What do we mean by Latinos in the Outdoors?

Students on Hike

By Jose Gonzalez, NewsTaco

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a Google Hangout on Diversity in the Outdoors, hosted by the Sierra Club. A good summary of it is up on the Huffington Post, courtesy of Stacy Bare, Director of the Sierra Club Mission Outdoors Program.

First of all, this is a much needed discussion, something I have alluded to in previous posts. It is an issue that many are aware of, but it requires a bit more push to keep making it a national discussion.

During the diversity discussion, several good points were made, which also provides a good opportunity to focus again on the ways Latinos do and can engage with the Outdoors, as well as the ways we can support efforts in this endeavor.

Here are the points that Stacy Bare made from the discussion, but furthered boiled down with a special focus connected to Latinos:

  • Find where people are getting outside and build on the work already being done.
  • A traditional Latino family may bring multiple generations out for a party vs. two hikers seeking adventure on a rock face.
  • Activity in a back yard, city park, or sidewalk is equal and more accessible, than national parks.
  • Ensure that people can visualize themselves in the outdoors, change the visual representation of the outdoors: There are not enough Latino youth and family faces in catalogs or outreach.

To note, of course these points also apply to many communities of color, but I want to highlight this for Latino communities so as to engage you, dear readers.

Embedded in these points are some interconnected issues, but it presents a useful opportunity to tease out the differences when we talk about outside, outdoors, and the Outdoors.

First, “outside” simply means being outside, but which presents a range options. Latinos ARE outside. In some cases for many Latinos, ironically, much of that outside experience is working the fields—an experience that is important to note because it provides a frame and starting point for that particular demographic.

But it has also been documented that Latinos readily engage in outdoor activities of a recreational nature much like other groups, with family as a focus. This can start in the backyard but extend to municipal and county parks. I call this the “carne asada” effect. Thus, local parks with recreational space are a draw for Latinos. This is also not limited to the grill and a soccer field—there are many Latinos who like to fish in the rivers, jog on shoreline trails, bicycle, or simply go for a walk around the lake.

What makes many of these spaces safe and enjoyable is that there is a sense of comfort and connection to family, still within reach of “home”. We may be in a new space but still within familiar context and with many of the skills needed to be in these environments: play in an open field, fire up the grill, set up the volleyball net, etc.

Second, there is being in the “outdoors”, which can be an intermediary step for some communities or a brand new experience for others. This can involve really travelling to a new park or encountering a new set of experiences with new skills needed.

Take for example a Latino family going to Yosemite for the first time. They will start where it is comfortable, in the valley or near the recreational areas. They will venture out on the trails to familiar spots, they may want to get in the river, bring food—maybe some birotes/bolillos with a particular stuffing. But they may or may not know all the fees or the option of purchasing a federal lands pass. They may also be unfamiliar with the particular regulations for a National Park, and the differences compared to BLM or Forest Service land.

Such knowledge is important, and many Latino communities know that. But the expectation of HOW they should know can be an issue. As Latinos, we will make mistakes; maybe we will not come prepared and stand out a bit. We may not have “the right shoes” or “look like we belong there”. But how that initial interaction and experience goes will determine if we come back and with what frame of mind. It does not mean we need a “taco stand” at the food court to make us feel welcome, but a Latino ranger taking some time to welcome them, check in, and connect with some cultural understanding can make an incredible difference to bridge misunderstanding, close knowledge gaps, and learn from each other.

Does this mean that you NEED a Latino ranger or your program will be ineffective? Of course not, but if that is an opportunity that is not explored, it is a missed opportunity.

Some accounts note that some families avoid park rangers because they look too much like immigration agents. Some avoid them because they think “federal agent” and wonder about what information is asked for, reported, and for what purposes.

But there are several examples of how to engage Latinos in these “intermediary outdoor steps”. Some programs such as the Environment for the Americas use Latino interns to server as cultural connections for Latino families to access and learn about nearby public lands. Others, such as Pura Vida in Grand Teton National Park work to connect Latino youth with bilingual activities. These examples provide opportunities for Latinos to see themselves in the outdoors in a positive manner, with cultural connections as starting points.

Lastly there is the “Outdoors”, which I propose as a frame of mind and experiences that many of us in outdoor conservation take as a given set of values or overlook what bridging opportunities and skills are needed to get communities to this stage—apart from the “if they just had the information and the equipment”. For example, visiting Yosemite is going to the outdoors. But hiking up Half Dome or backpacking one of the remote trails for a couple of days is being in the Outdoors. This may be out of reach for some Latino communities because of time, experience, skills, or a welcoming environment.  This is where many of us want to connect Latinos because it can showcase the wonders of our public lands and we hope to instill that sense of preservation and conservation.

Organizations that handle this well can instill those connections. Organizations that do not handle it well end up “rushing” communities to “want to love” the Outdoors without considering relevance and cultural connections.

There is also the question of skills provided in a supportive manner.  If you expect Latinos to simply show up for a “camping class”, then you may only get a certain group for whom it seems relevant. Some may have a bit of experience, have the time, have the money, or have someone to go with. You may also only get young professionals or youth that have been exposed to connections with outdoor experiences. But many times you may need to address the whole family and especially the parents so as to really connect conservation ethics with cultural values and relevance. A great example of this is the work of Camp Moreno, which explicitly frames its program with connecting to parents and the family, and giving them the skills with supportive and fellow parents to practice camping skills—and being aware of their concerns and needs.

The point of it all is that we are trying to address a recognized need of getting more diversity outdoors and in the Outdoors, while recognizing where Latinos are and would like to be. You have National Park Superintendents stating that there is a need for more diversity in National Parks. More so than a challenge, this presents an opportunity because we all benefit from increased diversity in the broad range of our public lands, from municipal parks to wilderness areas.

We have solutions bubbling around but it is important to note how programs complement each other and support Latino leadership. Programs like the California Mini-Corps Outdoor Education Program and Camp Moreno highlight Latino leadership, which is needed. This is complimented by the work of organizations like Nature Bridge, Sierra Club Mission Outdoors, and Outward Bound, among many others, that have the resources to get more Latinos outdoors.

But is important to stress that in getting more Latinos outdoors, is important to support Latino leadership in this issue. It is not necessarily lacking, we are here, and the individuals are out there, especially “bridging” individuals such as myself that bridge the Latino and the conservation community. Much like other mestizos, we encounter challenges of identity, especially compared to more “outdoor people”.

Thus, we just need to keep building this leadership infrastructure and keep connecting while identifying and recognizing the value of bridging individuals and giving them a chance to work in this platform. That should serve as a call for mainstream conservation organizations and for Latino organizations looking for expertise on the issue.

It is already fairly well-established that Latinos are engaging with conservation and environmental issues from an environmental health and environmental justice perspective out of necessity. But in addition to that, we have a role and contribution to make in the spectrum from being outside to engaging with the Outdoors, and in having experiences from enjoyment of the outdoors to conservation of the Outdoors.

[Photo by Jose Gonzalez]

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