Incinerating the Incinerator

The following short story is a piece of historical fiction by Adeline Rodríguez.

“‘If it’s so bad, why don’t you just move?’ Forreal guey, she really asked me that.” Zoila felt her pulse accelerate and her face become hot as she told Mayra and Jaime about her encounter. Earlier that day, she and her mother stopped at the grocery store in the nearby city of Lemoore. While shopping, she came across an old childhood friend, Lucy, whom she had went to Head Start with. Lucy’s family lived in Lemoore but her mother brought her to Head Start in Kettleman because she picked cotton in a field nearby. “I was telling her about all of this, right. About El pueblo para aire y agua limpio and everything we’re doing. I explained what we’re trying to accomplish. Well- basically everything.” She was nearly panting at that point. “And she tells me that shit plus, ‘that sounds kinda unrealistic,’” she recalled in a mimicking tone.

The people of Kettleman City did not take lightly to benighted suggestions by outsiders to simply move towns. The solution was not that simple; whether they moved or stayed, someone else had to live with the consequences of environmental carelessness.

Mayra shook her head in disbelief. “Instead of people asking how they can help us or something, they suggest we flee. What about the thing trying to kill us? Why can’t it leave?” In the Fall she and her friends began organizing a community coalition to combat what they described as a ‘systemic purge’ of their town. For more than a decade, an aggressive and expansionist chemical waste facility had been operating a mere three miles from the town center. When news broke in the early 80’s that other chemical dumps around the country were operating haphazardly in predominantly black and brown towns, the people of Kettleman City became suspicious of the ominous Chem Waste. It was not until earlier that year when the county approved a plan to expand the facility and build a chemical incinerator that the people in the town became unanimously unequivocal about the question of Chem Waste.

From the corner of the room Jaime looked to the girls through his long black hair. His brow furrowed as he imagined what could happen if they were not successful in putting a stop to the facility’s expansion. He imagined an apocalyptic-like end to the town. “What if Kettleman becomes the next Chernobyl?” he asked with a trembling voice.

Images by Casey Baskin © 2021

Zoila glared at him annoyed, “Don’t be stupid. It’s not that bad either. That was nuclear, this is chemical.” Jaime’s rabid paranoia of dramatic environmental catastrophe was bred by the disaster he saw on tv a few years ago. In ‘86 his beaming father invested in the family’s first personal television. To Jaime’s dismay, the first thing he saw when his father turned on the television was the disaster in the news. He was struck by the utter chaos that since then provoked an anxiety coupled with an inclination for conspiracy that bordered on madness. He often complained of headaches and was prone to blackouts that he blamed on the dense and humid air that he argued was only exacerbated by pesticides and particles from the facility. Jaime had only been to the doctor four times in his life and was thus unaware that his condition was a result of his high blood pressure rather than the stifling air. Nonetheless, his delusions made him a loyal ally. There were few people more dedicated to stopping the dump’s growth than the guy who thought the dump would one day asphyxiate him or acidify his residence.

To appease Jaime’s delusions, Zoila and Mayra agreed to include each of his fainting spells in their manifesto. Their haphazard manifesto consisted of evidence of the facility’s malady, theories about the town’s character, and music lyrics for their future band. All they needed to bring their band to fruition was instruments of their own, but in the meantime, they simply practiced with the instruments at school. They sang about their anger, their work, and other mundane subjects that they hoped would make them appear eclectic.

“Neza” would be the name of their band. The name came from Mayra’s parent’s hometown: ciudad Nezahualcóyotl or just Neza for short. Mayra visited the city in ‘86 and was stunned by the cloud of smog and the smell of hot sewage that perforated her senses. Small children ran through the streets laughing and playing, women talked to neighbors as they hung their laundry to dry. Mayra wondered how residents acclimated to the conditions. Was it because Neza, despite its problems, was home? Did they have any other choice? She wondered if outsiders like that idiot Lucy wondered the same things about Kettleman City.

Over dinner one night she heard her family discuss the city’s most scandalous phenomenon: a neighborhood built in the heart of the city’s dump. Mayra listened attentively, picking at her rice, as her grandmother explained the situation, “So many people have moved here since the earthquake.” She was referring to the monster that struck Mexico City in 1985. “The people were poor and couldn’t rebuild, so they came here. But, that plus us not having a garbage collecting system? Ooof,” she chuckled. Mayra’s grandmother was not a staunch cynic, but she used crass humor to ameliorate her anxieties and frustration. She could not change her circumstances, so it was better to laugh at them than be miserable. “The thing is, Neza isn’t Condesa or Roma,” the latter two are affluent neighborhoods in Mexico City. “What we’re thinking is that they’re doing this on purpose. The government. Because we’re already poor and they probably want to get rid of us.”

This conversation had a profound impact on Mayra, who finally began connecting the dots in her own city. Later in her trip, her cousins finally took her to the village of refuse where they planned to scavenge for “Johnny Rotten styled jackets.” Throughout the dump tour the group discussed music, anarchy, and plans to raise havoc. Mayra had never heard of Johnny Rotten before the trip and was ignorant regarding the details of anarchy. Nonetheless, her eyes widened, and the ends of her lips curled as she listened to her cousins expound the details of their calculated chaos.

When she finally touched down in her Central Valley she lost control of her anxiously bouncing leg as her father drove through the fields of cotton. She could not wait to see her friends so she could tell them everything she learned. Mayra’s stories about Neza and her cousins’ wisdom catalyzed an anarcho-environmentalist renaissance in the trio’s lives. They began to obsessively collect evidence to prove Kettleman was the Neza of California. The revelation stunned Jaime in particular, who envisioned a map of catastrophe that started at Pripyat, passed through Neza, and ended at Kettleman City. He imagined that the cities were connected by a tube that circulated trash, chemical waste, and radioactive rubble to God’s least favorite corners of the world. He thought, “What if they’re feeding it to us?” He imagined one day waking up to find his neighbors wearing gas masks, wandering about their daily routines, and ingesting their three daily servings of grey toxic sludge.

What might a bowl of melted reactor core taste like? What about the juices that seep through Neza’s landfills into the groundwater? Would he be able to detect a difference in taste- Neza’s water from clean water? He grew up drinking Kettleman City’s contaminated water, so he was not certain.

For Zoila, the Neza epiphany inspired a mental trance that led her to theorize the town’s character and history. They collectively imagined that the fate of their town was decided in 1928. At around the time that Zoila’s grandfather was killing rebel Catholics under the auspices of revolution, Standard Oil discovered a torrent of lush oil in the Kettleman hills. The trio imagined a group of smug white men grinning as they gazed at their gold mine and later laughing menacingly amongst themselves at the realization that they had condemned the town to apocalypse. Zoila once concluded that wherever an oil field or mine was discovered, people would die. She went as far as to say that the grace of time provides no relief as long as robust industries are given free reign.

“I’ve been thinking about this. Towns have a specific character, natural order. Since Kettleman was founded under the foot of enterprise, it won’t stop expanding until it kills us all. But I think that’s what it’s meant to do?”

Mayra and Jaime agreed, the only proof they needed to corroborate her theory was the evolution of the town itself. Less than a thousand people lived in Kettleman, yet the small town hosted an interstate freeway, the state’s aqueduct, hundreds of acres of pesticide ridden fields, and of course the largest chemical waste management facility west of the Mississippi. What they did not have was drinkable water, a high school, grocery store, or hospital. Zoila’s theory and the county’s approval of the incinerator made them itch in visceral rage. It wasn’t long until the imaginative trio finally embarked on an overdue mission to disrupt Kettleman’s callous natural order.

The trio met at Mayra’s house every day after school to discuss their ideas and expand their manifesto. As there was no high school in Kettleman City, taking the bus through the steep west hills to Avenal High School was a daily routine. Traveling consumed a great portion of their days and was physically, and at times mentally, exhausting. But that was not what squandered their youthful optimism. Rather, it was their frustration with the town, its officials, and its sympathizers that jaded them. Last year, the three were on the verge of suspension for refusing to go on a field trip to the waste facility. The purpose of the trip was to groom the students for post-high school employment. “Why aren’t they taking us to a university or hospital?” they argued. “Why is the school so eager to collaborate in this agenda?” After weeks of volatile debate, administration finally allowed them to opt out of the trip. They naturally began drawing conclusions about the relationship between the schools, and more broadly the county, and the orchestrators of the town’s environmental plunder. Some residents, whom they referred to as “collaborators”, thought that they were simply being capricious. Nonetheless, most people in town and some allies scattered throughout the valley concurred that something strange was happening and saw protest as the best route to fix it. Amongst themselves though, the group discussed bigger dreams of the ultimate fall of not only the facility, but the social and political order that created it.

Zoila, their tacit leader, knew that their ideas were too radical, maybe even idealistic, to get average people on board. “They don’t want us to get to the bottom of everything that’s happening. They don’t want us to be educated. They put us through primary school because they have to, but college? Forget about it. They know that if we get to the bottom of all this shit, we’ll be the ones who make it crumble.”

She tried to invoke a radical consciousness in her immediate family many times with little success. Her father, a military man who had dedicated his life to the institutions, simply nodded his head and went to his room when his daughter began her passionate speeches. He was also, quite simply, exhausted: after spending long hours filling crates of tomatoes under the oppressive sun, he wanted nothing more than to kick off his boots, eat a hot meal, water his plants, wash off his day, and rest in his bed. His body was in no position to sustain such ardor. Zoila’s mother Alma simply smiled at her, delighted by her daughter’s idealism and intellect. “Tienes razon, hija,” she’d tell her daughter in a soft tone with her inner eyebrows pointed up, framing her tired eyes. But Alma did not admit that she had no illusions of change. Yet, Zoila could see past her mother’s frail approval and knew that the woman was simply too tired to pursue a tedious and unpromising struggle.

At one time, Alma’s presence alone commanded an audience. She was as radical as her daughter in her native state of Guerrero. But the weight of an unfair world stifled her imagination and pushed her into a state of recluse and gloom. It began when she and her husband migrated from their ancestral homeland to the desolate Kettleman hills. Simply living in the town, so mute and invisible, was a gateway to solitude. But when immigration authorities began making their rounds through the community in the late seventies, Alma found refuge in the shadows.

The trio was content with starting small and keeping their anarchic persuasions to a minimum for the time being out of fear that they may lose support. They spent their afternoons reading, creating bilingual pamphlets, and contacting possible legal allies. On weekends they knocked on doors and delivered speeches and pamphlets in an effort to expand El pueblo para aire y agua limpio.

The thing about Kettleman City was that almost all of its residents agreed that a chemical incinerator posed a significant threat to their health. The challenge was getting outsiders to listen. No matter how unhappy the residents were with Chem Waste, the reality was that their only paths of resistance were demonstrations and simply being conscious of the situation. The trio lamented the peaceful route to reform which necessitated powerful connections and money for legal assistance. Frustration was inevitable. Mayra complained, “I don’t understand how we’re supposed to do this peacefully if we don’t even have influence or money!”

Jaime chimed in, “Fuck this. I say we just go into Chem Waste and start swinging.” They laughed together as they imagined other violent alternatives that would be more effective than making pamphlets. “We don’t need thousands of dollars to just bulldoze the thing down. Look, my dad operates the machinery at his job,” Jaime’s father worked in construction. “I say we convince him to use it and BAM! Dales en le madre.”

Zoila rolled her eyes and laughed. “Get serious, fool. I actually have some good news.” Mayra and Jaime continued making jokes, wailing in their frustration. “Look! Ya! Stop!” she screamed. The two became silent. “There’s a lawyer in Fresno that says he’s interested in looking at our case.”

“Every lawyer is interested in a case, Zoilita.” Jaime responded condescendingly. “The problem is, they turn away once they realize we can’t pay. They’re all out to get us. The politicians, business owners, and lawyers. They’re plotting.”

“Can you stop talking and let me finish? He works for a law firm that represents rural and poor communities. He’s pro bono, so he works for free.” The two finally began listening attentively. “He says he wants to meet with our group and look over the bullshit ‘impact report’.” The county’s impact report estimated that Chem Waste’s incinerator did not pose a grave threat to human life.

“Are you serious? When? Why didn’t you tell us earlier!” the two shrilly yelped.

“I didn’t want to get our hopes up.” Zoila grinned. She did not admit to her friends that this was the first time in months that she felt genuinely hopeful. “He says he and his team will come down next week.”

Over the course of the week the group frantically gathered documents, summarized their grievances, and informed the townspeople of the meeting. But once the initial excitement subsided, a collective anxiety began to demoralize the group. They questioned whether the results of this meeting would be fruitful, or if it would just anchor them into a deeper state of disenchantment and desperation.

Their disillusionments not only stemmed from their pessimism regarding the meeting, but in their intimate knowledge of the town itself. They resided within the entrails of the city and knew exactly how it functioned. They knew its inclinations and often felt too minuscule to change them. All three of them were born and raised in Kettleman City; their parents thought Kettleman the perfect refuge, and the town elders even remembered a time before the interstate. But soon enough, the elders saw their dreams of wealth and prosperity crash under the interstate’s concrete foot, and their parent’s refuge became one of la migra’s favorite hunting grounds. Kettleman City seemed to be the place of bad luck and bygone illusion. Hopelessness was the town’s perverse legacy.

Mayra insisted that they should not get their hopes up because if things went south, the future might look bleaker than before. “Nobody cares about Kettleman City. Regular people just see us as a stopping point between San Fran and L.A. And to politicians and business people, it’s a place of industry. Capital. Our lives cannot compete with that.” She was on the brink of tears at that point. “We’re Mexican, we’re poor, and most of us don’t speak English. They don’t see our humanity.”

For the first time, the trio allowed themselves a moment of sadness. This was a rare occasion because they all agreed in the beginning that when they became upset, they would not cry – they would organize. What good was being sad? But this moment was different. For the first time, they caught a break, but the possibility of everything crumbling down and finally putting a grave over their town was a heavy cross to bear.

Adeline Rodríguez is a history graduate student at Fresno State where she is writing a thesis about socialist utopias. She was born and raised in the Central Valley where she currently resides with her family. In her free time she enjoys talking to her grandmother, planning fake vacations, and making pasta from scratch


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