Myrna Santiago: A Pioneer in Environmental History

In 1985, politically progressive North Americans were flocking to Managua, Nicaragua, to support the leftist Sandinista government. Just six years earlier, a revolution had toppled the corrupt, U.S.-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza.

Myrna Santiago — then newly graduated from Princeton — joined other foreign volunteers trying to help remake the country. For the next four years, she lived in Managua, working for the country’s human rights commission as it investigated reports of attacks on civilians by rightwing contra rebels. The experience deepened Santiago’s commitment to social justice while awakening her to a new set of human rights concerns related to the environment — a major concern of the young government.

Myrna Santiago“I was 25 years old then and so were the Nicaraguans running the country,” she recalls. “It was awesome to witness young people like me being so serious about making a difference for all of Earth’s creatures.”

Nicaragua had more than its share of environmental blights, legacies of Somoza’s leniency toward businesses. Santiago remembers living downwind from the Exxon chemical plant in Managua. “The plant released who knows what chemicals on a regular basis and when they did, the whole neighborhood became saturated with an acrid smell that used to give me headaches,” she says. “There went another brain cell on the path to early Alzheimer’s!”

The Sandinistas welcomed their foreign visitors’ new ideas about cleaning up Nicaragua’s water and air, including organic farming and the installation of wind turbines for energy. Santiago still keeps a postcard from those years. Beneath pictures of volcanoes, jaguars, fish and sea turtles is the motto: “The revolution is also for lakes, rivers, trees, and animals.”

In 1989, however, the Sandinistas lost power in free elections, leaving Santiago without a job. Returning to the United States, she enrolled in graduate school at UC Berkeley, where she earned a master’s and doctoral degree. Initially, she had planned to focus on Mexican diplomatic history but switched course after one of her teachers assigned a book called “Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England,” by environmental historian William Cronon. The book described how the transition from Native American to European dominance affected the early American environment. Santiago was hooked.

“It was like, ‘Oh my God, this stuff is amazing,’ ” she says. “I hadn’t known environmental history existed before that. I totally fell in love with that book.”

The love endured, and today Santiago herself is a pioneering environmental historian. Her 2006 book, “The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1938,” examined the impact of the U.S. and British-dominated oil industry on the land and people of the Mexican State of Veracruz. Published by Cambridge University Press, it won the Latin American Studies Association Bryce Wood Book Award. Santiago’s research helps demonstrate that environmentalism isn’t a middle-class luxury, as it has sometimes been portrayed in the United States, says her friend and colleague Angus Wright, professor emeritus of environmental studies at CSU Sacramento.

Her concern for the oppressed comes naturally. Growing up in Tijuana, she watched her mother struggle to find work as a seamstress after Santiago’s father abandoned them. Once Santiago finished the sixth grade, her mother resettled the family in central Los Angeles, where she found jobs in sweatshops. She told Santiago and her younger brother that she couldn’t have afforded to keep them in school in Mexico, where public school is theoretically free, but where families must pay for expensive uniforms and books.

“My mother made it very clear to me and my brother that the only reason we were moving was for us to go to school,” says Santiago. “She valued education because she hardly had any — she only made it through sixth grade herself.”

Santiago proved to be such a good student that two of her teachers encouraged her to get a scholarship to Phillips Academy in Massachusetts, one of the nation’s most prestigious boarding schools. She excelled at the school, and from there, she went on to Princeton.

At Saint Mary’s, where she has taught since 1998, Santiago has stayed true to the commitment to service that first took her to Nicaragua. In addition to her position as chair of the history department, she is a board member and former director of the Women and Gender Studies Program and an advisor for La Hermandad, a Latin American students’ group.

She delights in sharing her expertise on environmental and social justice with her students, through classes exploring the tumultuous histories of Mexico, Cuba, Central America and Andes nations. Alicia Villanueva, who graduated last year, took six of Santiago’s classes, including one on the Latin American drug trade and another on women’s roles in Latin American history. She said Santiago’s approach was “down-to-earth yet challenging. She makes you feel comfortable to express your opinion, challenges you to think outside of conventional thought and to make connections.”

Santiago has taught January Term travel courses in Cuba, China and Colombia. In January, she plans to accompany a group of students to Cuba to study the island’s experiments with organic farming and other land-use decisions. Andrew Aguilar, another student who graduated last year, describes the visit to Colombia as the “trip of a lifetime.”

Santiago was determined to show her students a different reality from Colombia’s notorious image as the hemisphere’s main source of cocaine. Students spent one night sleeping in hammocks with an indigenous matrilineal community, met the famous Colombian musician Andres “Turco” Gil, who runs a school to teach local children vallenato music, and visited an organic farm. Aguilar, now in his first year as a Teach for America corps member, says Santiago helped him grow as a student and an activist, and also advised him on his career. “Myrna has something to do with everything I do,” he added.

Colleagues praise Santiago for her exceptional dedication to her students. At least three times a year, she includes several students on the guest lists for large parties she hosts at her home for friends working in social justice fields. “They get to meet people working in public health, labor and community organizing — rabble-rousers of all kinds who are old and have fun,” she says.

She makes sure to stress the fun part. “Students often tell me that my class in environmental history is depressing,” she says. “People fight and fight and lose. But that’s not the lesson I want them to learn. It’s more that people fight and lose and then get up again. The story of Latin America’s poor in many ways is less like Humpty Dumpty than those inflatable dolls that you can’t knock down, because they keep coming back.”

-Katherine Ellison

Katherine Ellison has won the Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on the Philippines and numerous awards for coverage of Latin America.