When Crystal Arrieta of El Paso, Texas, started fighting the construction of the Comanche Pipeline 8 months ago, she’d decided she was ready to risk arrest and jail time in order to protect her community.
An indigenous organizer with Frontera Water Protection Alliance and an activist on Change.org, Crystal also works full-time as a health coordinator for a disease management program provided by Medicaid, working daily with low-income communities in a city where the average income per household is $13,000 below the national median.
It is important work that intersects directly with her fight against pollution and fossil fuels, she told me, especially since her program sees a lot of kids who already live in high risk-environments and suffer from respiratory illnesses like asthma.
“El Paso air quality is pretty bad because of pollution and emissions,” she says, “but now our air and water are being threatened by 2,500 fracked wells on the outskirts of the city. Once those are underway, we’ll be seeing many more respiratory illnesses and waterborne illnesses.”
These environmental concerns have a disproportionate impact on her patients in particular, who are mostly people of color and Spanish-speaking families with connections to Mexico. “We live so close to the border that you can see Juarez just across the Rio Grande River,” Crystal told me.
Her family, part of the Coahuilteco indigenous tribe, migrated from the Mexican state of Chihuahua to what would later become Texas. “We have an indigenous community here where we practice our traditional ways. We have ceremonies and pray to our ancestors out at the [Hueco Tanks] hieroglyphics.”
It was Crystal’s connection to the land and her community that first inspired her to take action against oil pipelines.
“When Standing Rock started blowing up, I was very moved to stand with them. I started working on a rally in solidarity with the movement, where one of the speakers mentioned a pipeline that was coming through El Paso. That was the first time many El Paso residents heard of it – myself included.”
By that time, the pipeline had progressed so far that stopping it would be a big challenge, so Crystal and the Frontera Water Alliance dove head first into researching it, writing to their representatives, and preparing to set up camp near the construction site.
“Our plan was to lock ourselves up, then set up camp,” Crystal told me. She learned how to make a lock box, and at 5 AM she and a few organizers walked up to a piece of machinery and locked themselves to it.
“I was accompanied by my indigenous family, who were drumming and praying, in addition to a police liaison and a journalist from El Diario.”
Unfortunately, when the police arrived they threatened to arrest not only those who had locked themselves to machinery, but everyone who had joined them – including elders and children, Crystal said. She decided to unlock herself instead of putting other people at risk.
However, Crystal continues her fight against the resource extraction she sees as so harmful. After writing several letters to Senator Jose Rodriguez, he appointed her to Texas’ Environmental Advisory Committee, where she got the chance to give input on conservation and resource extraction projects, sometimes highlighting unpopular topics like fracking and oil pipelines.
I asked Crystal what she learned from her experience fighting the Comanche Trail Pipeline, especially on such a tight timeline. For her it came down to researching your decision-makers.
“I learned to plan out every single little detail of the campaign, and research the person that is involved. We thought that certain politicians were on our side, but looking back I feel feel like we could have applied more pressure to ensure that they fought for us.”
Since the first campaign with Frontera Water Protection Alliance, Crystal started another petition to challenge the upcoming Holly Energy Pipeline. This natural gas pipeline is being constructed 20 yards from residences in Montana Vista, a mostly Hispanic and Mexican Indian community.
From the looks of it, Crystal is only getting started.
“The risk I took doesn’t compare to the damage that is happening to our planet. I’d do it all again to help our planet, or even delay the destruction,” she told me.
“A climate leader is someone who is willing to take action and do what’s necessary in order to protect our future. We’re trying to get people to really feel that urgency, because we’re running out of time.”