Latino youth hiking into the Great Sand Dunes. Photo by Rod Torrez
Just over a year ago, The New Republic ran a story with a catchy, but slightly insulting title: "White People Love Hiking. Minorities Don't. Here's Why." I took the bait and read the piece, and found it to be well-intentioned, but overgeneralized. Toward the end the author wondered why a Hispanic teenager from Denver would grow up to enjoy the outdoors if his or her "parents had neither the means nor the interest" in visiting, say, Rocky Mountain National Park. I laughed out loud. Here's why.
I happen to have been a Hispanic teenager growing up in Denver. My childhood is full of memories of my parents hauling station wagon-loads of kids from our home in Denver to the Rocky Mountains on Colorado's beautiful summer weekends. I not only enjoyed hiking, I eventually worked in the National Park Service as a professional, and this past year I became the Director of an organization of Latino sportsmen and women called Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors. TNR was dead wrong in its analysis.
Like many other Latinos in the Southwest, I come from a large, diverse family who, among other things, enjoy hunting, fishing, camping, and hiking; all activities the sensational title claims minorities "don't" like. I now live in New Mexico, where Latinos comprise 47 percent of the population and whites 39 percent, and where without us, the outdoor industry would no doubt lose a substantial number of loyal customers. We are both providers and consumers in the business of enjoying the public lands that make this state and the southwest so beautiful.
Organizations like HECHO wouldn't exist if Latinos didn't have a significant stake in the outdoors. We know that because we have deep familial ties to the outdoors that go back generations. Still, we tested it out in May with a poll that we conducted with Latino Decisions, a prominent polling firm that specializes in Hispanic public opinion. The poll's results weren't ambiguous, not by any stretch of the imagination. They found that over 90 percent of Latinos in Colorado and New Mexico actually do engage in outdoor recreation, and a comfortable majority of us in all economic categories visit public lands at least once a month. Moreover, most of us spent over $250 on outdoor equipment in the last year alone.
Those findings are not outliers. Poll after poll in recent years asking similar questions have found consistently strong positions among Hispanics on conservation. I do agree with The New Republic that many of our communities nationwide are disenfranchised from National Parks and open spaces, both economically and geographically. However, they missed two key points.
Our use of public lands isn't limited to just the big national parks; there are plenty of public lands close to our homes and neighborhoods that we use regularly, and that we want to see protected. They also did not address a significant problem, which is that we rarely see ourselves reflected in the leadership at agencies that manage public lands and open spaces, and we have never been included in the decision-making processes that have allowed places that we care about to become over-developed, especially by oil and gas companies. As it turns out, over 90 percent of us believe that we should be consulted when it comes to leasing public lands.
Organizations like mine, about to celebrate its first anniversary during Hispanic Heritage Month, are the result of Latino communities feeling largely ignored, but refusing to let our voices go unheard. We're not alone. Over the last year, numerous Latino leaders and organizations have been coalescing to dispel the myths that we are not interested, when, in fact, we are more engaged than ever. We are working to reach out to agencies at every level to engage more Latino youth and families in outdoor recreation, we are opening doors for Latinos to have a strong voice in conservation, and I am not only optimistic that our efforts will succeed, but already seeing the results.
Artwork by Lorenzo Duran for the Americas Latino Eco Festival
This week I'll be joining many Latinos who love hiking and believe in conservation at the Americas Latino Eco-Festival in Boulder and Denver. To read The New Republic article you might think no one would be there. I think they might be pleasantly surprised if they joined us, to see just how much we care about the land we grew up in, and that our grandparents and great grandparents protected for us. A year later, they should give us a second look.