'LA’s toxic secret ' full transcript

PATRICIA ROMO:  I remember that there were certain parts of the playground that oozed it was black, gooey. if it was hotter, it was gooier. Gosh, like when a pimple oozes, I mean, that's the best that I can describe it. So I would sit there and play with it because it was something different, weird, you’re just curious, not knowing what it really was. 

ALLISON BEHRINGER: In a lot of ways, a community is like a body – Over time it accumulates scars of past traumas and past victories. These scars can be found in the land and in the people.

PATRICIA: Yes, so um, anytime we went outside, on the playground, I always felt nauseated. And I always had a severe runny nose. As a kid, I didn't connect the tar with feeling sick. I didn't connect that.

ALLISON: I’m Allison Behringer. From KCRW, this is Bodies ... With the  story of a community defining itself through action and resistance. And a heads up, this story includes discussion of miscarriage.

BERTHA MARTINEZ: We started noticing that the kids were kind of intrigued by these bubbles, that they were kind of pushing against and playing with on the asphalt.

ALLISON: This is Bertha Martinez. In the late 80s, she was a young teacher’s assistant at Park Avenue elementary school. 

BERTHA: It smelled bad. It smelled – had kind of like a gas smell to it. And so that, that kind of got us a little suspicious about you know, what was going on. And, and concerned – concerned that there may be something dangerous for the kids. You know, telling the kids like, don't touch that, you know, you don't know what that is.

ALLISON: Park Avenue Elementary School is in Cudahy – just 10 miles from downtown Los Angeles. And it’s one of the smallest, most densely populated cities in LA County. According to the 2010 census, over 95% of Cudahy residents identified themselves as either Hispanic or Latino, and many are immigrants.

Park Ave Elementary sits on the edge of the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River. It’s a pinkish tan building with baby blue doors. Park Avenue opened in 1968. And that same year, a gooey substance oozed from the schoolyard’s asphalt.

For years, teachers complained about these bubbles, this oozing. In the late 80s, the LA times reported that teachers formed an “ooze committee” to keep tabs on the issue. Students had trouble breathing, headaches, rashes and nausea. 

Parents and teachers reported all of this to the LA Unified School District – the second largest school district in the country. 

And for a year, various government agencies tested the playground for contaminants. 

They found petroleum in the soil and other potentially carcinogenic chemicals – and finally, in 1990 the school was deemed contaminated.

And soon after the School District closed down Park Avenue. The teachers packed up their classrooms.  And for three months, everyone had to relocate to two other nearby schools. It was chaotic.

Back at Park Avenue, contaminated soil was removed from the playground.-It was replaced by about a foot of sand and a layer of chemical resistant plastic –  the idea being to create a cap... and keep whatever was further underneath from coming to the surface.

And then the playground was repaved with new asphalt. 

By the fall of 1990, everyone was back. The teachers and parents were relieved to be back in their own school, own classrooms and that the oozing had been fixed. 

BERTHA: Yeah, so we went back and you know, everything looks, you know, nice and neat. Everything looked new, the playground looks nice and pretty. And for a few years, everything was fine. And then all of a sudden, they start noticing again that the bubbles were coming up again. 

ALLISON: Periodically the school district would send out a crew of workers to take samples and patch over new bubbles. 

But the bubbles KEPT seeping up. 

Sal Valdez, another teacher at Park Ave at the time, remembers a fight breaking out between two of his students.

SAL:  And I asked what were you guys fighting about? And one told me, I called the bubble first. And then he pushed me out of the way and he popped it.

And I was like, What bubble? I was like what are you talking about? and I told the two kids, show me where the bubbles are. They pointed to the floor. And initially, I didn't see it anything. But I got down on my hands and knees, and I looked out across the playground. And sure enough, there were hundreds of these, these bubbles all over the yard. 

ALLISON: At the same time, teachers were also noticing that kids were rubbing their eyes and complaining that they were having trouble breathing. A lot of teachers weren’t feeling well either. Sal started keeping a list of all these health concerns. And then, in the mid-90s, 5 years after the school had been shut down to pave over the playground, Bertha started noticing another problem.

BERTHA: I do recall, several teachers had miscarriages. And, and that's when, I think when a lot of the teachers really started worrying. 

ALLISON: Miscarriages are not uncommon. But the teachers were noticing more than seemed 'normal,’ AND that they were happening pretty far along in people's pregnancies.

BERTHA: I couldn't tell you the exact number because, you know, some people are very private. And, I mean, I think that the ones that we were aware of were, like, you know, the women that were far along and you could tell they were pregnant, then all of a sudden, they weren't pregnant. 

SAL: Women would come into my classroom and, and, and tell me about their miscarriages that they had, some of them more than once, and I would add their name to the list. It was, it was, it was, terrible. I mean, it was like my heart sunk, listening to their stories of pain. 

ALLISON: The teachers started voicing their concerns about the miscarriages to the school district and to California’s newly created Department of Toxic Substances Control, or DTSC. It’s the agency tasked with protecting public health and the environment from toxic harm.

BERTHA: But any time that the teachers brought that up to the attention of the district, or the Department of Toxic Substances, they, they always said, “Oh, well, we can't really be sure that this is connected, or this is a consequence of the contamination.” 

ALLISON: Years passed. Then in 1998, Bertha got pregnant with her second child. Her friend, another teacher at Park Ave was also pregnant with her second child. 

BERTHA: And I remember us having a conversation about how, you know, we were afraid of, you know, having a miscarriage. 

I had my son, it was the end of June 1998. and my friend, she was supposed to have her daughter at the beginning of August and I got a call from her telling me that her baby had died. 

I think she was eight months. So you know, she was fully formed. And I remember not, not really wanting to go to that funeral because I felt so guilty. I felt guilty that, that I had my baby boy and that he was healthy. And, and, and, and she had to bury her daughter. 

ALLISON: At this point, in the late 90s, fear was spreading. The losses were adding up. Sal says that in the 5 years he was there, he recorded 20 miscarriages. But the school district and DTSC still weren’t listening to the teachers. 

And the teachers were gettin really, really angry. Sal and Bertha realized that if they wanted the district to pay attention to them, they wouldn’t be able to do it alone.

BERTHA: We realized pretty early on in the struggle that the parents are the ones with the power, you know, and so we were really focused on, on getting, talking to a lot of the families and getting them involved. 

Bertha and Sal started going door to door in the community to let parents know what was going on. 

That’s when they met Eva Ramirez. At the time, Eva had three children at Park Ave and her son Richard had terrible asthma. Bodies reporter Andrea Galdamez spoke with Eva.

ANDREA GALDAMEZ: Que hacia usted cuando le daba un ataque severo? (What did you do when he got severe attacks?)

EVA RAMIREZ: Cuando Richard tenía un ataque severo de asma mi reacción mía e explicada por los doctores alguno que otro tips y otros descubiertos por una madre desesperada era este encerrarme en el baño con Richard, abrirle, cerrar las ventanas, cerrar la puerta, poner una toalla abajo de la puerta y a abrirle al agua caliente para que aquel vapor se llenara el baño de vapor. Y yo con el niño ahí ...Sobándose la espalda.

ANDREA: Eva says that when Richard’s asthma attacks got really bad, she would have to go into the bathroom with him, close the doors and windows, and run the bath with really hot water so that steam would fill up the bathroom. She would massage Richard’s back while he coughed and struggled to breath. 

EVA:  Entonces a sea con pruebas en la mano no tengo como para decir fue ocasionado por los químicos pero sí te puedo decir que a. Hubo mucha casualidad que muchos niños, la mayoría de niños que acudían aquí a esta escuela sufrían de asma a como está escrito, como lo dijimos en nuestras reuniones e maestras e perdiendo beibi ayudantes perdiendo beavis este e nacieron con algunos problemas los bebes.

ANDREA:  Eva says that she can’t prove with 100% certainty that the asthma was caused by the school … but when she learned from other parents that their kids were ALSO having asthma and other health issues – she got more and more suspicious.  

ANDREA: Eva got together with a group of moms. And they started calling the school district and DTSC and demanding that they meet with the parents and teachers at Park Ave.

EVA: Somos explosivas, somos una verdadera dinamita que cuando nos prenden la mecha a explotamos, explotamos y hacemos mucho ruido. Eh? Porque como toda madre, eh? Nos tocan nuestras fibras bien sensibles. Nuestros hijos. Nuestros hijos.

ANDREA: They called their group the Dynamite Mothers. Eva says they’re like dynamite – they make a lot of noise when something or someone is hurting their children. 

ALLISON: The noise worked. The district started meeting with the parents and doing more testing on the school yard. They acknowledged they had a bubble problem, but still, assured everyone that it didn’t pose a health risk. Here’s Bertha again:

BERTHA: Okay, so they're telling us that, Oh, don't worry, it's not, it's not a big deal. And then they showed up in like hazmat suits, they look like astronauts walking in space.

ALLISON: The parents and teachers kept demanding more meetings. They wanted to know what was going on and why the bubbles kept coming up. And then, at one meeting with the school district and DTSC, the Park Ave community  found out what was causing all the issues. 

BERTHA: They told us that  the school had been built on top of our dump. And we were we were just like, so like, shocked like, why would you do that? Who does that? Who, who decides that? It's okay to build a school on top of a dump with God knows what chemicals, what toxins? And without cleaning it up first. they just built it right on top. 

ALLISON: For over 30 years, from the late 1920s right up until 1960 – just 8 years before Park Avenue first opened – the school’s land was a dump. An unregulated dump, so anyone could just pull up and throw stuff away. There was a deep pit where people poured out oil and sludge. 

And the playground of the school was built right over that pit. The parents and teachers were furious. Eva remembers how she felt when heard about the dump.

EVA: Frustración total. Frustración total. Incredulidad.  Cuando tú vienes de México y ni voy, voy otra vez. Voy a hablar en lo personal. Como yo se los dije, yo me sentía tan orgullosa de haber tenido hijos aquí en Estados Unidos porque, eh, yo no había escuchado de hablar, hablar del sueño americano. Yo había escuchado hablar que el americano es eh, eh. Es una persona amable, que aquí había muchas oportunidades, que era un país. Eh, eh, que tiene mucho dinero. Entonces al yo tener hijos aquí, yo creí que mis hijos no iban a sufrir, eh? Carencias como las había pasado yo. 

ANDREA: Eva felt a lot of frustration and disbelief. She said that coming from Mexico, she expected her children to be safe in this country. But they weren’t being treated equally to other kids in better school districts. 

ALLISON: They also learned WHY that first clean up didn’t fix the problem. That cleanup – the one where Bertha had to relocate – was actually never MEANT to be a long term solution, merely a holdover until a thorough cleanup could be done. But two years after that cleanup, the school district told DTSC they didn’t have enough money for a full clean up yet. DTSC granted the district an extension, and then another extension. And then another. 

The teachers and parents got even louder. They went to the media and got their story on Spanish language television shows. The tide started to turn in their favor.

Finally, in 2001 – over 10 years after the first clean up, the LA school district and DTSC announced that they would shut down Park Ave again, send the students and teachers to another school AND do a full clean up of the schoolyard. Bertha remembers when they all found out.

BERTHA: I remember the joy you know, just people hugging and just being very, very happy that we had accomplished something meaningful. Park Avenue was just like, it's, it's hard to explain it in words, but we were like a, like a family. It's contradictory that, you know, that even though we were in an unsafe setting, because of the toxins, that the human relationship made us feel like, we were at home.

ALLISON: A few years later, in 2004, Park Avenue reopened. It was bittersweet. It was a victory, for sure. But for some people, they’d been through too much to feel safe. Bertha decided to not return to Park Avenue. 

BERTHA: I think the fear doesn't go away,when you're aware that there's something toxic. That is always like in the back of your mind. And I really think that was the main reason why a lot of us didn't go back to to Park Avenue.

ALLISON: The struggle that the Park Avenue community faced is not an uncommon one. 

Not for Cudahy and not for large parts of Los Angeles. In the same way that people of color are often dismissed and disbelieved by healthcare workers … communities of color are treated the same way when it comes to environmental hazards. And it’s especially dangerous given that these communities often bear the brunt of industrial pollution. 

If you go to the website for California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, you can find a color coded map of California. It’s called the CalEnviro Screen and it’s a tool to identify communities disproportionately burdened by multiple sources of pollution. 

Red is the highest, and worst score a community can get; Yellow is in the middle, green is the best. Cudahy is red, with an overall score in the 99th percentile. 

When you zoom out on the map, you see that red color covering nearly all of south, southeast and East Los Angeles – we’re talking Compton, Boyle Heights, Maywood. These neighborhoods are working class. They’re mostly Latinx and Black. 

But once you start moving west and north, the color changes to green and yellow, in areas like Beverly Hills and Santa Monica — historically white and wealthy neighborhoods.

Why is that?  After the break, how this happened, why it’s continuing to happen. and who’s responsible. And a controversial plan to build a new school right down the street from Park Avenue.

In the simplest terms, there are two main parties responsible for the inequality in environmental hazards. There’s industry – the potential polluters. And there’s the government – the regulator.

Bodies reporter Kalaisha Totty looked into this. 

KALAISHA TOTTY: A lot of people think of California as an eco-friendly, green state. 

But that’s actually far from the truth. I spoke with Jane Williams. She’s the executive director of a non-profit called California Communities Against Toxics.

JANE WILLIAMS: And you know, everyone knows about Flint, Michigan, right? Well, we poison way more children in California every year than Flint. Partly because we have an aging infrastructure, partly because we have a lot of old lead smelters that people are living on top of now and then because we have one in every 10 people in the United States lives here. Those kids are not evenly poisoned. Like there's census tracts of Los Angeles, where there is basically like a cancer cluster. 

KALAISHA: Like many cities in the United States, Los Angeles has a history of redlining – where people of color were barred from living in certain neighborhoods and were pushed into less desirable areas. 

In LA, those areas were mostly along the Los Angeles River and railroad tracks – 

right next to factories and manufacturing plants.  And that legacy of low income communities near industry continues today. 

One of the biggest examples is the story of a battery recycling plant called Exide . The plant was just a few miles north of Cudahy. And since the year 2000 Exide was spewing lead into the air. Lead exposure can cause anemia, brain damage and even death.

Over the years, Exide racked up more than one hundred violations from DTSC – The Department of Toxic Substances Control, the same agency that oversaw the Park Avenue cleanups. But DTSC allowed Exide to continue operating. It’s a pattern I saw over and over again: DTSC should be regulating companies that are polluting, but fails at enforcement.

It took years of community activism before DTSC finally forced Exide to shut down in 2015. But by then the damage was already done. Over 10,000 homes had been contaminated with lead that had settled into the soil.

Exide filed for bankruptcy, which absolved them of any responsibility to clean up the lead. So then the burden fell to the state and tax payers.

DTSC promised that it would clean up the mess that Exide made. But that was 6 years ago and to this day, they have only cleaned around 25% of the 10,000 contaminated properties. Many people in the community are still waiting for their homes to be cleaned of lead. 

MARK LOPEZ: The state literally has criteria for what makes a community vulnerable to contamination. 

KALAISHA: This is Mark Lopez, an environmental justice activist. He works with communities in Los Angeles that have been affected by industrial pollution.

MARK: And when you look down the list, there's things like language isolation. So folks who might be monolingual, non English speakers. You look at educational attainment, you look at income, so you have situations where folks might be working multiple jobs who aren’t necessarily going to have the time to sit in a public meeting. 

And so in the midst of all of this, these issues become normalized. It's normal for there to be railroad tracks behind my high school. It's normal for our kids to have asthma, it's normal for our elders to have cancer, these things become normal. And so the government has normalized these things. It's all land use planning. It's all permitting decisions that are made by real people. So a big part of what we do is kind of point to the absurdity of our everyday reality. And help folks understand that this isn't normal. and so we can create a different future.

ALLISON: For a community like Cudahy, with the old Exide plant just up the street, with a history of a toxic school, these injustices add up.  Oftentimes, when people get sick because of toxins and pollutants, it’s not just one chemical – it’s cumulative. We spoke with Dr. Amy Kyle, an environmental health expert. 

AMY KYLE: We've come to know a lot more in the last 30 years about the effect of industrial chemicals and pollutants on children and on health broadly than we did before that, 

And everything we're learning raises our concern, because we have evidence of widespread impacts on fertility and can alter the development of children's brains in ways that reduce their cognitive abilities. We know that many of them can cause cancer. 

ALLISON: Dr. Amy Kyle also told us that industrial chemicals and polluants can cause miscarriage. The challenge in holding industry acccountable is that....since these studies are done on populations, it's really hard to make the case that any one person’s miscarriage or cancer is linked to pollution.

AMY: So when people in communities report health symptoms, it's very difficult to prove, as a matter of science, that those are related to a landfill, for example, even though you common sense would tell you they probably are. And the people are probably right, in my experience 90% of the time the people are right, and the scientists are wrong when they say oh, it has nothing to do with that. But it costs a lot of money. And it takes decades usually to prove that. 

ALLISON: Part of the predicament in these industrialized areas is that it's very difficult to find land that isn’t contaminated. And so if you want to build a new school, or a new park, there just aren’t a lot of options. 

AMY: It's more common to build schools on lands that may have had toxic uses in the past, than you might think, because it's cheaper. You know, school sites, especially in a place like Los Angeles or in an urban environment can be very expensive. And so when they're looking for affordable land, sometimes the places that come to the top of the fiscal list are sites that are been repurposed from an industrial or a disposal use in the past. 

ALLISON: This was the case with Park Avenue. In the late 60s, schools in the area were overcrowded. So the Cudahy gave the old dump land to the school district for a new school. 

This isn’t to say that previously industrialized land can NEVER be safely built on. 

Land can be remediated – which means removing or reducing contamination. But remediation is very expensive and it’s nearly impossible to return the land to the condition it was in before.

And so the question becomes – in an area like Los Angeles, that has such high levels of contamination: Who is responsible for making sure that a new school site is safe?

Early last year, just as the pandemic was setting in, Bertha heard some news from a fellow teacher named Ayde Bravos, who teaches at a school in a nearby neighborhood. The news was: A charter school called KIPP had plans to build a new school in Cudahy... just a mile and a half from Park Avenue. And the land it was gonna be built on? For almost a century, it was the site of an iron foundry, a factory that melts and molds iron. Here’s Ayde.

AYDE: Because of the experiences we had with Exide,  we knew that something was up. I thought it just can't possibly be safe.

ALLISON: Ayde has lived in southeast Los Angeles her whole life. She taught at schools impacted by Exide, and was part of the community groups that brought it down. Over the years, she’s known many people in her neighbourhood who got cancer and rare diseases, including her sister who got cancer at 32. 

Ayde invited Bertha to join a group of teachers fighting KIPP's proposed school. KIPP is the largest charter school network in the country, so they were going up against a huge institution. 

They reached out to a lawyer for help.

And this lawyer obtained copies of the Environmental Site Assessments that KIPP had commissioned from an independent consultancy firm, to determine the state of the land and any steps needed to remediate it. The assessment had found arsenic present at the site at 200 times the level deemed safe.

AYDE: And I said, how can they do this to us? How can they plan to build a school site on a on a lot that is contaminated with not just arsenic with CBE, oils and gases

I'm fully enraged with the injustice that happens in our community. And it continues to happen. And I'm done. I'm not going to stand aside anymore. I'm not going to allow one more school to be built on a toxic site. So that rage, that rage that was that we had at that time. It funneled into action.

ALLISON: They named their group Cudahy Alliance for Justice – or CAJ. And they filed a lawsuit against KIPP AND and the Cudahy City Council who approved the project. 

So there’s something we want to acknowledge. Ayde and Bertha are both public school teachers and are opposed to charter schools like KIPP. When I asked Ayde and Bertha if their motivations were impacted by their views about charter schools, they said that making sure the site was safe was their #1 priority – and that they’d be doing the same thing if it was a non-charter public school.

So CAJ got to work. 

One of their first action items? Tell the parents what’s going on. Here’s Bertha again:

BERTHA: A lot of our conversations were informing them, because I think that it's not that parents don't want to do anything about situations, it's more that sometimes they don't feel like they have the proper way to speak or they don't feel maybe that their points of view are valid. 

And so I think that that's where we come in as teachers and as organizers, and we empower parents to say your your opinion is valid and, and your fears are valid. And, and you have, you have the right to have your children attend a place that is safe, and that is clean. 

ALLISON: CAJ wanted to remind KIPP and the city council what had happened before. So that history didn’t repeat itself. 

Just like Eva and the Dynamite mothers did 20 years ago, CAJ started making noise. And the community came out to support them. 

PATRICIA: My name is Patricia Romo. I'm 52 years old, and I'm originally from Cudahy, California. 

ALLISON: Remember the Park Avenue student from years ago who had popped oozing black bubbles on the Park Avenue playground as if they were pimples? That’s Patricia. 

Her family had moved away from Cudahy after 5th grade, and so she hadn’t heard about any of the community’s health issues. But she says that ever since Park Avenue, she had a terrible chronic cough. And that as an adult she was diagnosed with raised thyroid nodules. Both doctors she’s seen about them asked her if she was even exposed to contamination as a kid. She’d always said no.

But one day, she was scrolling through facebook, when something clicked: it was one of Ayde’s posts about everything that had been happening. 

PATRICIA: And I said, Well, wait a minute. Um, and that just brought back everything from Park Avenue, and like it was in the back file, and then it just opened up.

ALLISON: She reached out to Ayde, who invited her to share her story at the next City Council meeting. Here’s Patricia again, at that meeting:

PATRICIA: So you guys before you approve everything, anything, think about all those people that went to Park Avenue and have problems like I do. And it’s not funny, so think about it. And the people that know it’s going on and you’re gonna let it go, shame shame on you 

ALLISON: At the heart of the confusion surrounding who is actually responsible for making sure the land is safe are layers of confusing state policies, local city zoning codes and rulings by Cudahy City Council.

But basically, because of the way the City Council classified KIPP’s project, it hadn't triggered a more thorough environmental review. which also meant that there would be no involvement by DTSC.

And so the decision about whether this land was safe to build on or not came down to the city council looking at the assessment that KIPP presented to them.  

BERTHA: And so that was our question to city council, like you're reading the same information that we're reading. And it is said here that it has 200 times the normal level of arsenic and you're not reacting in, in an appropriate manner. I mean, you– they’re, they’re city officials, they're supposed to be looking out for the community and they're not doing their job. 

ALLISON: We’ve repeatedly tried calling and emailing the Cudahy mayor and members of the city council, but we have not received a response.

On KIPP SoCal’s website, they acknowledge that the site had high levels of arsenic. But that KIPP was already taking on the project of remediting the land: that they removed the soil with arsenic and were planning to remove more soil. 

However, their website does not address any of the concerns about other chemicals and contaminants. I asked the CEO of KIPP SoCal, Angella Martinez, what her response was to the lawsuit that says building the school will put students and staff at risk. Here’s Angella:

ANGELLA MARTINEZ: I don't believe that assessment is accurate. Personally, like I am a person that then my own child to our own shcool that was once a factory. And so I know that due diligence that is done with fidelity, and with integrity that I send my own child to places that are very similar. And so like I have that same faith and our processes, we follow all the standards that are told through us through all of the requirements.

We need to remediate the land before we build anything. So we're not saying, Oh, this is perfect. Like, there's nothing to see here. We're like, here are the problems we do see. And here are the solutions that we can implement, that make it safe for us to have schools and children here. 

ALLISON: We’ve read through KIPP’s Environmental Site Assessments as well. And there’s things in there that KIPP hasn’t publicly addressed. Like, the assessment recommends that quote “further vapor intrusion mitigation” would be needed before the school was safe. 

We sent the assessments to Dr. Amy Kyle, the environmental health expert you heard from earlier to get her take on all the numbers and tables and scientific abbreviations in the assessments. She’s not associated with the lawsuit. 

Based on the documents we provided, she flagged a couple items in addition to arsenic: cobalt and lead as well as questions around the testing thresholds. All that said, Dr. Kyle didn’t see a reason the site couldn’t be remediated.

We also spoke with Dr. James Wells, the geologist who CAJ’s lawyer hired to look at the assessment. He shared Dr. Kyle’s concerns and belief that the site could be remediated. 

  1. JAMES WELLS: The problem is, we have no guarantee that that's happening, because KIPP has declined to do what virtually all other responsible parties in the state do, which is to follow the guidelines and and get the appropriate state agencies involved.

ALLISON: CAJ discovered that the DTSC has also been unsatisfied with KIPP's handling of the site. The DTSC wrote an official letter to KIPP, saying they identified several conditions and chemicals of concern at the site, and recommended a “more comprehensive environmental investigation.”

We asked DTSC about the letter. DTSC said they never got a response from KIPP. 

And the thing is KIPP doesn’t HAVE to respond. It’s completely voluntary. And so any recommendations they make are just that.... recommendations. Here’s Ayde: 

AYDE: So why can't they take it upon themselves to do what's right, let's not do what's legally, legally deemed to be right. Because the legal system doesn't necessarily ensure the safety of students. I hate to say it, but it doesn't.

ALLISON: From KIPP’s perspective, they see what they’re doing as part of the solution of cleaning up the neighborhood. Here’s Angella again:

ANGELLA: So, you know, I understand there's a history of mistrust, like, rightfully so and across all actually land, you know, I am Native American, both my parents belong to two different tribes across Southern California, New Mexico, and so land, and the preservation of land and the conservation of land and the remediation of land that I take very seriously. And so, you know, it is very personal. But I know our families also are very excited that the remediation of this land is in service of making it better, and making it a school for their children. 

ALLISON: Remediation of polluted land, safe schools for children – these are all things we seem to agree on. But for Bertha and Ayde, words are not enough. They want action. They want proof that the land they exist on is safe. 

They want KIPP to step up, and work with DTSC and be more transparent. And they want the DTSC and the city council to do their jobs of protecting them. They’re determined to keep fighting, to keep demanding that they be part of the conversation... until things change. 

AYDE: When we were growing up, there was just no oversight whatsoever. no concern whatsoever. No understanding, no knowledge. And we do have knowledge now. And so I what we need to do is move forward.

ALLISON: And that’s the legacy of their community that they are writing and rewriting each day.

Here’s Sal again, the retired Park Avenue teacher, reflecting on their fight in the 90s:

SAL: You know, it really was life changing for many of us. their eyes are open to what can happen, and the power that they can have, by organizing together. That is now part of their, their education, and in going forward and being– being citizens even though they may not, they may not have the documents that show that they're citizens, acting like a citizen in the community. You don't need papers to do that. 

ALLISON: The lawsuit is ongoing, but Ayde and Bertha already have their sights set on their next fight: the public park that’s right next to Park Ave Elementary school. After school lets out, this park is where students come and play on the jungle gym and slides. 

It is where street vendors set up their stands and where baseball games are played. Where Cudahy families gather to celebrate birthdays and watch fireworks on the 4th of July. And this park – it was built over the same dump that the elementary school was. And it hasn’t been cleaned up yet.

For a link to the Bodies podcast facebook group, as well as episode transcripts, and additional resources, go to KCRW.com/Bodies.

You can follow Bodies on Twitter and instagram at @bodiespodcast. 

You can follow Kalaisha on Twitter at @kktotty.

And on Instagram @ktotsss.


This episode was reported and produced by Kalaisha Totty and me, Allison Behringer. With additional reporting and translation by Andrea Galdamez. Story editing by Mira Burt-Wintonick and Kristen Lepore. Advising and editorial support from Cassius Adair.

Nisha Venkat is with us as KCRW’s USC Luminary fellow and provided production support. 

Our team also includes producer Hannah Harris Green. 

Rebecca Mooney is our managing producer.

Original score by Dara Hirsch. Mixing by Teeny Lieberson. 

Special thanks to Caitlin Pierce, KalaLea, Sharon Mashihi and Camila Kerwin.

Episode art by Neka King. Cover art by Sarah Bachman.

Bodies is supported and distributed by KCRW. Thank you to the whole KCRW team. 

Thanks for listening. See you in two weeks.