The Open Space Council Blog


Be our Guest: Latinos and the Outdoors, Part Two

October 14, 2013

This is the second post in a three-part series looking at Latinos and the challenges and opportunities for conservation organizations and professionals. The focus of this article is on the relationship between Latinos and the Outdoors. Read part one here.

What do we mean we talk about the relationship between Latinos and the Outdoors? I recently participated in this KPFA interview with Rue Mapp of OutdoorAfro about diversity in the Outdoors, where we talked some on this issue. But I’d like to further explore the ways Latinos can and do engage with the Outdoors by focusing on these points for consideration:

Of course, these points also apply to many communities of color, but I want to highlight this for Latino communities.

Embedded in these points are some complicated intertwining issues, but they present a useful opportunity to tease out the differences when we talk about outside, outdoors, and the Outdoors.

Outside, outdoors and The Outdoors

First, “outside” simply means being outside, but that still presents a wide range of meanings. Latinos ARE outside. Ironically, much of that outside experience is working the fields of agriculture—an experience that is important to remember because it provides a frame and starting point for the farm labor demographic—and why they would engage differently with the outdoors, but also the level of knowledge and expertise they have developed.

However, it has been documented that Latinos readily engage in outdoor activities of a recreational nature much like other groups, especially with family as a focus. This attitude often starts in the backyard but then spreads out to municipal and county parks. I call this the “carne asada” effect. Local parks with recreational space for family-oriented activities such as barbecues are a draw for Latinos. Enjoyment of local parks is also not limited to the grill and the soccer field—there are many Latinos who like to fish, 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 we are still within a familiar context where we can use many familiar skills to have fun in these environments: playing in an open field, firing up the grill, setting up the volleyball net, etc.

Outside, outdoors and The Outdoors

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 and using new skills.

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 general scenic spots. They may want to wade or swim in the river. They may bring food like some birotes/bolillos with a particular stuffing. But they may or may not know about the different fees, the possibility of purchasing a federal lands pass, or all the steps for reserving a camping ground. They may also be unfamiliar with the particular regulations for a National Park and the differences from 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.” 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 us, chat check-in, and connect using some cultural understanding can make an incredible difference in preventing misunderstandings, closing knowledge gaps, and learning 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 may become 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 what information is being 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 that serve 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.

Outside, outdoors and The Outdoors

Lastly there is the capital-O “Outdoors”, which I propose is a frame of mind that many of us in outdoor conservation take as a given set of values and shared experiences. We tend to overlook what bridging opportunities and skills are needed to get communities to this stage, instead defaulting to the idea that “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 the need for time, experience, skills, transportation, or a welcoming environment.  This is where many of us want to connect with Latinos because being in the Outdoors showcases the wonders of our public lands and we hope to instill that sense of preservation and conservation.

Organizations that handle this well can make 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—and assuming that such experiences are more valid than the recreational experiences at the city park. They are all equally valid to foster connections with nature and open spaces.

When it comes to outdoor skills, I would like to emphasize that these should be 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 who have already been exposed to outdoor experiences. But many times you may need to address the whole family, and especially the parents, 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 connections 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.

Our main goal is to address the recognized need of bolstering diversity both in the outdoors and in the Outdoors, while recognizing where Latinos are and where they would like to be—and validating experiences outside. 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 we have a role and contribution to make in a wider range of “outside” places. It means not only being outside but also engaging with the Outdoors, and in having experiences by both enjoying the outdoors as well as conservation of the Outdoors.



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. He welcomes opportunities to collaborate and increase Latino engagement with conservation issues. 

Read part one of José’s blog posts here.

Photos by Annie Burke.