Delia Barrera

Turning South LA schoolyard “deserts” green

“Mommy, that school looks like a desert.” Delia Barrera had just brought her seven-year-old daughter to her new school, Anderson Elementary in South Los Angeles. Delia moved to the Los Angeles area seven years ago with her husband Nathaniel and her five children, ranging in age from two to sixteen-years-old. Though she was excited about financial opportunities for her family, Delia knew that her new city would be a challenging environment. South Los Angeles hosts the largest proportion of homeless persons in the county and most families in the area survive on single incomes less than two-thirds the national median. The region has less tree cover than any other part of the city and suffers from some of the worst air pollution. Delia doesn’t have a car and often finds herself leading her children along the hot, bright streets darting from one spot of shade to the next.

Delia spent her own childhood in a rural area of Michoacan, Mexico where illegal logging is prevalent. Her father, an arborist, worked on government reforestation projects in exchange for food. Many seasons, the entire family worked together to plant as many seedlings as possible and Delia learned to care for pine trees at a young age. After meeting her husband they moved to the United States. Construction work opportunities brought her family to Compton where Delia works as a full-time mother, twisting wire clothes hangers for extra income.

Though fortunate to have the employment opportunities that come with living in a big city, Delia found that her children were facing many of the same difficulties she faced in her own hometown—struggling schools and harsh physical environments. Hoping to support her children in every way she could, she joined the newly formed Parent Teacher Association at her children’s new school, Willowbrook Middle School in 2010, where she quickly became president. She first heard about TreePeople from another mom and days later brought her family along to help plant trees at a TreePeople event at a local school. Since then she has attended every TreePeople sponsored planting in her area and speaks out at meetings, inspiring other parents with her fiery enthusiasm.

After attending plantings at several local middle and elementary schools, Delia found herself walking through her neighborhood asking members of her community to participate in an upcoming planting at Willowbrook Middle School. Although many parents have been reluctant to get involved, Delia was able to build a team of mothers to help organize and provide food. The planting was a success and though the eight camphor trees planted are still young, children are now playing in the little shade the saplings provide during PE class.

Since then Delia has participated in plantings all across Compton Unified School District. Delia, her children, and other community members continue to work together to regularly water and care for the new additions to their neighborhood. Delia feels her children are becoming more connected with their environment and are learning the importance of caring for their surroundings. She looks forward to the day when her children have grown up and are able to stand under the shade of the trees they planted themselves, just as she is able to do when she visits Michoacan.

Caring for the trees is not always easy. Delia and her family have to fill trashcans with water and wheel them over in shopping carts at several schools that lack proper irrigation systems but she perseveres, knowing that her true success will lie in the legacy she leaves to her children. “When we first came here and my daughter got to her school she looked at it and said, ‘Mommy, that school looks like a desert.’ And it was like a desert, but not anymore. It has grass and flowers and we’ll keep planting more trees.”

Story by Bethany Ritz and Richard Border.