The Unsung Heroes of Environmentalism


Mateo leans over his phone, searching through his photos. He still wears a yellow safety vest and long sleeve shirt to protect him from the sun on these 90+ degree summer days.

Finally, Mateo finds the photo he is looking for: an aerial of San Blas, Mexico, his hometown. The image captures an array of brilliant colors: the deep blue of the ocean cresting on pearly beaches, framed by the tropical forest green.

As Mateo describes his home, each thing he loves is in some way an ecological wonder. He boasts his home was just an 8-minute walk to the bay, where he and his friends would swim across to get to the ocean, for surfing and dreaming of finding bigger waves.  

Mateo joined Verde Landscape ten years ago after moving to Portland. A family member connected him to the crew, but Mateo was initially uninterested in what he understood to be “landscaping.” Cutting grass and watering lawns were not compelling jobs to him.

His perspective changed when he learned more about what landscaping means to the Verde Landscape social enterprise. At Verde, more experienced crew members teach new employees about the environmental impact of their work. 

Removing invasive species extends the cycle of life by creating space for native plants to grow, providing habitat for more diverse fauna, Mateo explains. Knowing this motivates Mateo in his job; he has a passion for environmentalism that connects back to the natural environment where he was raised.

Additionally, Mateo loves to see the change in landscape after a big project, like Cully Park.

“Only dust and wind,” he said, describing Cully Park years ago. Now, what was once a landfill has been transformed into a 25-acre oasis of recreational fields and plant beds teeming with native species.

Portland is rich with green spaces. Despite their “natural” appearance, most of these green spaces are built and maintained by workers, and especially workers of color, who, like Mateo, are motivated by the ecological impact of their work. These unsung heroes of the environmental movement make the city we love possible.

Click here to support Verde Landscape crew members like Mateo and their environmental education by donating to build a more comprehensive training program at Verde Landscape.

Jess Faunt