Associate attorney Paola Camacho explains how her Hispanic heritage led to a career of ‘helping people’

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News | September 21, 2022

Moving from El Paso to Charlottesville for law school was literally a breath of fresh air for associate attorney Paola Camacho. Growing up on the US border with Mexico, she called one of the country’s most polluted communities home and says that experience is part of what fueled her desire to ‘help people’ by protecting health. public and the environment.

Shortly after Camacho graduated from the University of Virginia Law School in 2020, she went to work doing legal research and supporting the SELC office in Charleston. When she’s not at her desk, you might find her enjoying nature with her two German Shepherds, eating vegan fried chicken and waffles, or making art or crafts. homemade salsa.

Associate attorney Paola Camacho with her German Shepherds in Folly Beach, South Carolina.

When returning to Texas, she usually takes the long way. That’s because the most convenient route winds through miles and miles of “ugly” oil fields – and their gas flares and nasty smells that she prefers to avoid. “It’s a good reminder of why I do what I do,” Camacho says.

Read our full interview with Camacho below.

In 2020, the American Lung Association ranked the El Paso area as the thirteenth worst in the nation for ozone pollution. Tell us a bit about the environmental issues you faced growing up.

I grew up with asthma. I never got to participate in physical education and never really thought about why so many other kids at school had asthma. I started learning about the environment and the effects of pollution later in life, and at some point it clicked. I thought, ‘Oh my God! There’s a lot of asthma in El Paso. I probably got it because of the pollution.

A smiling woman leans on the shoulder of her grandmother, who is knitting in her wheelchair.
Camacho’s grandmother (pictured) and mother grew up in Terrero, a small, underdeveloped town in Mexico. Camacho says they moved to the United States ‘for a better life’ and seeing his mother caring for his grandmother in her final stages ‘had a big impact on my strong desire to help people’ .

Asthma improves a lot when you breathe cleaner air. When I moved to Charlottesville for graduate school, I was shocked at how much I could breathe.

Day in and day out, the United States and Mexico share pollution from broken down vehicles at border crossings. My community on the El Paso side of the border is one of the most polluted in America, in part due to traffic and industrial activity – including recycling facilities and major highways located right next to schools – but it’s even worse in Juarez on the Mexican side. Many people live without heating and cooling systems in Juarez, and during the winter there is additional pollution from people burning tires for heat.

I experienced pollution as a child and learned more about it when I was a law student and interned at my home for a semester to help our community fight back.

I worry about my family because of the extreme heat and lack of access to water in Texas. Water is the source of life. As for the heat, El Paso is going to be the new Phoenix. We have 110 degree summers and no shade so every year it gets more unbearable. It’s even worse across the border in Juarez because their infrastructure isn’t as good – there’s a lot of concrete there and no shade.

How aware are the residents of El Paso of these environmental issues?

Camacho is hiking near San Augustine, Texas with his German Shepherds.

A lot of people don’t know. Life is tough, especially when you don’t have the privilege of taking the time to educate yourself about things like environmental pollution. Many people focus only on raising their children and helping them in school. Some people work more than full time. It’s even harder with rising costs now – there are all these things that are more pressing for a lot of people.

Ultimately, they know they want their children to breathe clean air, be safe and well nourished.

Speaking of fresh air, what’s your favorite way to get out?

I’m happier to see my dogs Malala and Nymeria happy in nature. That’s why I love the outdoors. For a long time, I thought I couldn’t do much physical activity because of my asthma. I got a German Shepherd in 2014 and they obviously have to go outside a lot. This is how I started hiking, discovering trails and developing my health. When I was in Charlottesville, I loved, loved, loved Shenandoah National Park.

It’s Hispanic Heritage Month. Help us celebrate by sharing your favorite Mexican tradition or your way of honoring your heritage.

Two Mexican women stare at the camera with flower crowns and faces painted as skeletons for Dia de los Muertos.
Camacho and his brother Ladle dress up as Catrinas.

I love Dia de los Muertos. I find it amazing that Mexico retains some Aztec traditions. The Spanish conquistadors tried to eradicate everything from the Aztecs, but today Mexico cherishes its Aztec heritage with pride and holds its traditions to heart – even as it has evolved to accommodate the Spanish religion.

As an adult, I love the holidays for the resilience they represent, but as a child, for its colorful festivities. I remember going to the crowded cemetery to visit my grandfather’s grave on Dia de los Muertos. There is music and food to honor our deceased parents, and lots of candy and “Catrinas” (skeleton people) face painting for the children.

All over the public squares of Juarez and El Paso, you can see more elaborate altars. These days we make an altar at home with pictures of our deceased family and dogs and place some of their favorite things and tokens on it, like the morning paper for my grandfather and kibble for our old man. dog. Sometimes we will also dress up as Catrinas for the occasion.

An altar featuring red flowers, photographs of loved ones and small keepsakes including a sugar skull and an angel figurine.
Camacho’s family makes an altar at home to honor deceased relatives for Dia de los Muertos.

What are your hobbies outside of work?

Besides spending time with my dogs, I also love art – mainly painting and charcoal drawing. I have been painting since I was little. My style is somewhere between realism and impressionism. And I went through a phase of baking big fancy cakes!

what can you share about your role at SELC as an associate attorney?

I provide a lot of support to staff attorneys, such as researching, writing comment letters, filing Freedom of Information Act requests, and reviewing thousands of pages of litigation documents to find the most useful information. or the most relevant for our cases. Now I’m more focused on building future cases, like in the Charleston area where we suspect there are a lot of polluting facilities that don’t meet permit requirements. This is truly unacceptable for the protection of public health.

Join our team to help protect people and the environment.

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