Carla García ZendejasI’m not from here and I’m not from there,” began the story of this girl from Tijuana, who was fortunate enough to have parents who straddled the border every day to provide the best for their children.  ELAW partner Carla García Zendejas was born to a medical doctor and a schoolteacher who recognized that their children would have more opportunities if they could, themselves, walk as easily among Americans as among Mexicans.  So they drove the kids to San Diego each day, where Carla and her brother and sister attended an English-speaking Catholic school.

“We would get a pink slip for speaking Spanish on the playground,” recalls Carla.

Carla’s parents provided ample educational opportunities for their children.  And they also taught by their example.  Her father and his colleagues started the Tijuana Red Cross and were active in Rotary.Both of her parents were active in community service projects.  Being perfectly bilingual and bicultural in an era defined by free trade agreements, Carla could have taken her pick from numerous high-paying corporate jobs.

But her respect for her parents, coupled with the influence of her Catholic teachers and priests, led her to seek opportunities to serve.  In her teens, she and her friends started their own advocacy group, ProForum, and traveled to poor communities to help with building projects and holding retreats for teenagers and community members.

Carla García Zendejas

Carla received her law degree in Tijuana, and then pursued an LLM at American University in Washington, DC.  She remembers well when she chose public interest environmental law as her path.  Carla took a class called Trade and Environment, thinking it might help her defend Mexico’s trade interests.  But as the professor outlined the impacts of free trade on communities, Carla realized, “she’s talking about my home, my place – Tijuana.  I have to help.” She shared with a friend that she wanted to be an environmental lawyer and he told her: “Write it down!”

Carla’s biculturalism already gave her a unique perspective on U.S. demand, and Mexico’s supply.
With new clarity of purpose, Carla reached out to nongovernmental advocacy organizations in Mexico to learn about impacts of trade on communities, her communities.  After graduation, she moved back to Tijuana to defend the rights of women working in maquiladoras (modern day sweat shops).  Following that, she took on highly destructive liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals planned for the coast of Baja California.  Of the six terminals planned, Carla and the coalition of advocates she teamed up with defeated five.  In addition to direct advocacy for the environment, Carla educates U.S.  audiences about the impacts of our consumption on Mexico’s natural environment.

When asked what brings her personal satisfaction, Carla thinks back to that piece of paper bearing the words, “environmental lawyer!” She is proud of the fact that, a decade later, she has not strayed from her path.  She is gratified when her words resonate with the community members she seeks to serve – when she sees that the seeds she has planted are growing, and bearing fruit.  “It’s the joy of the job well done.”

Carla’s greatest role model is her mom.  Although she learned from numerous law professors, teachers, clients, authors, and community organizers along the way, she says, “My mom provides order in a chaotic world.  She is a rock.  I would do well to be as focused, precise, and dedicated.”

Carla has recently joined the Defensa del Ambiente del Noroeste (DAN), as Director of Public Policy.  DAN is a relatively new NGO, and Executive Director Fernando Ochoa Piñeda was thrilled to have Carla join forces.  He said, “I feel like we’re the team last in the standings, so we got ‘first draft pick’ and somehow managed to get our top pick!”

However, the import of Carla’s work reaches beyond the borders of U.S. and Mexico.  She has worked with ELAW partners in Europe and other places too. Her passion and commitment to her work makes her unstoppable.  She is not only from here, and from there; her reach through the ELAW network is truly global.

by Lori Maddox