Founder of Latino Outdoors Continues to Push for Latino Communities to Go Explore Nature
Hiking brings people together, and one man used this idea to plant the roots of environmentalist education and community wellness into one of the least represented groups in outdoor recreation.
José González had his introduction to the virtues of outdoor recreation and its uses after he first arrived to this country from Mexico at age 9. While living in California’s Central Valley he became enamored with the natural environments around him, starting him on a path towards serving his community through environmental education methods.
After spending time as a K-12 public educator, González now serves as Executive Director of Latino Outdoors, an organization he started when it was apparent that Latino communities, like ones here in the Bay Area, were not part of the experience of being outdoors, in state parks and the plentiful open spaces.
Latino identity is a big factor for why González began his journey that now has him working on Latino Outdoors. “What does it mean to have a Latino identity? We’re trying to, on one end, dispel the stereotype that Latinos don’t have any relationship or connection to the outdoors but also be the reality that there’s limitations to access.”
There is according to González a stereotype which excludes Latinos from activities like hiking, camping etc. He adds, “We used to joke, it’s the ‘carne asada effect’. We’re out there in the parks, but it will be the city parks, municipal parks. Not necessarily with a daypack, going out in a preserve. So our goal is to be able to say, well, what are the barriers that are there for that, and then once we’re able to bridge some of that, what does it look like.”
By working with volunteers including families and young professionals he’s brought into the fold of hiking and outdoor recreation, Latino Outdoors is building a network which means more opportunity for expansion.
“We’ve been building an organization around a community network and movement. That’s the whole idea, sometimes we have many families, especially immigrant families, that don’t see themselves going out hiking or doing activities in the same way that might be expected,” says González.
His ultimate goal is to have a sustaining network which helps communities get in touch with their local environment and be able to have these groups know that these parks are part of their communities, and accessible to anyone.
González can trace the initial idea of Latino Outdoors to his own background and heritage. “That’s the whole idea behind Latino Outdoors. It started with me just kind of saying, ‘I like the outdoors’, but I’m also pretty proud to be a Latino in A, B, C ways. I’m an immigrant from Mexico, and I came right before turning 9. First in my family to go to college, oldest of 9. So, in many ways, it’s a familiar Latino story, but at the same time I got hooked into the outdoors and conservation.”
González says his approach to the environment, as a traditional conservationist, came from participating in an outdoor conservation program in college aimed at migrant students. “I was going to go into education, I became a teacher, and this was another way that I was going to be of service to the community.”
What really spurred the activity was his actions in speaking to parents, and finding out if they were aware of the benefits of camping and outdoor recreation for their children, and then for themselves.
“I found it to be really rewarding because some kids were not gonna have that experience unless they went to a school that had a sixth grade camp type of experience. They weren’t going out to summer camp or having what they would call enrichment activities,” says González. “This hooked me into it, but also because it allowed be to travel around California and go into natural spaces that I didn’t go to growing up. That was the first time I connected with Yosemite for example, that I found out about all these outdoor schools.”
His pursuit of people like him was evident in school as he found in his Latino circles he was ‘the outdoor person’. “In college I was in MEChA, and an environmental club. I was the one talking about the environmental justice stuff and in MEChA I was usually talking about the conservation stuff so my fellow Mechistas gave me a nickname at the end of the year ceremony, ‘the Green Chicano’. It was this idea of it being cultural for me.”
Getting People Out There
González recalls going to do a presentation in Mountain View a few years ago at the Whisman School District that really pushed the idea of helping not just children to go outdoors, but whole families.
“I said, ‘how many of you have seen a redwood? We have them right here right next to us.’ And that’s what brought it home to me, what were some of the ways we could connect families with their nearby parks. So that conservation organizations could see it’s not rocket science, it’s tradition of community organizing and inviting and welcoming. So we started this community of leaders in the Latino Outdoors name and now we’ve been building it.”
González says, “the idea is to take families out and have them feel like it’s a welcoming safe space for them, get to learn what this space is, knowing that this preserve is different than the city park. There may not be a grill out here, but here’s what a hiking experience can be like. So that when they see a ranger outside, they know what that means. On one outing I had a dad say, ‘when I see a ranger, I almost feel like they’re gonna come and tell me what I did wrong’.”
The first actual outing under the Latino Outdoors name happened in February of 2014. González says that this initial outing provided the model for the organizations methods. “That was actually in Point Reyes. I had an environmental group basically email me, and they came across my name. They typed in ‘Latino outdoors’ and I’m the first thing that popped up.”
This group wanted to work with a Latino organization to organize a trip to Point Reyes under a grant they had. “So we did it, worked together, three Latino serving orgs, one in Marin, and we took a group out there,” says González. “If we can be of service to Latino service organizations we don’t have to do all the organizing, we can assist. Later on that summer we got grants to do more outings in that summer and we did those in the Central Valley to see the sequoias, as well as other parts of California.”
The initial response from that first group was according to González supportive but surprising to the attendees as well. “They didn’t know that this was so close. Half an hour, 45 minute drive. It was a mix as well, we had a group of Latino boy scouts that came out. We also had some elder couples, and they’re like, ‘we’ve never been out here’, this was like the first time they had been out there.”
González makes sure to add a powerful story from one of the group leaders, Raquel Rangel, of a Central Valley outing. “One of the leaders, she shared this profound quote. She said after the outing one of the participants came up and said, ‘thank you for bringing us to your park.’ Our leader said, ‘no, this is a public place. It means this is your park too. This is our park.’ That shift, shifting from feeling like we’re visitors in somebody else’s space to that sense of, ‘wait a minute, these our public lands and documentation doesn’t matter here’, because as a resident you’re probably already paying taxes somewhere. Plus, you’re a community member. That’s one of the biggest things that’s come out a lot.”
González says that barriers have existed, and will continue to do so. The biggest one is transportation. “We do have cases where some families have difficulties accessing the place because either they might have one car in the family and a family member needs to use it for the weekend and others don’t know how to get to somewhere. Or public transportation is not available somewhere. Or they have to be strategic in how they’re spending their money.”
González adds that the transportation barrier has been addressed in some ways with grants for transportation which are sometimes available and helps participants join in Latino Outdoors activities.
Expanding the Narrative
Last year the National Park Service celebrated it’s centennial. Part of that was really focusing in on how the next hundred years would bring in a more diverse population of the American People to national Parks. González says that working with them, being one of the few organizations that focuses on Latinos in the outdoors also helped boost their profile, but also showed there still is progress to be made, as much as the NPS attempted to bring in Latinos.
“Especially last year with the centennial it was a lot of telling people (in the Park Service) that it’s doable, but you need to invest in resources to make it happen, otherwise it doesn’t move, you keep talking about the barriers instead of saying this is how we’re working with the solutions.”
“Our program in the Pacific Northwest has worked with the Park Service there under the leadership of our Coordinator Michelle Piñon . Here in the North Bay because we have Golden Gate, Muir Woods, Point Reyes we have done outings with them under the leadership of our Coordinator Alicia Cruz. I’ve also sat in at different roundtables in DC with them, the Department of the Interior to do that. And we’ve also started a bit of work with the National Park Foundation, helped them expand that out. Especially when they were trying to do “Encuentra Tu Parque”.
González wants to continue to work with the NPS and the organizations like his to work on expanding this narrative of Latinos being tied to the outdoors, that it possible and with networks he’s created since Latino Outdoor’s inception it should be possible to change the way Latinos see the environment and its uses.
Networking with similar organizations was a challenge at first, according to González. “When I started, I literally was knocking on doors to see who else was doing it. What I wanted to do was work with or for other organizations doing it, and that wasn’t happening, so I just started my own thing. Since then, there’s 4 other orgs that we partnered with a year and a half ago and we created something called the Latino Conservation Alliance, because we were either small start-up orgs or we were organizations that were just starting to do environmental conservation.”
These organizations reside mainly on the East Coast but some do have national presence. They include: Green Latinos, Hispanic Access Foundation, Hispanic Federation, and HECHO, which is an acronym for Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors.
“They’re not necessarily there to do national level work. They’re really rooted in community. For me it’s been exciting to kind of see how they can all be connected as a part of a movement.”
The Future of Latino Outdoors
Last year a short film that Latino Outdoors co created with Nature Kids Institute called “Estamos Aqui” (“We are here!”) was screened at the White House, and González felt a unique sense of pride at his accomplishment that began with an inquiry 3 years ago.
“It was this beautiful culminating thing from not existing, to having a domain name, to now having this visibility, and for us the national administration is different now and has changed, but that brings it’s own challenges and opportunities.”
The future of the organization lies in organizational development according to González. “Now we have a community to support, a team of volunteers that’s helping us make the work happen, so our shift is in investing in them so that in 5 to 10 years Latino Outdoors will be one of the go-to, or the go-to organization when people think about, ‘how do we engage the Latino leadership in nature and conservation?’ We’re there.”
A Latino Timeline of Conservation
González recalls that the history of Latino groups of this nature were mostly erased from history. In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s Latino based environmental groups in the Southwestern United States came and went. He sought to start something up again which would reclaim that forgotten history of Latinos in the outdoors. He adds that looking into the past helps him decide how to move forward with Latino Outdoors.
“For me, the sustainability and longevity is important otherwise we disappear and we kind of become another one of the organizations that didn’t make it. To me that’s important because when I look back at the history of Latino heritage in the American conservation and environmental movement, most of the time we’re written out, or we’re not recognized for the contributions we’ve made along the way.”
This timeline of Latino environment movements is partially responsible for González’s push to reclaim the history and representation of Latinos in the outdoor movements. “It’s kind of this lost lineage, and for me, I don’t want that to happen because we have a really strong community, so for me it’s like a lot of our big names in conservation like the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy they’ve received the support to exist. Our big push now is to say, ‘we need to be part of that infrastructure, and they took time.’ So for us to exist in that capacity, it’s important that we create an organization that sustains a community, a network and a movement. That’s my big plan,” says González.
At the end of the day González wants for families and individuals to take a chance and get out with either one of the Latino Outdoors group outings or on their own to experience the open spaces here locally, statewide, and beyond.
“For someone who has little to no connection [to the outdoors] we usually say if in doubt, reach out to us and see if there’s an outing nearby. Sometimes the barrier might be that you just don’t know if you want to go out there on your own, or what to do, what to wear, what to bring, how to plan for it.”
González notes how much nature we are surrounded with in the immediate Bay Area, and how he explains to families the wellness aspect of being out in the fresh air, away from the urban for a few hours at a time is a rewarding experience, both for the mind and for the family health as a whole.
“Especially for families that have been working hard all week, ‘why would I want to go spend two hours walking?’ Think of it this way, you have been working hard all week and what you need is some restoration, some health, some wellness. You need some time with your family. That’s why a lot of the stuff that we do has that connection to wellness.”
One story that best highlights this aspect for González involves some families that went on a group campout through Latino Outdoors as part of the Wellness Walks program that leader Alicia Cruz set up. The adults and children were separated for their respective activities, children would run around in addition to their activity, and the adults had a mindful practice meditation session led by Alicia.
“It was a mindful practice in the redwoods, such that so many just fell asleep, they were all in focus, and relaxed. That’s what nature can provide you so when you go out there think about it that way.”
As González pursues more ways of tapping into the Latino community, as well as those that have not participated in visiting natural spaces, he values the importance of being seen, being heard, and being represented in environmental education and history.
“For me the most important thing is that Latino’s of any background, immigrant [families], or whether you’ve been here five generations, I feel like it’s important that we see ourselves reflected, not just physically in the outdoors, but in the history of the outdoors, and in the leadership.”
For more information on upcoming events through Latino Outdoors, please visit https://www.facebook.com/LatinoOutdoors/.