Gabriela Chavarria grew up among the concrete and pollution of Mexico City so most of her experiences with nature came from vacations and holidays spent on her father’s hobby farm in nearby Zacatecas.
Still, at a young age, Chavarria developed a fascination for bees that would eventually lead her to a career as a celebrated biologist working on a range of environmental issues, from invasive species to climate change.
“I always loved bees,” says Chavarria, who works as the science advisor to the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “When I was a little girl my teachers would stamp my papers with the ‘hardworker’ bee symbol and I loved that. Later, when I was 15, I got my first bee hives and when I went to the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, I did my theses on African honey bees.”
Chavarria’s smarts eventually landed her at Harvard University, where she earned her PhD in biology and then went on to a series of high-profile appointments. She has served as the director of the National Resources Defense Council’s Science Center and also on former President Bill Clinton’s Invasive Species Advisory Committee.
Chavvaria said she’s not surprised by national polls that show Latinos in the United States have a high degree of awareness and concern about environmental issues.
“A lot of Latinos live in areas that are close to industry and highly polluted,” she said. “They care because they are suffering from the direct impact of the pollution. Their kids are getting sick. They have asthma or they get poisoned from bad water.”
Despite their concerns over the environment, few U.S. Latinos are actively involved in the environmental movement. Chaviarra says that’s because organizations have not done a good job of figuring out how to reach out to Latinos.
She said the NRDC is one nonprofit that has made an effort by translating all of its materials into Spanish.
“It’s great information,” she said. “But even then, how many Latinos have access to the Internet? Most Latinos work two jobs and they don’t have extra money to give to nonprofits.”
Chavvaria grew up the oldest of five in a traditional Catholic family. Her father was an architect, her mother a stay-at-home mom. At first her parents didn’t know what to make of her fascination with insects.
“I used to take pins out of [my mom’s] sewing basket to pin the insects and make collections,” she says. “My mother’s response was, ‘That’s so gross. You’re a lady. You don’t do those kinds of things.’”
Though her parents were surprised when she told them after college that instead of looking for a husband, she was leaving for graduate school, they were also impressed when she told them she’d won a fellowship to Harvard. “I broke the mold and went against their expectations,” she says.
Although Chavarria has spent her entire adult life living in the United States, she has not forgotten her native Mexico. She has helped form several coalitions, bringing together U.S. and Mexican scientists on conservation issues. One is the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, which works to protect the health of resident and migratory pollinator species in North America.
Pollinators, especially bees, occupy a big space in Chavarria’s heart – even though she’s been stung numerous times.
“I have some photos where I look like I’ve been in a boxing match I was stung so many times,” she says.
Still, she works hard to protect bees. She tells audience members who come to one of her annual “bee talks” that after every third bite of food they should thank a pollinator for making it possible.
“We really take bees for granted,” she says. “But we’re highly dependent upon them for our food.” Chavarria herself keeps her black-and-yellow friends top of mind by wearing on the shoulder of her business suits a gold “honeybee” pin.
Nancy Averett is a freelance writer based in Ohio.