Campaña de los pobres
Fotos de Robert Taylor por Steve Pavey.

Robert Taylor Ciudadanos preocupados de la parroquia de San Juan, Louisiana

Robert Taylor grew up in a ‘remnant of the old plantation system,’ in the town of Reserve in St. John’s Parish, Louisiana, one of the many majority-Black river communities between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. This area has come to be known as ‘Cancer Alley,’ due to the rates of cancer there that have reached 1,500 times the national average — a result of the growing petrochemical industry. Robert, now 80 years old, founded the Concerned Citizens of St. John Parish in 2016, and is fighting for his family members, friends, community and the generations to come.


I was born into the plantation life in 1940. We’re in the southeast in a section of Louisiana between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and our communities are river communities, they all border the Mississippi River, they’re what’s called river parishes. This area was primarily agrarian, it was sugarcane plantations. My father and my mother worked at the sugar refinery. 

My mom’s sister had nine kids. As they got to be 10 years and older, the kids, they started doing what their mother did, they’re in the sugar cane field cutting sugar cane. The fact that my dad was actually fortunate enough to get a job working in the sugar refinery itself gave us a somewhat better life.

Crecí y pude ir a la escuela y desarrollé amigos. Nunca tuve que trabajar realmente en el campo de la caña de azúcar. Estuve en los oficios de la construcción y eventualmente me convertí en un contratista general, así que pude construir una casa para mí y mi familia.

La mayoría de las comunidades entre Nueva Orleans y Baton Rouge eran plantaciones: fue a finales de los años 40 y principios de los 50 que comenzó a cambiar. A fines de los 40 y principios de los 50, la industria petroquímica comenzó a incursionar en la compra de las plantaciones de azúcar. y eventualmente cambió de agrario a industrial.

When they bought out the plantations they left thousands of people still there on the periphery; the little communities that we have, we’re the descendants of those folks.

Nuestra comunidad es ahora los restos de esa antigua vida de plantación.

When they bought out the plantations they left thousands of people still there on the periphery; the little communities that we have, we’re the descendants of those folks … Our community is now the remnants of that old plantation life.

Entre Baton Rouge y Nueva Orleans tenemos 60 millas de plantas químicas que arrojan químicos venenosos de todo tipo al río Mississippi, a nuestros acuíferos y al aire. Para cuando el río llegue a la parroquia de San Juan, es algo en lo que deberías tener miedo incluso de meter la mano. Pero ahí es donde obtenemos nuestra agua potable.

Una acción contra la industria petroquímica organizada por Rise St. James, en la cercana parroquia de St. James.

We weren’t prepared for industry. We are really not employed by it. It brought no benefits to us. It’s mostly poor, uneducated black folk in our communities — the average annual income in St. John’s Parish is $17,000.

Some of us found work, and we had to develop crafts, you know we did what we could in order to survive. But when the petrochemical industry came in, life became different for us. Drastically. We didn’t realize the impact that the industry was actually having on us.

I was 25 when I built my home with help from a loan from the Department of Agriculture — the Farmers Home Administration. It was what was called a poor people’s housing development which enabled me to be able to acquire a home and to be able to improve on it. It was a 900 square foot home. It was very modest. Since I was in the construction business I was able to convert that 900 square ft home into a 5000 square foot home, which was unusual. 

Robert Taylor speaks at the Poor People’s Campaign’s We Must Do M.O.R.E. Tour stop in Louisiana in October, 2019.

Sabes que tenemos la gran casa que construimos que pensé que iba a estar allí para mis hijos y mis nietos. Hice una inversión allí que pensé que iba a ser generacional, pero DuPont cambió eso drásticamente. 

We moved in after we had our last child in 1968, we had four children — two boys and two girls. So you know it was ideal — the girls had their bedroom and the boys theirs. That same year Dupont went into business in our Parish, less than a half mile from my house, and began dumping chloroprene along with 28 other chemicals into our environment. So that child was exposed to it from birth. She’s the one that has been mostly impacted — she’s debilitated, she has an autoimmune disease that makes her vulnerable to any kind of opportunistic diseases.

When that materialized in her forties, she was a working nurse, but now she’s incapacitated. She can no longer work. She’s on all of these horrible medicines trying to fight off the effects. We had to move her out of here once we realized that’s what caused her the illness. It was too late. It was a lifetime of exposure that got her to where she was. My wife had survived cancer and other debilitating diseases so I wound up having to move her out of here too.

In Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, petrochemical and synthetic rubber companies have polluted the environment, causing devastating disease amongst residents.

A fines de los años sesenta y setenta, la mayoría de las personas blancas que vivían allí a lo largo del río (vivimos en la parte de atrás al otro lado de la pista), sabían lo que estaba sucediendo con Dupont, por lo que se mudaron a un lugar más seguro y distante. área al norte de la autopista de la aerolínea, llamada NOAH. Toda la inversión de la parroquia se destinó al desarrollo de NOAH.

En los años 80, la gente comenzó a sospechar que la planta tenía algo que ver con las crecientes tasas de cáncer y las enfermedades respiratorias y otras enfermedades cardiovasculares que padecíamos. Pero eran principalmente las personas negras las que sufrían estas enfermedades, por lo que no se hizo mucho al respecto.  

En los años 80, la gente comenzó a sospechar que la planta tenía algo que ver con las crecientes tasas de cáncer y las enfermedades respiratorias y otras enfermedades cardiovasculares que padecíamos. Pero eran principalmente las personas negras las que sufrían estas enfermedades, por lo que no se hizo mucho al respecto.

I’m sure the medical profession had to notice it but a number of things were working against the poor black folks, many did not have insurance so when they did get sick they couldn’t get treatment, there was no prevention. There was nothing in terms of preventive policies or protocols in place. People who were suffering got treated in an emergency room.

It wasn’t until 2016 that attention was brought to this. Early that year I came home from work to find my wife really in such a bad way and I noticed how strong that chemical odor was so I called 911. The emergencies came out and the fire chief got out of his car and he was struck by the odor. His statement to me was, ‘My God I don’t know how they expect you people to live like this.’

He said, ‘well, you can call and report ’em but you know that plant is one of the largest taxpayers in the Parish so I don’t know how much luck you’re going to have with that.’ And he was absolutely correct.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality was just a front for the petrochemical industry. So in 2016 EPA decided to take action since nobody locally was doing anything.  The EPA set up a monitoring system where they monitored the level of chloroprene, setting the the level at which humans could tolerate a lifetime exposure at 0.2. After 4 months they told us there was no place inside St.John’s Parish that had a safe level of chloroprene. 

He said, ‘well, you can call and report ’em but you know that plant is one of the largest taxpayers in the Parish so I don’t know how much luck you’re going to have with that.’ And he was absolutely correct … The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality was just a front for the petrochemical industry.

Nuestra agencia estatal, por otro lado, dijo que nuestra tasa de cáncer era la misma que la tasa nacional, que era del 0.9 por ciento. La EPA entró e hizo un estudio y demostró que las personas que vivían en Reserve, mi comunidad dentro de la parroquia de St. John, tenían 1,500 veces el promedio nacional de riesgo de cáncer. 

Cuando descubrimos por la EPA cuán gravemente estábamos siendo envenenados por las plantas químicas, fuimos a nuestro gobierno en busca de ayuda. Lo que fue muy motivador para nosotros fue la escuela primaria que estaba a solo 1,500 pies de esa planta. Todavía hoy, entre cuatrocientos y quinientos niños negros de primaria van a la escuela allí, donde la EPA midió las concentraciones de cloropreno entre cuatro y setecientas veces lo que consideraban un nivel seguro. Esa es una cámara de gas en la que están sentados estos niños.

 Desde el principio pedimos que la planta simplemente no nos envenene, que cumplan con las regulaciones de la EPA. Pero nuestro gobierno nos ha abandonado totalmente. Hemos sido designados como una "zona de sacrificio". Eso es impío. No puedo creer en el siglo XXI, en un país llamado cristiano, que hayan decidido que los negros pueden ser sacrificados en beneficio de las corporaciones. 

Hemos sido designados como una "zona de sacrificio". Eso es impío. No puedo creer en el siglo XXI, en un país llamado cristiano, que hayan decidido que los negros pueden ser sacrificados en beneficio de las corporaciones.

Nuestra única esperanza ahora es llegar a la ONU. Necesitamos llevar nuestra situación al mundo porque obviamente este país ya nos ha cancelado si nos han designado una zona de sacrificio. Para mí está claro que se está perpetrando un genocidio contra los negros de Cancer Alley. Because 92% of the population that is impacted by the petrochemical industry is black in a state where we’re only at 32% of the population.

I’m keeping up this fight because that’s where my whole life is. That’s where all my friends and relatives are. I just cannot give up the fight as yet to try to make life there livable for our people.

And obviously the obstacle seems to get greater as I get more involved in this because now I’ve got to find out who is playing God and deciding to sacrifice me and my family and friends at the feet of the petrochemical industry for the benefit of the profit of these majority of foreign corporations.