The Open Space Council Blog


Be our Guest: Latinos and the Outdoors, Part One

October 7, 2013

Welcome to the latest installment of our Be Our Guest series with José González of Latino Outdoors. He will share three posts looking at Latinos and the challenges and opportunities for conservation organizations and professionals. We start by looking at what we mean when we talk about the Latino community. 

Latinos have been highlighted as a critical group for the success of the conservation movement. Article after article has pointed to the need for increased Latino engagement in the mainstream conservation movement. At the same time, poll after poll after poll has shown that support for a wide range of environmental issues is high among Latinos, who often demonstrate more concern than any other ethnic group. This is happening as an increasing number of Latino politicians are being elected at the state level. The challenge comes in translating that support into action that is culturally relevant and meaningful for conservation, while understanding the diversity of Latinos and how their demographic shift presents opportunities for the conservation movement, particularly in California and the Bay Area.

A recent presentation for the Parks Forward Initiative demonstrates the demographic changes.  By 2020, Latinos are expected to be 43% of the population of California, with whites at 35%. This year Latinos reached a plurality in the state.

The Bay Area Census reports Latinos as 23.5% of the local population based on the 2010 Census. Looking at projections by the CA Department of Finance, all Bay Area counties will continue to experience a growth in the Latino population. By 2020, Alameda will be 25% Latino, Contra Costa 27%, Marin 19%, Napa 37%, Sonoma 27%, Solano 26%, San Francisco 16%, Santa Clara 29%, and San Mateo 28%—and the percentages will only keep growing.

But what is the Latino population?  What does it mean when we refer to “Latinos” and what diversity is represented within the term?

Group of climbers, photo by Jose Gonzalez

This is crucial because knowing the Latino community in your area informs your engagement strategies for conservation, from the use of language to the cultural norms represented in staff, practices, and outreach materials. Conservation strategies and activities that resonate highly with one Latino community may not resonate as well with other Latino communities.

Although what it means to be Latino is increasingly discussed and debated, there are some main starting points about nuances that may be helpful to conservation professionals. Generally, Latinos (a term used interchangeably with the term Hispanic) across the US descend from many different nationalities and can be of any “race”. Though skin color is often used as an indicator, it is a limiting factor. The US Census generally classifies Latinos as white, but there are also black Afro-Latinos, and Latinos who have roots from one or more indigenous peoples. When thinking about the Latino community, some guiding questions can be framed around some of these categories which influence cultural practices—while keeping in mind that other factors and categories are applicable depending on the level of analysis. Today we will look at language, nationality, immigration, and age but there are many other characteristics to consider. But let’s start here:


Spanish is the most common language associated with a Latino identity—but no one should assume that by simply translating your outreach materials into Spanish, you are reaching the Latino community.

In California, 25% of Latinos report that “only English” is spoken at home. The other 75% report that there is another language other than English spoken at home—usually Spanish. Language is a cultural identifier for Latinos but it is not limiting, it is additive—in one market study, up to 85% of Latinos identified themselves as Latino AND “American”, with “ambicultural” Latinos identifying Spanish and English as their primary languages. But although language is an important part of engaging Latino communities, it is increasingly becoming only a starting point to Latino outreach. More and more Latinos will respond to English instead of just Spanish, but many also respond to or use code-switching when it comes to outreach (often referred to as “Spanglish”).


The vast majority of Latinos in the US are of Mexican and Mexican-American descent, an estimated 65% of the US Latino population. For the Bay Area, an estimated 75% of Latinos are of Mexican descent, but you should not make that assumption for your immediate community—how communities are clustered in your area can differ. For example, the community you work with may be mostly of Guatemalan or Salvadorian descent.  (You can see the densities for Bay Area 2010 US Census tracts in this interactive map from the San Jose Mercury News.) Even within the category of “Mexican descent” there is variety, as a community can be descended from a specific region of Mexico.

Even though we use the term Latino as a pan-ethnic term, it is important that when focusing on your particular community, it may be important to note the nationality of the community you work with first. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 51% of Latinos/Hispanics surveyed in 2012 preferred to be first identified by their family country of origin than by pan-ethnic terms like Hispanic and Latino. This speaks to the need to engage with, understand, and establish meaningful communication with the Latino community with which you work.

Group at sunet, photo by Jose Gonzalez


One should not make the assumption that all Latinos are recent immigrants. In California as of 2011, 63% of Latinos are “native born”, with 37% being “foreign-born”. Throughout the US there are many Latino communities that have been here for generations—many tracing their community’s US heritage to the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. This informs the history and language used that can connect Latino communities to nature and open spaces. As the Western Diversity Project pointed out, some Latino communities prefer to be engaged in English or with bilingual outreach because of their multi-generation presence in the United States. There are of course many Latino communities that are mostly or entirely recent immigrants, and even if that community is primarily of Mexican descent, there will be internal diversity.  Many recent immigrant communities are of indigenous descent (such as Mixteco and Triqui). That means that Spanish is not necessarily their primary language. Also, recent immigrants bring a different frame of reference of connecting to the land, either as farmworkers, curanderos, or farmers in their native communities.

It is therefore critical to know if the Latino community you work with is a recent-immigrant community, established for generations, or bilingual and bicultural.


It’s important to emphasize that the Latino population will keep growing and changing. As of the 2010 US Census, 51% of the under-18 population in California is Latino, compared to 27% for whites. Over half of those in K-12 California schools right now are Latino children, and the median age for Latinos in California is 27.  This ever-growing percentage increasingly defines itself with an “American” identity which is bi-cultural and bilingual. That presents a challenge but also an opportunity to engage them to build on the shared American/Latino conservation successes of the past. The future is now, it is here, and it comes with a predominately Latino face.

So how does this connect to conservation and engagement with open spaces? The next piece will delve a bit more into the relationship between Latinos and the Outdoors. Then we will dig a little deeper into strategies for engaging Latinos in conservation.

José González holds a M.S from the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment. He is the Founder of Latino Outdoors and writer for Green Chicano, which is syndicated on News Taco, the Latino News Daily. He is a Butler-Koshland Fellow and can be reached at josegagonzalez(at)gmail(dot)com, on Twitter @JoseBilingue and @Green_Chicano.

Photo of the author, Jose Gonzalez

See past posts in our Be Our Guest series.