October 30, 2020
Nanette Diaz Barragán was first elected to represent California’s 44th District in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2016. Born in Harbor City, California to immigrant parents from Mexico, she is the youngest of 11 children. She earned a B.A. in Political Science from UCLA, and a JD from the USC Gould School of Law. In 2013, Barragán became the first Latina City Councilor in the history of Hermosa Beach. Barragán serves on three committees in Congress: Homeland Security, Natural Resources, and Energy & Commerce.
Legislatively, Barragán focuses on the environment, health care and immigration.
As we conduct this interview, we are celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month. As a Latina – the first ever to represent California’s 44th Congressional District – how has your heritage informed your legislative priorities and your approach to policymaking in Congress?
My background gives me perspective. It helps me relate to the people I represent and better understand the challenges they are going through, because I experienced many of them myself.
For instance, when I was a kid, my family lived very close to the freeway. When I was really young, I thought it was great to be able to get where we needed to go more quickly. As I got a little older I started to understand that the exhaust from the freeway contributed to the smog and air pollution that often made it harder for us to breathe. I experienced air pollution and saw, firsthand, the impact it has on people’s health.
My experience is why dealing with those issues are some of my top legislative priorities: pollution, environmental justice, and public health.
Today, my district, which is more than 70 percent Latino and almost 90 percent Latino and African American, is part of what is referred to as a “Diesel Death Zone.” Three freeways, two commercial ports, oil refineries surround it, and we have urban oil drilling in our backyards. Southern California has some of the worst air quality in the country, and the greatest number of avoidable annual deaths linked to air pollution. This is a public health crisis.
It’s far too common to see kids on the playgrounds in my district with asthma inhalers around their necks. Nationally, Latino children are 40 percent more likely to die from asthma than white children. We know Latinos face higher rates of respiratory diseases from air pollution, making them more vulnerable to the more serious symptoms of COVID-19.
In Congress, my constituents are counting on me to be their voice, fight for their health, and reflect their values. My background helps me understand what they need a little bit better.
You serve as the 2nd Vice-Chair of the powerful Congressional Hispanic Caucus. What are the Caucus’s top priorities, generally, and for transportation, specifically?
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ top priorities are immigration reform, access to affordable health care, and making sure economic opportunities from the public and private sector benefit Latinos in an equitable way. Ensuring that our transportation infrastructure is maintained is a key part of ensuring that economic inclusion.
The CHC continues to defend federal investment in public transportation as a vital lifeline. We seek to improve the efficiency of public transportation, especially bus and subway systems.
Public transportation is absolutely critical to our community. Among urban residents, 27 percent of Latinos use public transit daily or weekly. Latinos and immigrants are less likely to have access to a car than other groups, and are more likely to use public transit to get to work.
A top priority this year has been ensuring access to COVID-19 testing for Latinos. This is critically important because too often testing sites are located in areas not easily reachable by transit. Essential workers, which are disproportionately Latino, face similar challenges. This is why it’s so important for our community that we avoid service cuts to bus lines or Metro stops in cities across the country.
Beyond public transportation, CHC has been fighting to upgrade and maintain American transportation infrastructure. America’s highways, tunnels, bridges, ports, and rails keep the country moving and provide many employment opportunities for Latinos in the transportation sector. Disinvestment has led to crumbling infrastructure and inadequate conditions that curtail current operational capacity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black and Brown communities across the country, heightening the health disparities that existed well-before the crisis. At the same time, the pandemic has decimated public transportation’s revenue sources, creating new mobility and economic challenges for these same communities who, in Los Angeles County and throughout California, represent the base of transit ridership.
What is the appropriate role for Congress in addressing the health, mobility, and economic needs of our Black and Brown communities? How does the Heroes Act fit in?
When there’s a national emergency, the federal government has a responsibility to respond decisively with assistance to the people and communities that are hurting. We see it routinely with hurricanes, where billions of dollars in disaster aid is spent to help communities bounce back and rebuild.
With COVID-19, we have a public health crisis that has affected the entire country. Still, as you point out, it is disproportionally wreaking havoc on Black and Brown communities. Congress has to step up and protect people’s lives and livelihoods. Part of that is making sure there is support for public transportation, since so many people rely on it to get to work or to see a doctor.
The original Heroes Act passed the House in May and included $15.75 billion for transit systems. The most recent version passed in early October and included $32 billion for transit systems. House Democrats have stepped up to provide this important support for public transportation. Now, we need the Senate to do its job and pass a comparable relief package.
Building on the first part of your question, Congress has a very important role in addressing the health, mobility, and economic needs of our Brown and Black communities. To help address that, I introduced the Improving Social Determinants of Health Act in April. Social factors – like housing conditions, employment status, food security, environmental safety, and educational opportunity – all play a role in determining individuals’ physical health and well-being. My bill aims to address these issues in a coordinated way as they drive inequalities in the health of individuals and communities.
As you mentioned above, the 44th Congressional District, which includes Carson, Compton, Florence, Firestone, Lynwood, North Long Beach, Ranch Dominguez, San Pedro, South Gate, Walnut Park, Watts, Willowbrook, and Wilmington, is an area that has historically suffered from pollution and high asthma rates. How do you see public transit fitting into your priorities of environmental safety and the climate crisis?
Public transit has a very important role in addressing local air pollution and the climate crisis. As I pointed out earlier, three freeways surround my district and we suffer from the emissions from all of the cars and heavy-duty trucks, which are made worse by terrible traffic congestion.
Affordable and reliable public transit can get residents out of their cars and onto buses and trains. This can reduce emissions – since one bus has less of an environmental impact than a dozen cars – and can help relieve the congestion that leads to idling cars.
However, to maximize the environmental and climate benefits, we also need public transit to move to zero-emissions technology. It’s great to see that the city of Los Angeles has committed to an all-electric bus fleet by 2030. At the federal level, I’m fighting for funding for zero-emissions technology to help cities like Los Angeles hit this goal even faster.
Another factor that is especially important in my district is our two ports, the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach. These ports are economic engines, but also major sources of air pollution with serious public health consequences, particularly for the communities of color that live nearby. The people in these neighborhoods live close to working diesel trucks, ships, trains, and cargo-handling equipment spewing poisons into our air and water. And we’ve paid the price.
To address this, in May I introduced the Climate Smart Ports Act, which would invest in zero-emissions technology and infrastructure at the nation’s ports. Among other things, the bill includes grants to replace diesel-burning cargo handling equipment, port harbor craft, drayage trucks, and other equipment with zero-emissions equipment and technology. It would also fund the development of clean-energy microgrids onsite at the ports to power their facilities. I’m pleased to report that the Climate Smart Ports Act was included in the Moving Forward Act, the infrastructure package that passed the House in July.
Also included in the Moving Forward Act, (H.R. 2, a new surface transportation authorization bill) are critical investments for transportation infrastructure, including $105 billion for public transportation and $60 billion for commuter rail, Amtrak, and other high-performance rail. How can our readers support the enactment of such a bill, ensuring the strongest possible outcome for public transit agencies and our riders?
I strongly encourage your readers to get involved in supporting the Moving Forward Act. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the bill is moving forward in the Senate, which is a shame because investing in our infrastructure should be a common-ground issue.
As a stopgap, our existing transportation programs were extended for one year, which means there will be another opportunity in 2021 to make similar investments in public transit and commuter rail.
We shouldn’t take it for granted that these programs will be automatically funded at the same level next year. Readers should make clear to their members of Congress and their Senators that these investments from the Moving Forward Act are critical and need to be included in any infrastructure package that Congress passes.
When you conclude your time in politics, what legacy do you hope to leave behind?
I’m focused on the work at hand and doing the best job I can to represent the people in my community right now, so it’s hard to think about what I hope to leave behind.
Ultimately, I hope the work I do to preserve our environment and fight for environmental justice will make a difference and be remembered after my public service is over.
As we discussed earlier, pollution severely harms public health and it does not affect each community equally. We all deserve clean air and water, but people in communities of color and low-income communities end up much sicker and die younger, because they are exposed to more pollution than people in other communities. I want to end that injustice.
Finally, with the General Election around the corner, do you have any last words you would like to share with our readers?
Please make sure you vote! Your vote is your voice. Your vote matters. These are unprecedented times and we need everyone to participate in our democracy. Know how powerful your vote is.
The California Transit Association staff and members look forward to continuing to work with you. Transit California readers can learn more about Congresswoman Barragán at her website: https://admin-barragan.house.gov.