How a weeklong celebration of people who look like me can create a greater sense of belonging for the Latinx community in the outdoors.
In the summer of 2006, I was living in Washington, D.C., when my 10-year-old nephew Roberto came to visit for a few weeks, as he did every summer, to give his mom a respite from the hard work of raising a child on her own. I had become a kind of father figure to him and wanted to plan something special for our time together.
A couple of months earlier, a friend and I had ridden our bikes with camping gear along the entire 184.5-mile length of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, a historic towpath along the Potomac River. It was my first time camping, and the experience filled me with a spiritual sense of connection with nature as we explored every bend of the trail together and slept under the stars.
I didn’t know at the time that the entire site was part of the National Park System — but I knew as we rode beside the water, passing the forested floodplains, the birds and deer, and the historic buildings, I wanted to give my young nephew a similar experience to the joy and awe I felt. So, I planned a second trip along 120 miles of the trail for just the two of us.
Roberto and I set out with enthusiasm. We rode for 40 miles on day one, through oppressively muggy August heat, before night began to fall and we suddenly panicked, realizing we’d need to find a campsite with room for both of us. We ended up pedaling another 20 miles in the deepening darkness before we stopped at one of the first-come, first-served campgrounds that dot the canal. It was a sweaty 6-hour ride, and the heat hampered our sleep, but it didn’t matter. I was tickled pink to be with Roberto on his first biking and camping trip, and it was obvious he felt the same way. Overcoming the discomfort to find our way and pitch our tents together made the night that much more special. And the memory is something that Roberto and I continue to treasure 14 years later.
But during that trip, I didn’t see many people like me — just as I didn’t see many Latinx faces in my science classes at graduate school or at the large environmental organizations where I worked my first jobs. I was, if not the only Latinx in my group, often one of a remarkably small number of Latinxs. And that personal experience is reflected in the statistics nationally: Despite being the fastest-growing demographic in the United States, the Latinx community makes up only 10% of the people who visit National Park Service sites every year.
This week is Latino Conservation Week (July 18-26), an initiative organized by the Hispanic Access Foundation to recognize the Latinx role in protecting and enjoying the outdoors. Though we may be underrepresented at places like Yellowstone, we have a long history with and love for nature — and raising our visibility also raises our sense of belonging, despite cultural and logistical obstacles many of us face to enjoying our public lands.
I fell in love with the outdoors because I had the means to do so, but many Latinx families in the U.S. don’t have the same opportunity. The Outdoor Foundation estimates that 48.2% of people who participate in outdoor recreation nationally have household incomes of $75,000 or more, an income level that only a quarter of U.S. Latinx households have.
But even when my family had the financial means, outdoor culture still seemed out of place. Growing up in a middle-class family in Honduras, I knew other families that strived hard to give others the impression that they never had to get their clothes dirty working outside, or for whom camping implied you couldn’t afford a “real” place to stay.
Why would I intentionally choose to sleep outside and wear clothes covered in dirt? Culturally, why go off the grid when you are trying to prove that you can afford to live on it?
Later, in my 30s, I traveled to places in Latin America, including Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Chile, Brazil, Mexico and Peru, as well as parts of the U.S., where I met other Latinxs who overcame these limiting ideas to become climbers, hikers, kayakers, mountaineers and whitewater rafters. Something about seeing these people from my family’s culture — not just near my adopted American home, but in places at the roots of my family tree — felt not only empowering but nourishing. Calling nature a “white people thing” seemed more arbitrary and inaccurate than ever before. Once “outdoorsy” looked like me, my entire outlook suddenly started to change.
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The effort to recognize the work and participation of Latinxs and other people of color in the outdoors has taken off in a major way in the last decade. Organizations such as California-based Vida Verde and nationwide groups such as Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors are creating new outdoor experiences for communities of color. These communities have also gained a greater presence on social media thanks to Facebook groups Hikers of Color and H.E.A.T. They are all helping to redefine what outdoor culture can look like.
Meanwhile, I continue to like the feeling of dirt and the freedom of sleeping outdoors. I like the moment when I first unzip my tent and see the morning. I like the opportunity that nature gives me to create memories with my family, especially my nephew Roberto who, now 24, has also developed a keen interest in the outdoors.
As the demographics of the country continue to change, I’m excited for the day when kids like Roberto sit around a campfire and know they are exactly where they are meant to be.
About the author
Sergio Moncada Northeast Program Manager, Northeast
Sergio is an environmental planner and project manager with more than a decade of experience in the design, management, monitoring, and evaluation of conservation and sustainability projects.