The bench dedicated to Cindy Montañez at the TreePeople headquarters in Beverly Hills. Photo by Adam Corey Thomas (courtesy of TreePeople)

Nestled amongst eucalyptus trees, at the top of a hill just off the snaking traffic of Mulholland Drive, is an eco-oasis – the headquarters of TreePeople, an environmental nonprofit organization.

On a clear day, you can see the valley and the City of San Fernando from the hilltop. It is from that spot that TreePeople placed a bench and planted a pollinator garden to honor its Chief Executive Officer Cindy Montañez. 

“We wanted a space where we could reflect on Cindy’s hometown, on her region, on an area so dear to her heart,” said Daniel Berger, executive director of operations at TreePeople. 

Cindy Montañez, center, San Fernando City Councilmember and CEO of TreePeople, plants a native pollinator plant with the help of loved ones at the TreePeople headquarters in Beverly Hills on Sept. 28. Photo by Semantha Raquel Norris (SFVS/el Sol) 

Montañez was raised in San Fernando and has been a longtime public servant of the area – a former mayor of the City of San Fernando, a current city councilmember and at 28 years old was the youngest woman elected as a state assemblymember for the region.  

Berger said TreePeople has planted over 1,000 trees in San Fernando, and that they “want to continue to focus effort [in San Fernando], partner with the community and follow in Cindy’s footsteps.” 

A throughline of Montañez’s life and career has been environmental justice, from planting trees as a teenager to her work as the assistant general manager at the Department of Water and Power to her current role as CEO of TreePeople.

Sadly this past year, at the age of 49, Montañez shared that she had an advanced-stage cancer diagnosis. 

On Sept. 28, TreePeople held an event to present the honorary bench and garden, and to announce the Cindy Montañez Young Leaders Program, a workforce development initiative.

She has no shortage of honors. She has been present at each and every event that has acknowledged her, pushed in a wheelchair accompanied by her family. Among the honors, a San Fernando park has been named after her and Assemblymember Luz Rivas designated Jan. 19 as Cindy Montañez Day, but the event that took place at the TreePeople headquarters felt more like a familial gathering.

“Cindy, you’ve been celebrated in large crowds, in council chambers, at the state capitol and in the state park named after you, but today you’re home,” said Katie Mills, director of education and outdoor access for TreePeople. 

At the start of the celebration, Montañez received a standing ovation from the room filled with friends and family. 

They then announced the launch of the Cindy Montañez Young Leaders program, which provides workforce development training to young people in an attempt to foster a new generation of climate activists. The first group of high schoolers to participate in the program will be from El Monte and South El Monte. 

The program’s first three years are funded from a grant provided by the global power company AES.

Montañez smiled wide as she signed the agreement with AES representative Mark Miller. 

“One thing we now look at, especially with a program like the Youth Leaders, is creating a pathway for our communities to actually see ourselves within this field,” said Marcos Trinidad, senior director of forestry at TreePeople.

Trinidad attributed much of his return to TreePeople after a 10-year hiatus, to Montañez. He reflected on conversations with Montañez about being a person of color and a minority in the conservation world. 

Trinidad said they discussed wanting to “not just open up the door, but hold it open for other folks that were like us.”

When Montañez first became CEO of TreePeople in 2016, she was the first Latina to lead an environmental organization in the US. 

“When you look at changing the community, that change needs to be led by people in the community,” said Trinidad.

Montañez has always been an advocate for the environment, but more importantly for those most burdened by environmental injustice. She leads in partnership with the community, and part of her legacy is pushing the organization to follow those principles. 

“She really brought together the environmentalist movement, the traditional environmentalist movement, with the environmental justice movement,” said Berger, “and made everyone much stronger for it.”

After the announcement of the Youth Leaders program, everyone made their way to the vista and the location of the new garden. 

“Anyone who knows Cindy knows that she loves monarchs [butterflies],” said Berger. “We’re planting a pollinator garden here to honor Cindy and to create a place where we can be together with pollinators.”

With shovels in hand, the crowd worked together to dig holes and plant the array of California native pollinators such as milkweed and sage. These plants provide food and shelter for bees, birds, butterflies and other animals that pollinate plants and help support local ecosystems. 

Montañez was presented with a monarch caterpillar that would soon inhabit her garden. 

“Whenever I see a monarch, I think of Cindy. It’s a beautiful memory,” said Berger.