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California

She fought a South L.A. oil site as a child. Now, this teen activist has a new battle

Joaquin Phoenix introduces Nalleli Cobo during a City Hall protest Friday.
Joaquin Phoenix introduces Nalleli Cobo during a protest at Los Angeles City Hall on Friday. She was recently diagnosed with a rare cancer, spurring an outpouring of community support.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Nalleli Cobo was launched into activism as a 9-year-old girl who was suffering nosebleeds.

She had become worried about foul smells emanating from the oil site across the street in her University Park neighborhood in South Los Angeles. Her mother and her neighbors complained of headaches and other ailments. Cobo said she endured spasms, heart palpitations, headaches and nosebleeds so severe that she had to sleep sitting up to avoid choking on her own blood.

“Something wasn’t right,” Cobo said.

Cobo and her mother knocked on doors and mobilized their neighbors to complain to regulators about the chemical odors from the AllenCo Energy oil site. Nancy Halpern Ibrahim, executive director of Esperanza Community Housing, remembers seeing her speak up at a news conference in the neighborhood and being struck by this “driven voice from the podium that didn’t falter in any way.”

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“She found her voice,” said Ibrahim, whose nonprofit advocated against the AllenCo site. “It was kind of an astonishing thing.”

The company halted its operations at the University Park site more than six years ago, in the face of a neighborhood outcry and a gaggle of government investigations. Neighbors said their ailments eased.

But Cobo didn’t stop fighting. At the age of 13, she appeared on a video calling on Pope Francis to help ensure that the AllenCo site, which is owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is permanently shuttered.

She has testified at government hearings, met Al Gore and Bernie Sanders, and co-founded a group that sued Los Angeles over drilling in urban neighborhoods, accusing it of “rubber stamping” plans for petroleum extraction near homes and schools. She was a poster child — literally — for the global youth climate strike last year, her face emblazoned on one of its posters.

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Martha Dina Argüello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, praises her as a “powerful storyteller” who has inspired people with her story. When asked about the inevitable comparisons between Cobo and the Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, Argüello pointed out that Cobo was doing it first.

“I would say that Greta is the international Nalleli,” Argüello said.

Now a freshman at Whittier College, the 19-year-old Cobo has continued to push for change as an environmental activist, calling on Los Angeles to phase out oil drilling near homes, schools and other sensitive sites to protect public health. The idea has been opposed by the petroleum industry and its workers, who argue that the industry is well regulated and that a shutdown would cost jobs.

At a rally Friday headlined by actress Jane Fonda on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall, Cobo fired up the crowd by recounting her story and how “we turned ourselves from victims to fighters.”

But the crowd soon sobered when Cobo said that in January, “I found out that I would have to start a new battle for my health.”

It was a shock to environmental activists when Cobo recently revealed that she had been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer. Cobo told the crowd that it affected her reproductive system and that she wouldn’t be able to have children. The teen has taken a medical leave from school and is giving up the dance classes she loves, unable to keep up because of exhaustion.

“My doctors say they have no idea why I have this,” Cobo said in an interview. “We may never know.”

Cobo has held off on disclosing other details about her illness, but she said it will require radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. She has been touched by the outpouring of support: A GoFundMe for her medical bills had raised more than $29,000 by Friday.

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Jesús Villalba Gastélum, 17, who has helped coordinate youth climate strikes across California, said he was still reeling from the news. Although Cobo said the cause of her illness is unknown, Gastélum said “this diagnosis has been a call to action” for activists, crystallizing what is at stake for young people.

“We’re more likely to contract diseases and to develop cancers and these type of life-threatening conditions,” especially in communities of color that are disproportionately affected by environmental threats, he said.

“It’s still hitting me,” Gastélum said. “I tell everyone she’s done the work of seven lifetimes — and hopefully she’ll have a lot more to go. She will come out of this and be talking about this like it was nothing.”

Ibrahim said “we never wanted her to be a canary,” referring to the historic use of the birds by miners to detect dangerous gases. “We’re going to fight very hard…. We want to make sure that nothing extinguishes this fierceness that she has.”

Cobo no longer lives in University Park, but she remains concerned about the AllenCo site, which the company has suggested it could reopen. Under a court order, the facility must either remain closed or follow new rules meant to protect neighbors, but community activists remain uneasy about its reopening at all. An AllenCo representative declined to comment Thursday on the company’s plans.

Beyond the AllenCo site, “I hope for a day where urban oil drilling is read about in history books and people say, ‘It is crazy it was such a common thing for so long,’ ” Cobo said.

Despite the weight of that mission, she’s also a teenage girl who loves baile folklórico and makeup, who texts daily with her older brother and sisters, who says she lost her ability to stay cool when she met the pop star Billie Eilish at an environmental event. Cobo said she is like any other girl — “I just found my passion much earlier than most.”

When actor Joaquin Phoenix introduced Cobo to the crowd gathered Friday outside City Hall, he called her “our future president.” The teen hugged him and stepped up to the microphone, quickly adding that she would run in 2036.

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“Remember my name: Nalleli Cobo,” she said to an eruption of cheers. “It’ll be on the ballot.”


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