The 297-acre Big Marsh Bike Park on Chicago’s Southeast Side draws herons, egrets, and mallards to its wetlands, coyotes and deer to its meadows, and riders to its bike trails. But as one of the park’s natural environment workers, Luis Cabrales is quick to remind first-time visitors that the surrounding area is far less idyllic.
“There’s a landfill just to the south of us, there’s a decommissioned Acme coke plant to the east, and the Calumet industrial corridor to the west,” he says, pointing a finger in each direction. Big Marsh shares this industrial legacy: Once a dumping ground for steel mills, it was transferred to the park district from the city in 2011 and rehabilitated with an aim of revitalizing the Southeast Side—a predominantly Latino neighborhood long overburdened with toxic air pollution and other environmental health hazards.
This is Cabrales’s hometown. The 23-year-old conservationist grew up breathing air with foul odors and toxic dust stemming from the industries storing manganese, a neurotoxin, and piles of petcoke, a waste product of the oil-refining process, near local homes and schools. Green spaces, like the one where he works today, were scarce.
But it was in his own backyard that a love of conservation blossomed. When Cabrales was young, his family grew a vegetable garden where he would take care of the cucumbers and harvest the tomatoes. “This work has been in my blood for a really long time,” he says. “Growing up, we’d also go to Mexico to my dad’s ranch, called El Pino (“The Pine”), which is why I have a pine tree tattooed on my forearm.”
Today, Cabrales focuses his conservation mission on preserving natural areas for human use. “This is how it should be. We should be able to participate in nature, we should be able to be under these mulberry trees with the mulberries landing on us,” he says from a shaded bench in Big Marsh.
What started as love for a garden when he was a boy further developed in high school, when he joined the Chicago Conservation Leadership Corps, part of the Student Conservation Association (SCA), to remove invasive species and plant trees on the South Side, while also helping to implement an environmental education curriculum and team-building activities for fellow crewmates. (In 2020, he was recognized as the SCA’s Corpsmember of the year.) His hobby grew into a passion for environmental justice when he attended the University of Illinois, Chicago, where his understanding of environmental science changed.
It was during the fall of 2016 that he helped to build a community garden for senior citizens in the Southeast Side neighborhood of Hegewisch, which prompted him to research other gardens. He learned about the Urban Growers Collective, a Black- and women-led nonprofit farm managing eight sites throughout the city and providing hands-on job training for youth, beginner BIPOC farmers, and men at high risk for gun violence. At the same time, he started learning about local advocacy groups, including the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) and the Southeast Environmental Task Force. Through attending the community meetings and gatherings they hosted, he met activists like NRDC Midwest outreach manager Gina Ramirez, Olga Bautista, and Peggy Salazar, three of Chicago’s longtime environmental justice leaders, whom he fondly calls the “Big Three.”
As he learned about their collective mission to build a safer, more equitable future for Chicago’s low-income communities of color, Cabrales knew that he didn’t want to study environmental science as a monolith. Instead, he set his mind to studying the interplay of health, conservation, biology, social justice, and environmental justice, which has shaped his intersectional view of environmentalism today.
“I couldn’t just work out here in nature without addressing my culture, my identity, and where I live,” Cabrales says. “The university introduced me to a different side of environmental science, which was environmental racism and environmental justice. I couldn’t learn them separately. I had to learn them at the same time—which is why I switched to health studies, because all the community work I was doing aligned with environmental justice, working in nature, and studying plants.”
In 2018, Cabrales cofounded the Southeast Youth Alliance (SYA), a group that amplifies opportunities for local youth and develops the next generation of community leaders from the Southeast Side of Chicago. SYA’s mission is to reimagine stewardship through engaging in conservation work while also engaging in dialogues surrounding its members’ place in nature and the burdens they have faced in their quest for environmental justice. The group also hosts volunteer events that always include a fun element, whether it’s a bird walk, a bike trip, or a hike.
Cabrales remains committed to changing the typical relationship between people and the earth, part of his quest to “deconstruct colonial thinking of nature.” We should stop trying to take ownership of nature, he explains, and instead see ourselves as in a relationship with the world around us, whether it’s with garden plants or parks like Big Marsh. “When I come here, it’s like I’m stepping into a sacred space,” he adds.
Cabrales’s work has always been Latino-centered, and he seeks out opportunities to help “Black and brown kids know the environmental field is a field to work in. It's somewhere they can be paid and enrich themselves like I have.” He understands that he works in a career field that wasn’t created with him in mind—Latino people are vastly underrepresented in environmental fields, despite the fact that they are overwhelmingly supportive of protecting future generations from environmental threats.
While he continues his work to stop polluters like General Iron’s notorious metal shredder from moving into his neighborhood, he also loves to stop and remind people to bask in the nature around them. As his neighbor and friend Ramirez described him, “He represents environmental justice, but he radiates the joy that exists here.”
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