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The Earth Mother : Aurora Castillo has long protected her East L.A. Now the environmental efforts of la dona are being rewarded.


SAN FRANCISCO — La dona of East Los Angeles reaches heavenward, slowly raising a stunning statuette of a serpent biting its tail, a symbol of nature's remarkable power of renewal.

Hundreds of guests, many of them hardened activists, are reduced to tears. The applause hits a crescendo. And later comes a standing ovation.

Aurora Castillo, the 81-year-old co-founder of the Mothers of East Los Angeles, glows in a spotlight, and with quiet dignity and high drama accepts the richest environmental prize in the world--$75,000--for protecting her neighborhood from toxic waste and environmental racism.

Castillo, known as la dona-- a title of respect given to her by her largely Latino community--began fighting to protect the Earth a decade ago. She never set out to be an ecological warrior, much less the first person from Los Angeles to win a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize--referred to by Time magazine as the Nobel Prize for environmental heroes.

Winners from Africa, Europe, Asia, South and Central America and the Island Nations, have traveled here to share the Herbst Theatre stage with Castillo as the North American representative--as well as the first Latina and the oldest recipient--of the program founded six years ago by philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman of San Francisco.

Castillo, who is attending with her twin sister, Bertha, and several nieces and nephews from the Los Angeles area, accepts her award with humble appreciation.

She tells the international audience that all people, regardless of ethnicity, race, education and income "have a right to a clean environment."

She fights for her beloved barrio, she says at the podium, because she is committed to the children who deserve "clean air, clean water and pure food." She is fighting back tears that later, at a private dinner attended by Mayor Frank Jordan and world-renowned environmentalists, she will describe as tears of struggle, of sacrifice, of survival.

"With great joy, I accept this honor on behalf of the Mothers of East Los Angeles."

The passionate Dona Castillo--the feisty great-great-granddaughter of Augustine Pedro Olvera, Olvera Street's namesake--brings down the house.


It is a few days before her San Francisco trip last week, and Castillo is explaining how she--and nearly 200 active members of the Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA)--successfully blocked the construction of a prison, fought a toxic-waste incinerator, a hazardous-waste storage site and joined a coalition that detoured an above-ground crude oil pipeline.

Sitting in an office at the Church of the Resurrection where the mothers' group took seed in 1986, Castillo seems an unlikely national leader. But in the area of environmental justice--a grass-roots effort that primarily prevents poor, minority neighborhoods from being the targets of environmental damage caused by industries--she is just that.

Almost 10 years ago, when the church's priest, John Moretta--now a monsignor--asked women parishioners to protest the construction of the Eastside's eighth prison, Castillo was among the first to step forward.

Moretta, who has been with Resurrection for 12 years, remembers uniting the mothers. But he never thought the group would last.

"I am surprised, more than anyone, that they have lasted because they had no training, no real finesse." But, he said, "The mothers had Aurora Castillo."

And Castillo continues to be their cheerleader and a tenacious woman who will not take no for an answer--a trait, Moretta said, that has endeared her to the mothers.

"Many times through the years, especially when the ladies were disheartened, Aurora would not give up. She feels a great sense of concern for when she sees any kind of abuse against her people.

"She is the group's spiritual person," said friend Frank Villalobos, president of Barrio Planners Inc., a landscape and architecture firm. Villalobos is also a community activist who formed the Coalition Against the Prison in East Los Angeles, and with Moretta, organized the mothers' 12-hour bus trip to Sacramento to protest the prison.

"Within 10 minutes Aurora can get ladies together for a protest," said Villalobos. "I drive a 14-passenger van and at a moment's notice she can have 15 ladies on the bus 'and one more on a little stool,' she always says.

"Aurora is the one who carries the torch. She is an icon in East Los Angeles."

Lucy Ramos, MELA's president, said that without Castillo's guidance and devotion to community issues, "We probably would have gone down the drain in the middle of a toxic area by now."

Mary Lou Trevis, MELA's vice president, said that among Castillo's many strengths is her organizational skill. Castillo is the one who phones the members a week before a meeting as well as on the day, always the last Tuesday of the month. She shows up with the sodas, with stacks of information and protects the membership's telephone list with her life--a roster that many a politician has asked to have and been denied.

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