José González, founder of Latino Outdoors, dissects the misguided assumptions and hidden disparities that leave many families off Peninsula trails.

José González, founder of Latino Outdoors, leading an outing in San Mateo County several years ago as part of a collaboration with the Latino Community Foundation. (Photo by Michael Estrada)

The past year has been in many ways a devastating one for the Latinx community, which has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 nationwide. It’s also brought unprecedented changes in the outdoors community as the pandemic has, over its various phases, triggered widespread shutdowns of open recreation spaces, then reopenings that drew record numbers of visitors as more and more people have sought out refuge in the great outdoors.

For those leading the intersection of those communities, like José González, the pandemic period has triggered some complex conversations.

José González, a conservationist and educator who founded the organization Latino Outdoors, recently took the time to answer my questions about his work and about what the region is doing right — and wrong — to make the outdoors and the environmental movements more inclusive, particularly for the Latinx community. (In our conversation, he favored using the relatively new gender-neutral term Latinx to refer to people of Latin American cultural or ethnic identity.)

José González meeting with President Barack Obama in 2016. González had been involved with the White House Council on Environmental Quality, U.S. Department of Interior, and the National Park Service during the Obama administration. (Image via José González)

Latino Outdoors, a San Francisco-based organization, was founded in 2013 and is focused on developing conservation and outdoor education leaders nationwide. It works to address the fact that although the Latinx population is the fastest-growing demographic group in the U.S., it is also among the least represented groups in conservation, outdoor recreation and environmental education initiatives, according to its website.

While González doesn’t work as Executive Director of Latino Outdoors anymore, he continues to serve as an ambassador for the program, as well as a volunteer and advisor. And he’s a recognized thought leader when it comes to the outdoors and inclusion. In fact, he is set to be recognized at the Bay Nature Institute’s 2021 Local Hero Awards on Sunday, April 11, from 5 to 6:15 p.m. (The event is free and people can sign up here.)

In the meantime, here are a few key points González made in our conversation.

1. We should broaden our definitions of what “outdoorsy” means.

Oftentimes, people think of hiking, camping, backpacking or other activities featured in the REI catalogue as traditional “outdoors” activities, but it’s important to think of other ways that people are connected to land, he said. Many people in the Latinx community have their own rich histories of working with land and deep connections to the landscape, he said.

It’s useful to understand that there’s a spectrum of interest in outdoor engagement, and that “being outdoorsy” doesn’t have to apply only to those seeking out extreme mountain experiences. It can also include people who enjoy nature nearby, he explained.

For many people in the Latinx community, he said, “This sense of being with nature outdoors is not new,” he said. “We want to push and expand the idea of what do you have to look like or be wearing to be considered outdoorsy.”

González leads a group outing in San Mateo County through a collaboration with the Latino Community Foundation. (Photo by Michael Estrada)

2. Conservation and outdoor leaders should avoid making assumptions about the Latinx community.

Sometimes, Latinx community members are left out of outdoor and conservation initiatives because of cultural presumptions, he argued.

He shared a story from an early effort between Latino Outdoors and MROSD (Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District) to bring Latinx families from Mountain View to some of the district’s open space preserves. Organizers, he said, had been a bit worried that the families wouldn’t like the space because it didn’t have traditional “park” recreation features like a soccer field.

He told them to just invite the families and give them an opportunity to provide feedback. The families, he said, were thrilled to learn about a new place and discover the natural features of the landscape.

It’s unproductive, he added, to make assumptions about the Latinx community to explain their underrepresentation in the outdoors.

For instance, it isn’t accurate to treat everyone in the Latinx community as someone who is undergoing a “new immigrant” experience. “You forget that they’ve been here forever,” he said.

Sometimes people assume that Latinx people who work outdoors full time don’t want to also play outdoors, or that some individuals are concerned about their documentation status and don’t want to engage with public agencies. That may be the case for some people, but that’s simply not the case for everyone, he said.

3. The obstacles aren’t just about cost.

When it comes to obstacles the Latinx community faces to accessing the outdoors, he said, common barriers that are frequently discussed relate to the cost of accessing outdoor spaces, including transportation and gear costs.

“Not everyone has disposable income in that way,” he said, adding that programs aimed at providing free passes or transportation support can help.

But helping everyone feel welcome in open spaces is not as simple as just removing cost barriers, he went on. Sometimes, he said, people are “given that look, or feel that they’re intruding in a space, or are not wearing the right thing or not acting the same way that lets them know they’re not welcome.”

Such instances, he said, can manifest as overt racism, as happened with two Black men outdoors last year: Ahmaud Arbery was killed while running in Georgia, and Christian Cooper, a Black man birding in Central Park, had police called on him by a white woman after he asked her to leash her dog. In the Bay Area, racism in the outdoors sometimes appears when people of color are disproportionately accused of not following the rules, he added.

Other times, the un-welcomeness can be more subtle, like when parks don’t provide information about what’s accessible and open in multiple languages, he added.

González leads an outing in San Mateo County. (Photo by Michael Estrada)

4. Latinos have played important — but sometimes forgotten — roles in the history of conservation.

How the history of conservation is told can be incomplete and leave out the Latinx community, Gonzalez said. Often, it is presented as a narrative about protecting land and species from development and environmental degradation, with mostly white protagonists, but that’s not the full story, he added.

Many people are familiar with the story about Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring” and the environmental work that followed to remove DDT from the environment and protect raptors.

But what’s often missing or left out from that narrative, he said, is the story of Ralph Abascal, a public interest attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, who filed a lawsuit in 1969 on behalf of six nursing mothers who were field workers that eventually led to the banning of DDT.

“We leave out the farmworker heroes in some of these larger environmental wins,” González said. “They still have to keep fighting.”

5. In the Bay Area, the conservation movement could focus more on equity and inclusion.

Across the region, there are plenty of contradictions and tensions between the conservation-oriented mindsets of residents and the current state of reality, he explained.

“You have the blessings of a lot of open space that’s been preserved in a ring around the bay… even as inequities have…set in,” he said. “And you can look at work that says (that) some of the most segregated communities are in the Bay Area.”

González speaking at the 2016 Environmental Literacy Congress at the Mitchell Park Community Center. (Image via José González)

At the same time that some wealthy Peninsulites choose to spend lots of money to protect land, there may be many other voices left out of the conservation conversation about how that land is used. Sometimes it’s because lower-income people have to work a lot harder to keep a roof over their heads in a place where the housing supply remains extremely limited and costly, he noted.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the existing inequities for the Latinx community in the Bay Area became even more stark, he explained.

Part of why the Latinx community has been so impacted by COVID-19 is because they often live in households with more people and more essential workers, he explained. Park closures earlier in the pandemic may also have disproportionately burdened under-resourced communities, he argued in an April opinion piece in High Country News.

6. Outdoors leaders can start by showcasing the value of experiencing nature to underrepresented communities.

One industry report, he said, found that even though the Latinx community is underrepresented in the outdoors, those who did show up tended to spend the most time outside and the most money on gear.

Families will find ways to spend money on things they value — that’s why people who pay hundreds of dollars for a pass at Disneyland may also balk at the $80 fee for a National Parks pass, he explained.

“We also have to be conscious that Black and brown does not mean broke and broken,” he said. “A lot of communities will pay. They show up.”

González spoke with the Six Fifty before moderating a recent Peninsula Open Space Trust with Dolores Huerta and Luis Valdez. You can watch that here.

The Peninsula Open Space Trust is set to host the final event of its Wallace Stegner lecture series this year with José Andrés, a chef, restaurateur, humanitarian and disaster relief leader on April 6 at 7 p.m. Buy tickets here.

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Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw reports food news and feature stories all over the Peninsula, from south of San Francisco to north of San José. Since she began working with Embarcadero Media in 2015, she's reported on everything from Menlo Park's City Hall politics to Mountain View's education system. She has won awards from the California News Publishers Association for her coverage of local government, elections and land use reporting.

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