¡Estamos Aquí! Opening America’s Public Lands and Green Spaces

11/03/2016 01:46 pm ET

In their heart of hearts, Latinos are conservationists and environmentalists. Polls show that environmental issues are near the top of Latinos’ greatest concerns, and they strongly favor protecting the nation’s public lands. Yet, numbers show only about 1 in 10 national park visitors are Hispanic.

As we near the end of the year and closed a month of Hispanic Heritage celebrations, Latino environmentalists are pushing to include a recognition of the significant ties that our community has to nature and the outdoors. This is important not just to help our parks reflect and welcome the whole diversity of the American identity – but also because as we head to the polls in November, we want to highlight the ways that conservation and access to nature will be at the top of the Latino agenda.

Fortunately, there is growing acknowledgment that the future of our public lands depends on their ability to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse nation. Recently, the White House highlighted efforts Latinos are undertaking to connect our communities with public lands by hosting the premier screening of Estamos Aquí: A Celebration of Nature y Cultura, a film created by Latino Outdoors and The Nature Kids Institute.

Public lands belong to everyone—as President Obama has stated, it is a birthright of all Americans. All communities deserve access to our natural resources and the subsequent health and economic benefits. Yet, Latinos continue to face barriers in accessing parks and engaging in the outdoor experience, including a lack of knowledge about national parks and an inability to access these parks from their homes. Despite widespread interest in visiting parks, some park-poor communities simply don’t have the needed access to green spaces.

Take Los Angeles as an example, one of the most diverse cities in one of the most diverse states: neighborhoods that are predominantly white have 32 park acres, while Latino areas have 0.6 park acres. When Latinos do visit our parks, they are faced with a cultural divide – park staff who do not look like them and outdoor spaces that do not nurture large families and social gatherings. In a country that prides itself on inclusivity and diversity, we still need to undertake more work in our public lands so they reflect and respect the perspective of more communities.

The conversation about Latinos and the environment must start at the local level by ensuring that everyone has access to quality, local parks. In our home state of California, Latino Outdoors has created pathways for families and youth to connect with nature. Our leaders have developed culturally relevant programming and events to empower the Latino community to explore and share their personal experiences. For many, opportunities such as bilingual hikes serve as their first introduction to our parks system. We're also part of a California coalition that is working to ensure that equity is a driving principle in park policy.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is leading the charge on the national level. We are pleased that the White House has pushed initiatives that fuel interest in our public spaces among youth and communities of color, adding a narrative of inclusion to America’s green spaces and the Great Outdoors. President Obama has protected more public lands and water than any other president, designated national monuments that honor the distinct heritage and history of our country, and launched an initiative to allow every fourth grade student and their family to experience the grandiose beauty of our public lands. With other partners we are also pushing for this work at the national level with the Next 100 Coalition and the Latino Conservation Alliance.

The White House’s premier screening of Estamos Aquí: A Celebration of Nature y Cultura brought to light the personal stories of Latinos who are leading local efforts to engage with the outdoors. Together we must take the steps to further showcase and grow this as a national movement.

José G. González is the Founder of Latino Outdoors, a volunteer-run organization focused on celebrating Latino culture in nature and connecting families with the outdoors. Connect with José "Green Chicano" and Latino Outdoors on Twitter @JoseBilingue and @LatinoOutdoors.

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