Being outside has historically been a part of Latino culture for generations. While Latinos are not always represented in mainstream conservation groups and movements, groups around the state and the nation are working to change that.
For State Rep. Mark Archuleta Wheatley, D-Murray, the outdoors has always been a part of his life. His mother’s family had lived in New Mexico for generations, and hunting and fishing were a regular pastime. Conservation was a natural extension of that.
Wheatley now serves as a board member for HECHO, or Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors, an organization that works to get more Latinos involved in the outdoors and conservation policy.
One challenge to Latinos specific to Utah, Wheatley said, is that, particularly for those who moved here from another country and are new to the state, they may have barriers that others may not have.
“A lot of families new to Utah, their families are so busy working,” Wheatley said. “And there’s a cost issue. A lot of the equipment is very expensive.”
Conservation and stewardship is an integral part of Latino heritage, said Chela Garcia, director of conservation for the Hispanic Access Foundation. When it comes to mainstream conservation movements, Latinos are often underrepresented, though that doesn’t mean they don’t care about outdoor issues.
“It doesn’t mean we aren’t activated on issues,” Garcia said. “But we aren’t reflected in representation.”
Latinos have cared about conservation and environmental issues for generations, Garcia said.
“This isn’t anything new in our community,” Garcia said. “We might be just getting handed the mike a little more often. We care about it, and it’s important that our voice is not only heard, but represented. Representation really does matter.”
One major value you see in Latinx families is spending time with family and friends, said Olivia Juarez, Latinx coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. That quality time often occurs outdoors.
“I don’t think anyone can take a drive up American Fork Canyon and not see Latinx families enjoying picnic sites, or enjoying Tibble Fork Reservoir,” Juarez said. “This idea that Latinos don’t feel welcome in the outdoors, period, is a myth.”
What you may see in wilderness spaces, Juarez said, is that there is not as much awareness in Latinx communities and communities of other people of color.
The fact that Latinos are less represented in many environmental and advocacy groups has a lot to do with the way that environmental or wilderness issues have been communicated, Juarez said.
“(Issues have been communicated) using language and terminology in spaces where white people are mostly present, and Latinos are mostly absent,” Juarez said, and a lot of that has to do with there not being a specific focus or taking the platform specifically into Latino communities.
Until Juarez was hired as the Latinx coordinator for SUWA, the group wasn’t necessarily making efforts to do presentations, table, and be present in spaces where Latinx community members are the majority.
“One way of working to combat it is being present in these spaces,” Juarez said.
Creating awareness in Latino communities is important also because in many of the countries where people may have migrated from do not have public lands programs like the U.S., Juarez said.
“This idea that (land) is held in trust for the public is a very unique thing to America,” Juarez said. “As the daughter of an immigrant … people don’t come here looking at Utah and think, ‘Wow, those are ours.’ This is everybody’s. That’s another sort of extra amount of effort that SUWA has to put in now when it comes to organizing Latino communities, recognizing that communities don’t have an idea of what public lands are.”
Latinos who are undocumented residents may also think that they don’t have access to public lands, Juarez said — which isn’t true. The Bureau of Land management allows any member of the public to participate in public commenting processes and other public engagement measures when it comes to speaking out for public lands.
Why is it important to specifically reach out to the Latino community?
Latinos being involved in outdoor and conservation is important, because Latinos often approach conservation from a different perspective. Latinos often focus on an environmental social perspective, as opposed to simply an environmental perspective, Garcia said.
Social environmental perspective looks at how humans and conservation interact, Garcia said. For instance, looking at making sure underserved communities have access to public lands. If a community is right next to public lands but doesn’t have access because of lack of transportation, they don’t have actual entryway, Garcia said.
“It’s a very simple concept of how humans interact that aren’t considered when it comes to protections,” Garcia said. “How do we increase access, but also make sure communities are aware of policies behind that lack of access?”
It’s also important because so little of public lands reflect Latino culture and heritage, Garcia said. Only 4% of public lands reflect that heritage, while Latinos make up a much greater percentage of the population.
“When you try to protect the environment, you can’t disassociate it from people and communities,” Garcia said.
Besides that, Latinos are on the path to becoming one of the largest populations in the U.S. in the coming decades, so it’s important to prepare the next generation to be leaders on issues like climate change, Garcia said.
According to the Hispanic Access Foundation, Latinos make up 16.7% of the nation’s population, and are projected to become nearly one-third of the population by 2050. By 2020, half of all youth in America will be people of color.
“Climate change is the most pressing issue of our time,” Garcia said. “If we don’t have leaders educated, we won’t be prepared as a society to cope with it.”
What is being done nationally?
The National Park Service has made changes at many of its monuments and parks to focus on ensuring that the NPS system reflects the country’s diversity.
A 2008-2009 survey showed that only 9% of the NPS’ visitors identified as Hispanic, according to reporting by National Public Radio, which is far from reflecting the 18% of the U.S. population that identifies as Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Reaching out to diverse populations with a special focus on the next generation was a core goal of the Centennial effort in 2016 — and still remains,” said Vanessa Lacayo, public affairs specialist with the NPS Intermountain regional office.
The NPS’ efforts to increase diversity include youth programs such as the Latino Heritage Internship Program, which provides internships to 49 undergrad/graduate students attending primarily Hispanic Serving Institutions at over 45 NPS sites each year, and the NPS Academy, which introduces undergrad and graduate students from diverse communities to careers in the NPS.
On a regional level, the NPS does a lot of work with urban populations, which include Latino populations. In Denver, for instance, an Urban Ranger program works in Montbello, a neighborhood in Denver that is about 61% Latino. As of 2018, about 50% of those rangers identified as Latino, 30% as African American and 20% as multiracial.
“While we have taken several steps toward our goal, we always look for ways to improve,” Lacayo said. “Diversifying our staff, providing programs focused on communities of color, and ensuring that the National Park System accurately reflects our country’s diversity are critical.”
What is being done locally?
At Timpanogos Cave National Monument, a big part of outreach involves reaching out to kids, said interpretive park ranger BJ Cluff. The monument has a school-year program where rangers visit schools to teach kids about caves.
“Students are encouraged to learn about the different types of national park sites,” Cluff said. “We hope to help these youth see that the parks are for everyone and all are welcomed here.”
In addition to the educational outreach, the cave has a program called Kids in Nature, which has been running for nine years. The program is focused on funding field trips for Title 1 schools with larger minority populations, Cluff said.
“The program, dependent on funding, pays for the buses and covers fees to visit the caves, and has also provided field trips to other partner sites, allowing students a chance to visit other places outdoors,” Cluff said.
Both these programs, Cluff said, are representative of the work the park service is doing to reach the next generation of youth, particularly in populations who may not have grown up going to national parks.
Involvement in the outdoors isn’t just about hiking or rock climbing or visiting national parks — a huge part of it is being actively involved in conservation efforts or lobbying to protect natural resources.
When it comes to reaching out to Utah Latino communities, Juarez said her job as Latinx coordinator with SUWA isn’t so different from any other community organizer: She takes any opportunity she can to meet people who are involved in the community or expressed interest in protecting the deserts.
For instance, she partners with a soccer organization that cleans up the Jordan River. They now do Latino Conservation week together, continuing to clean the Jordan River and spread awareness.
One difference between her job and a typical community organizer is that folks in Latinx communities may already have an idea of what environmentalism is in Utah, Juarez said.
“They may think it looks like white people taking up space, and not being mindful to provide or leave space for other voices. Then it can be a challenge for me to say, ‘Hey, you know, that’s what I’m trying not to do in my own community organizing,” Juarez said.
SUWA just started a field scholar program that gives stipends to 12 students of color to attend its field service volunteer programs.
“I think programs like this are really essential to create, helping community members take that first step,” Juarez said.
What more could be done?
Locally, there’s a lot that could be done to make sure Latino voices are being heard, Wheatley said.
The work groups like HECHO are doing is important, he said, and he thinks the most important thing that can be done in Utah is to reach out to schools, which he says HECHO has plans to do.
“There are a lot of schools in the Salt Lake school districts — some of them are minority-majority,” Wheatley said. “So there’s a lot of students we can reach out to.”
It’s critical to reach kids at a young age, Wheatley said, because being exposed to it then might be what sparks a lifelong passion.
“Sometimes until you experience it, it doesn’t hit home,” Wheatley said. “That’s why it’s important to have more access for more and more Latino children to experience that.”
Engaging communities and elevating Latino voices in conservation and outdoors is important, Garcia said. Part of doing that is making sure people have a connection to places and issues.
“When people have connection to places and issues like the watershed, or specific public lands, they fall in love with those places and want to work and fight to protect them,” Garcia said.
That’s part of the reason outreach efforts like Latino Conservation Week are so important.
“I think it’s super important to show that when you fall in love with a place, and love a place so much you will work extremely hard to protect these places, the places that actually give us life,” Garcia said. “Everything is interconnected, and Latinos are unique in seeing connection between social lives and the natural world.”