¡Muy buen jueves! Today we highlight how the lowly potato fueled the rise of the West, a peculiar raffle, and the art of making piñatas. Send us any feedback (quejas, sugerencias, chismes) by replying to this email. Read the Spanish version here.

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This newsletter — edited by Michele Salcedo — is 1,343 words, about a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: The deadly cost of protecting the environment

Engineer Sandra Cuéllar is one of many Colombians who've gone missing or been killed for their environmental activism. Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images

Latin America and the Caribbean is the deadliest region for environmental defenders, a violent record that has global repercussions.

Why it matters: The region has several of the most biodiverse areas of the planet, but they are constantly threatened by logging, mining or aquifer overexploitation.

  • Razing those areas has worldwide consequences, such as accelerating global warming when it is already alarmingly high.
  • In many cases, civilian activists are the only ones standing against harmful projects in their communities.
  • Latin America has been a flashpoint for several years, but attacks increased to their worst number on record in 2020.

By the numbers: Of the 227 killings tallied globally by Global Witness, 165 occurred in Latin American countries. That is 72%, or almost 3 out of 4.

  • Colombia had the highest toll, with 65 lethal attacks, followed by Mexico with 30 killings and Brazil with 20.
  • Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua had the fifth, seventh and eighth highest environmental activist death tolls in the world.
  • Global Witness also stresses that many attacks these activists face, like death threats or sexual violence, go unreported.

State of play: Most of the cases also go unpunished, begetting further violence, as “corruption in criminal justice systems too often shields governments and businesses responsible for these murders,” UN Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor tells AP.

  • A notable exception is the 2016 murder of Honduran Berta Cáceres, a member of the Lenca Indigenous community, who was shot dead because of her protests against a hydroelectric dam.
  • Her family pushed tirelessly for justice in the country with the highest levels of impunity in the Americas.
  • Cáceres' killers were sentenced in 2019 to 50 years in prison, while the U.S. trained intelligence officer who hired them was convicted this past summer.

What they’re saying: “The people killed each year defending their local places are also defending our shared planet — in particular our climate,” American environmentalist Bill McKibben writes in the Global Witness report. The work of those activists “safeguard[s] all of us from incessant temperature increases.”

2. Heritage imprint: Peru feeds the world

Quechua farmers in the Peruvian Andes, where thousands of potato varieties, many of them heirloom types, are cultivated. Photo: Federico Tovoli/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Potato, potahto. Tomato, tomahto. It’s a debate we owe to Peru, where those two crops originated before becoming worldwide food staples, Axios’ Oriana Gonzalez reports.

Details: The tubers that we eat mashed, fried, baked or diced were first cultivated in the South American Andes thousands of years ago.

  • Peru still has the widest variety of potatoes in the planet — around 4,000 native types.
  • Many of those survive at 13,000-feet-high climates and have been deemed “genetically resistant” to extreme weather changes.
  • Their export is credited with "fueling the rise of the West," Smithsonian Magazine reports. The potato not only helped end frequent famines in northern and western Europe, but it paved the way for modern industrial farming. When the crop was adopted en masse across the Atlantic, so was the use of Peruvian guano to fertilize it.

Similarly, a scientific study released in April found that 90% of the modern tomato’s genetic composition across the world has Peruvian origins.

  • The name of the red fruit comes from Mexico, where the Nahua people domesticated the crop and called it tomatl. The Spaniards adapted the word, changing it into the one we know today.

Of note: Several crops native to Peru have of late also become popular worldwide, including quinoa and other “superfoods,” like maca root and lúcuma.

Zoom in: Peru, with its mountains, jungles and coastlines, encompasses a variety of climates. Each region offers different culinary cultures, making Peruvian cuisine enormously diverse.

Go deeper: Flashes of Latino ingenuity in Hispanic Heritage Month

3. Uninsured rates among Latinos rise

Uninsured rate by race/ethnicity
Data: U.S. Census Bureau; Note: Margin of error is ±0.2%; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Latinos of all ages were the least insured group in the U.S. last year, according to census data released this week.

By the numbers: 24.9% of working-age Hispanics and 9.5% of those under 18 lacked health coverage in 2020.

  • The uninsured rate was greater for Hispanic men than for Hispanic women, at 19.9% and 16.6% respectively. Both those rates were 1.8 and 1.2 percentage points higher than in 2019, per the data.
  • In past polls the high cost of health insurance and ineligibility for Medicaid were mentioned as the two most common reasons people of all races and ethnic origins lacked health coverage.
  • Census data also shows that U.S. Hispanics had a median income of $55,321 in 2020, under the $67,521 average for all races and ethnic groups in the country.
  • The number of Latinos living in poverty also increased 17%.

Bottom line: Lacking insurance can create unsurmountable medical debt for treatment, and can discourage people from going to a doctor or hospital, even during a pandemic.

  • “I survive little by little, getting checkups only when I have enough saved up to afford them,” Ernesto Vargas tells Noticias Telemundo.

4. Mexico raffles off narco houses

Some of the real estate that was in the lottery, with tickets that each cost 250 pesos, or about $12. Photo: LoterĂ­a Nacional de MĂ©xico

The house featuring a hot tub with a secret tunnel that El Chapo used to avoid capture is one of 22 properties seized from kingpins that Mexico raffled off yesterday in a special edition of the loterĂ­a.

What’s happening: The property in Sinaloa was one of the prizes, along with mansions that once belonged to Amado Carrillo, alias “El Señor de los Cielos,” and U.S.-born Édgar Valdez Villarreal, aka “La Barbie.”

  • The winning lot also included a box seat in the Azteca stadium, host of several historic World Cup matches, for use until 2065.
  • The special drawing was part of Mexico’s bicentennial celebrations today, commemorating independence from Spain. Winners will be kept anonymous for now.
  • The $9.9 million in sales were promised to Mexican Paralympians, who won 22 medals in Tokyo despite the government cuts to their budget.

Of note: Mexican authorities had already attempted to auction off El Chapo’s former home a year ago. There were no buyers.

  • This is the first national lottery with real estate as a prize, though the government of AndrĂ©s Manuel LĂłpez Obrador previously also tried to give away the presidential plane. The attempt was unsuccessful.

5. Stories we’re watching

A 3-year-old child in Havana gets a shot against COVID-19 last month in a trial of Cuba’s Soberana Plus vaccine. Photo: Adalberto Roque/AFP via Getty Images

1. Cuba has asked the World Health Organization to approve three of its five home-grown vaccines, called Abdala, Soberana 2 and Soberana Plus, and today it began vaccinating children as young as 2.

  • The island’s per capita rate of COVID-19 infections is one of the highest in the hemisphere, and there are suspicions of an undercount.
  • The Cuban vaccines reportedly have efficacy rates above 91% against severe coronavirus infections, though their phase 3 results have not yet been published in peer-reviewed journals.

2. Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó was accused by the attorney general's office this past Tuesday of purported “asset theft” and dereliction of duty, adding to two dozen other charges against Guaidó, all of which he denies as politically motivated.

  • The newest case was announced as GuaidĂł and the opposition have been in negotiations with the regime of Nicolás Maduro after years of impasse. Each side claims to be the legitimate government.
  • The attorney general of Venezuela, Tarek William Saab, is one of several officials sanctioned by the U.S.

6. 1 smile to go: Dale, dale al arte

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Some of the pieces in “Piñatas: The High Art of Celebration,” which runs until December at Craft in America Center in Los Angeles. Photos courtesy of Diana Benavidez; Roberto Benavidez; Matthew Hermosillo; Madison Metro/Craft in America

An exhibition is spotlighting the artistry of piñatas, emphasizing their capacity to both create memories of celebrations and comment on sociopolitical issues.

Details: A number of piñatas are hanging as art pieces in the Craft in America Center, a Los Angeles gallery with its own PBS award-winning documentary series.

  • The piñatas range from party purchases that reference Latino culture, like a Selena piece, to items that are critiques of border walls and la migra.
  • There are also sculptures made using piñata materials and techniques, which can include papier-mâchĂ©, cardboard, clay, cellophane, and painted balloons among others.
  • The exhibition “High Art of Celebration” is accessible in-person and virtually through an upcoming web video curatorial walkthrough and Zoom events with the artists and artisans.

Hasta el martes, have a safe one.