Young Latina Nalleli Cobo Is Recognized With the Prestigious Goldman Environmental Award

Nalleli Cobo BELatina Latinx
Image courtesy of goldmanprize.org.

There is no doubt that the younger generation, especially young people of color, have much clearer priorities than the rest.

Just look at the story and trajectory of Nalleli Cobo, the young Latina recognized with the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work against oil drilling sites in Los Angeles.

At the age of nine, Nalleli Cobo first became involved in community activism. Her journey began when she realized she was often sick. Her frequent headaches, stomachaches, nosebleeds, and body spasms turned into asthma and palpitations. Soon after, Nalleli learned that others in her community also had similar problems.

Nalleli lived in an apartment complex in South Los Angeles across the street from AllenCo’s oil drilling operations. Terrible odors permeated her community every day. After calling regulatory agencies, Nalleli realized that the oil well odors were only getting worse. 

Nalleli and her neighbors took action by creating a grassroots campaign called People Not Pozos. Through grassroots organizing, Nalleli raised the voice of her community fighting against AllenCo, which has been poisoning their neighborhood for years and causing them to shut down in November 2013 temporarily. Her community is still fighting to close the oil well permanently.

Nalleli Cobo grew up in University Park in South Central Los Angeles, 30 feet away from an AllenCo-owned oil well, in 2009.

Her mother is from Mexico, and her father is from Colombia. The latter was deported when Nalleli was two years old, and the young girl was raised by her mother with her three siblings, her grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother, all in an apartment.

The young activist told the BBC that she began experiencing headaches and nausea in 2010.

“I got body spasms so severe I couldn’t walk; my mom would have to carry me because I would freeze up like a vegetable,” Cobo said. “I got nosebleeds so severe that I would have to sleep sitting down so I wouldn’t choke on my own blood at night.”

After talking to neighbors suffering from similar symptoms, she and her family began to mobilize with their community and realized that the oil well could be the source of the illness.

As NBC News explained, in March 2020, Cobo, co-founder of the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition, helped lead the group to permanently shut down the Allenco Energy oil drilling site that she and other community members said was causing them serious health problems. She also helped convince the Los Angeles City Council and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to vote unanimously to ban new oil drilling and phase out existing sites in Los Angeles.

After community pressure and scrutiny from elected officials, Allenco Energy agreed to suspend operations in 2013. The place was permanently shut down in 2020, and the company was charged under state and local environmental health and safety regulations. 

That same year, Nalleli Cobos was diagnosed with cancer, and her family faced the anguish of paying mammoth medical bills. But thanks to a crowdfunding campaign, Cobos was finally able to undergo a radical hysterectomy that saved her life.

“My definition of environmental justice is the ability to breathe clean air despite my age, my gender, my ethnicity, social-economic status, or zip code,” she told the BBC. “It is fighting; it is protecting my community, my home.”

Cobo co-founded the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition in 2015 to bolster efforts against oil sites and work to phase them out citywide.

That year, the youth group sued the city of Los Angeles, alleging violations of the California Environmental Quality Act and environmental racism. The lawsuit was settled after the city implemented new drilling application requirements.

Cobo, now 21, was recognized Wednesday for the environmental justice work she has done for more than half her life. She received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, awarded annually to individuals from six regions: Europe, Asia, Africa, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America.

“I did not want to answer the phone because it was an unknown number,” Cobo, who was getting bubble tea when she received the call about the prize, told NBC News in a Zoom interview Wednesday. “I didn’t even know I was nominated. I started crying.”