poder Latino USA, which commended her contributions to improving education in urban public schools and her advocacy and volunteer work in Connecticut and New Jersey.

Environmental activism  

Another issue close to Maria’s heart is protecting the environment. Anyone keeping up with current events will know that our environment is in dire need of help. Environmental crises such as the California wildfires, the increase in devastating hurricanes, and the deadly drops in temperature this winter have shown that our planet is crying out for help. Still the political world is full of debate and controversy over climate change, with deniers holding important positions in office. If education is to ensure that our youths have the knowledge to advocate for change, then environmentalism is to ensure that our youths will have a habitable planet to enact change upon.

classroom inclusion environment

Maria Santiago-Valentin, speaker at climate change rallies in New Jersey

Maria is just as passionate as an environmental activist as she has been for education advocacy. She has worked diligently with organizations and local legislation attending marches, representing projects such as the Climate Reality Project, and speaking publicly about critical issues. In 2016 she spoke alongside Assemblyman John McKeon about new bills passed by the New Jersey State legislature that would make critical steps towards helping the environment.

In 2017 Maria took her activism a step farther, founding the NJ Coalition for Climate Justice, an organization that works to bring together social justice movements with environmental movements. The organization has lead community events, marches, and provided aid to those in Puerto Rico affected by Hurricane Maria.

Currently Maria serves as Vice-Chair of the NJ Environmental Justice Committee and has worked for OFA (Obama for America/Organizing for Action) as a volunteer for 8 years. Through OFA Maria became a Climate Reality Project Leader, a role that has allowed her to be a mentor to a diverse group of individuals from Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and New Jersey.

Overcoming opposition

As a resilient Latina, Maria has persevered through all the challenges she’s faced over the years in her career. She has never let opposition get in her way of achieving her goals. Still when she came to the U.S. over twenty years ago, she struggled with an issue many immigrants face: she was self-conscious of her accent –despite being fluent in three languages! She worried about the biases people would have toward her when they heard her accent and this lead to an intense fear of public speaking.

She however did not let that fear stop her. “I faced bias, skepticism, and opposition,” she says, “but that did not scare me or make me shy away. That was the fuel that motivated me to continue to prove the skeptics that I was being underestimated.”

She has since made various major presentations at the Learning Disabilities Association of America NJ Chapter, the GSA Forum, and the NJEA Teacher’s Convention and will also be presenting at the NECTFL this year on a talk about Dyslexia and the Foreign Language learner.

Maria is filled with gratitude for all the experiences she’s had, both positive and negative for they have only made her stronger and more inspired to learn and grow. She hopes to continue to be an inspiration for others and to advocate for education and environmentalism, be a mindful and inclusive educator, and of course never stop learning.