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First Person: Cynthia Portillo, 17-year-old environmental activist

Recent high school graduate Cynthia Portillo, 17, of Mecca became interested in environmental justice during her junior year. The Mecca Boys & Girls Club is a common meeting place for the GREAT Sierra Alliance.
Recent high school graduate Cynthia Portillo, 17, of Mecca became interested in environmental justice during her junior year. The Mecca Boys & Girls Club is a common meeting place for the GREAT Sierra Alliance.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Cynthia Portillo loves to watch the sun rise and fall against the jagged peaks surrounding her hometown of Mecca, in the Coachella Valley. But the 17-year-old says it’s not all pretty sunsets out there.

"On good days I get to see the blue sky. On OK days," she says, there's "the brown tint of the air pollution that’s up there. Some of it could be smog from cars, the emissions from burning, and up in Desert Hot Springs they added the Sentinel Gas Plant."

Eastern Riverside County, and specifically the Coachella Valley, has some of the worst ozone and particulate pollution in California and the country, according to CalEnviroScreen, a tool developed by the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, and federal sources.

Portillo, a recent graduate of Desert Mirage High School, says growing up in one of the most polluted poor communities in California made her concerned about the health impacts of air pollution, and eventually turned her into an environmental activist.

More than 10 percent of Coachella valley kids suffer from asthma. "I see kids [who were playing] outside coming in ... so out of breath," Portillo says. "I see adults out there coughing up stuff." Her grandmother’s health suffers when she visits the Coachella Valley, Portillo says.

Growing up, Portillo grew more curious about air pollution – especially its causes. When she was young, she says a Salton Sea smell often hung over her community. "In elementary school, there’d be occasions when you wouldn’t want to go outside and play recess because it smelled so bad. You'd find out it was because of the fish dying off ... you get this rotten egg smell."

Later, as a student in the Green Energy and Technology Academy at Desert Mirage High School, she found out that the smell was going all the way up to L.A. – which taught her that pollution is hard to control.

Now Portillo organizes other students to attend public meetings to testify about pollution. Along with a hundred other kids from Desert Mirage High, she testified at an Environmental Protection Agency hearing in Sacramento last fall, lobbying for a tougher national ground-level ozone standard.

Portillo says adults in her community work hard, sometimes at two jobs. She believes they don’t know enough about pollution, and don’t have time to go to public hearings about it.

At the EPA hearing, "I talked to them about my family," she says. "My younger brother has to have an inhaler." She testified how she doesn't want her cousins "to grow up having issues breathing. It’s not only ... affecting adults, it's affecting everyone."

As a member of the GREAT Sierra Alliance, Portillo has also expressed her opinions to local and state officials. 

Those opinions are deepening with her advocacy. She’s been an outspoken opponent of the controversial Sentinel Gas Plant, which sits in a bottleneck between the San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Mountains. "It feels like the emissions from the gas plant go down into our valley, the Coachella Valley, and it gives us worse air pollution," she says.

She doesn’t always feel that public officials are listening. After one rally at the California Public Utilities Commission, Portillo says an official told her, "essentially, 'What you’re going through, it’s just all in your mind.'" She says her faith in the government’s ability to protect her health is diminished. "I have a doubt in the government now."

Portillo’s dream is to become a filmmaker. "Dare I say it, I want to work in Hollywood." And not just documentaries. Portillo sees blockbuster films, including The Day After Tomorrow and San Andreas, as a very good way to inspire more people to care about their health and their environment.

"What ends up happening in Mecca with air quality or any other type of health issue ... could end up happening in your own backyard. You can’t let it spread," she says. "I want to make some of those points clear."

This story has been corrected to reflect that CalEnviroScreen includes data from area within the state of California only.