Why it’s important to make public lands inclusive of Hispanics

By Ruben Valdillez

During National Hispanic Heritage Month we honor the many tangible and intangible contributions to the United States by a diverse group of cultures known as Hispanics and Latinos. With backgrounds originating primarily from Mexico, Central and South American countries, we recognize and celebrate their multi-ethnic traditions and influences, many of which we have adopted into everyday American life. Whether it is music, food, language, holidays, or other cultural aspects, Latino influence continues to grow.

Updates to the 2010 Census show approximately, 54 million people of Hispanic and Latino origin live in the United States. This represents 17% of the population and is currently the second-largest racial or ethnic group in the nation. A diverse group, Hispanic and Latinos are identified as those having a European Spanish background, or ancestral ties to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Cuba, Honduras, Costa Rica, or any of the South American countries.

As the Latino population grows so do the number of studies commissioned by The National Park Service, PEW, and other organizations which show the majority of Latinos support measures to protect the environment, preserve national parks and public lands, and are willing to advocate for conservation issues in local areas.

The majority of Latinos support measures to protect the environment …

The “Hispanic Voter Perspectives on Conservation and Environmental Issues,” study by the Hispanic Access Foundation confirmed that Latinos, particularly in the West and Southwest, have strong cultural connections to public lands and wilderness areas. Many of the Latinos in these states are multi-generational with some having ties to Southwest lands going back five or more generations beginning in the early 1600s. By way of comparison, Santa Fe in New Mexico was a thriving capital city before Jamestown or any of the other English settlements were established.

However, one area where Latinos lag far behind is in enjoyment of national parks and public lands. A 2011 University of Wyoming study commissioned by the Park Service found that only one in five visitors to a national park was nonwhite. And only 1 in 10 was Latino. Anecdotal evidence suggests that second and third generation Latinos are more likely to enjoy the outdoors as they gain education, disposable income, and become increasingly assimilated with mainstream recreation and outdoor activities.

The task ahead for all conservation organizations is how to make access to public lands, open spaces, and wilderness areas more inclusive.

From my personal observations, some Latinos have difficulty understanding the concept of public lands, national/state parks, and the recreational opportunities they offer. For those escaping rustic or impoverished rural areas in their home countries, returning to the outdoors is an issue.

I experienced this first-hand. As a son of California migrant farmworkers, going camping or hiking was never an activity ever considered in my family. We were focused on surviving, getting an education, and moving ahead. Having spent summers in farm camps and temporary cabins during “picking season,” the last thing we would consider fun or recreational would be to “rough it” in the outdoors. Depending on their specific experience, I believe this holds true for some first and even second generation families.

Recreation and outdoor experiences are largely enjoyed by those who feel secure in their ability to provide for family and basic necessities. National Parks and general outdoor experiences are a luxury for many Latino families. Certainly, some Latinos have embraced the concept and passed it on to their children, but many need to be introduced to the opportunity and the pleasure of the great outdoors.

Certainly, some Latinos have embraced the concept and passed it on to their children, but many need to be introduced to the opportunity and the pleasure of the great outdoors.

This may be accomplished through integrated campaigns to specifically target Latino audiences. Public Service Announcements in Spanish about outdoor opportunities, websites which invite Hispanics to share experiences with the outdoors, and public lands, or campaigns which seek local Latino leadership or community involvement to assure protection or preservation of local wildlands.

The task ahead for all conservation organizations is how to make access to public lands, open spaces, and wilderness areas more inclusive, and not just to Latinos but all ethnic groups.

In a quote to Fox News Latino, former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said it best, “The fact is more Latinos should be visiting our national parks. But the reality is that our national parks are not a reflection of our Latino roots. One thing that is very important to the national parks is that they work to include all Americans.”

Ruben Valdillez is The Wilderness Society’s communications manager for the Four Corners region.

See also: National Park tour engages young Latinos with conservation


Originally published at wilderness.org.