Nalley Cobo was 9 years old when she started suffering from asthma, nosebleeds, and severe headaches. That was the beginning of a years-long battle against an oil field across from his home in South Los Angeles. She and her mother realized that some neighbors were also getting sick and promoted a movement that caused the closure of the facility.
Cobo didn’t stop there. Along with other young people from predominantly Latino and black neighborhoods, the girl-turned-activist sued the city of Los Angeles to demand more regulation on oil extraction. And won. They have compared her to Greta Thunberg, although her name has been recognized locally for more than a decade. Cobo put her activism activities on hiatus in early 2020 after being diagnosed at 19 with cancer. Your doctors don’t have an answer as to why you got sick. Recovered after three surgeries and treatment, Cobo recently told her story to grew up in south-central Los Angeles, thirty feet away from an oil extraction facility run by Allen (who owned the site in 2009). I lived in an apartment with seven other relatives my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandparents, and my three brothers. My mother is from Mexico and my father is from Colombia. My father was deported when I was 2 years old and my mother raised me.
It was 2010 and I was 9 years old. Suddenly I began to feel sick, with a stomach ache, nausea, and my body had spasms so severe that I could not walk and my mother had to carry me because I was frozen like a vegetable.
I suffered from nosebleeds that were so bad that I had to sit up asleep so as not to choke on my own blood at night. I also had asthma. A silent killer was poisoning me in my own home. But I was not the only one. My mom got asthma at age 40, which is quite unusual, and my grandmother started to suffer from the same at age 70, something even rarer. My brother also got it. Mothers in the neighborhood, which is called University Park, started talking about what was happening and asking how their children were doing. So the word began to spread that something strange was happening. We could perceive it in the smells. When it didn’t smell like rotten eggs, then an intense artificial scent of guava or orange would come through, covering up the bad smell.
Once the rotten smell invaded the house it did not go away, even if we closed the windows, turned on the fans, or covered the cracks in the windows. At first, we thought that maybe the problem was caused by a leak in the building until a group of toxicologists came to speak to our community. They explained to us that with oil extraction, certain chemicals are used and emissions are released that can be harmful to health if exposed for a long time. This caused us to start organizing to demand that the authorities review what was happening. We created a campaign and called it People Not Pozos (People, not wells). My mother already had a lot of experience as a community health promoter for an organization and that helped a lot to lift the movement.
We went door-to-door asking neighbors to file complaints with the government agency that handles air quality, and we also attended hearings with the city council. It was very powerful to see how we came together, a mostly Spanish-speaking community that was generally not taken into account. I was a girl but I did not stage frightened speaking to the authorities in those sessions. The moment we really got the attention we wanted was after they ran a story in the Los Angeles Times that was read by then -California, Senator Barbara Boxer. He flew into our community and held a press conference outside my building to demand that the AllenCo operation cease.
Boxer brought in some investigators from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who quickly fell ill while conducting a site survey and had to leave. And I went to school two blocks from there. During years. After federal and local investigations were launched, the company agreed to suspend operations. The closure of the well was great news, but it took time. We started organizing in 2010 and closed temporarily in 2013. We want it to close permanently. The city of Los Angeles sued the company and in 2016 got by a court order that AllenCo complies with strict regulations if it resumes operation. When we started working on this, we realized that we were not the only affected community.580,000 Angelenos are living within 0.5 miles of an active oil or gas well. The vast majority are low-income, black, and Latino communities. Every time I go somewhere to talk about this and people find out that I am from Los Angeles, they say comments like Oh How wonderful, the Walk of Fame, Hollywood, celebrities.
Well, Los Angeles is the largest urban oil field in the United States. That is why several young people got together and we are part of a group of organizations that sued the city for violating California’s environmental quality law. We won, which means the won, which means that for opening or expanding wells, there is a new process that includes a new form and other guidelines. Although I moved from my home in University Park years ago, I am focused on a campaign to put up a 760-meter barrier in California that separates the area where oil is extracted from the houses where people live.
I am a normal girl, I am obsessed with makeup, I love dancing, traveling, I am studying law at university. The only thing that makes me different is that I found my passion very early in life. I was diagnosed with cancer on January 15, 2020. I didn’t say it publicly for a while because it was so terrifying to even process that word. I remember not understanding why my family always said to be grateful for your health. I understand now. The bills also scared us, how could we afford so many treatments? Fortunately, a campaign we launched online raised enough funds to cover important expenses.
I think the hardest thing emotionally and physically was undergoing a radical hysterectomy. It took me six weeks to get out of bed. My mom had to help me with absolutely everything and took dozens of pills a day. My doctors still don’t know why I got cancer; what they have been able to conclude from tests is that it is not genetic. I told them where I had grown up and asked if there were any environmental tests I could take. But they told me that, until science has created one, my case is a question mark. In January of this year, I defeated cancer. That makes me super excited and happy. Being isolated from almost my entire family due to the pandemic and my diagnosis was the most challenging thing that has ever touched me. But here I am. I want to be a civil rights lawyer and then go into politics. For me, environmental justice is being able to breathe clean air regardless of my age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, or ZIP code.