By JAVIER ROJAS
Growing up in Boyle Heights, Mario Becerra was always trying to find refuge from the heat. Palm trees didn’t do trick, and the hot asphalt he played baseball on didn’t help matters.
“We would look for a shady tree where we could get away from the sun and drink our raspados,” Becerra said. “Growing up in Boyle Heights, we didn’t have many trees we could just relax under.”
Today, the 38-year-old Becerra is at the forefront of expanding the urban forest and spreading more shade across Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and other communities with his non-profit organization, A Cleaner, Greener East L.A.
The organization, which Becerra founded in 2012 with friend Fabian Beltran, is focused on improving air quality and the appearance of neighborhoods that have been neglected over the decades. So far, the organization has planted and given away more than 5,000 trees in Boyle Heights, East L.A, El Sereno, Lincoln Heights, South L.A. and other communities.
ACGELA hosts events where roughly 200 to 300 trees are given away. These trees — such as African Sumac and Crepe Myrtle — thrive in Southern California’s warm and dry climate, providing shade while not consuming as much water as some more thirsty varieties.
Becerra finds the tree giveaways go beyond helping the environment – they serve to connect residents to their communities.
“I thought to myself, ‘How do we get people invested in their own community?,’” said Becerra. “We found that planting trees is a great way of accomplishing that.”
But setting up an organization to carry out his vision didn’t come easy for Beccera, who works a full time job as a vending machine owner. He had no prior knowledge of how to start or run a nonprofit.
When it came to raising cash to buy trees, Becerra convinced East L.A. restaurant owners to give him their used cooking oil so he could sell it to generate the revenue he needed. He was also faced with the challenge of watering some of the newly planted trees in cases where no one else offered. His solution: Becerra would drive over to his father’s home and fill up his truck bed with water before heading out to irrigate the fledgling trees.
“When we first started I thought it would be easy,” Becerra said. “You know, you dig a hole and put a tree in it.”
Becerra’s new organization eventually received attention and help from former Los Angeles County Supervisor, Gloria Molina. She connected him with the L.A. Conservation Corps, Today, the group also partners with other organizations, such as Tree People and North East Trees, to distribute trees.
Jaqueline Ruvalcaba, project manager at ACGELA, says the nonprofit is winning more recognition from communities.
“A lot of people agree with us that there are not enough trees in our community,” said Ruvalcaba. “You go to other areas like Pacific Palisades and there is [no shortage] of green and plants. We’re trying to bring some of that here to Boyle Heights.”
For ACGELA the next step is to create more partnerships in the community, including working in El Sereno, where it is planning to landscape the median near Huntington Drive and Van Horne Avenue.
Becerra says he can already see changes throughout East L.A. where trees that were planted by him or others are taking root, providing the shade he yearned for as a kid.
“One of the best feelings is seeing a tree we planted months ago and coming back to the area and seeing it bloom,” Beccera said. “It the resiliency of trees and of the human spirit to keep it alive.”
Javier Rojas is a freelance writer and award-winning photographer who lives in El Sereno
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