From Immigrant to Environmental Ambassador

Mauricio Valadrian’s Journey to Break Down Barriers for the Latin American Community

By Dana Bivens, a Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Portland/Vancouver Urban Refuge Program works with partners to support the community in nature and conservation education, increase access to the outdoors, and provide recreational opportunities. Mauricio Valadrian is one of those partners. We couldn’t do what we do without the dedication and support of the many professionals out there who are working to make the outdoors more accessible to everyone.

Mauricio and his family enjoying a hike. Photo credit: Michelle Pearl Gee

In the midst of a raging civil war, 19-year-old Mauricio Valadrian left his home in Colombia. The year was 1999, and the decades-long conflict had already created tremendous chaos as drug traffickers and paramilitary groups battled for control of the South American nation. By the time the 2013 peace agreement was reached, the war had taken over 220,000 lives and displaced five million civilians. Mauricio was among those fleeing to safety.

He came to Portland, Oregon, where his uncle was already established. The young Colombian did not speak English and had been forced to abandon his college degree and pursue a new path in the United States. Disoriented, life disrupted and with an uncertain future, Mauricio looked to his new community to find comfort and belonging. Unfortunately, his cultural background alienated him from the white majority as the legacy of racism in this country created barriers to access and inclusion for Latin Americans.

Institutional racism has plagued people of color in the United States for centuries. Many non-white communities struggle to find a foothold when their skin color makes them an easy target for discrimination. Mauricio recalls several instances where he was a victim of racial cruelty and these memories remain with him today. Once when visiting a hotel in Southern Oregon, a guest slipped a note under his door that stated, “You don’t belong here.” Only last year, Mauricio stopped to take a call while on the way to the Oregon coast. He pulled over in a public park and stepped out of his vehicle, where he was immediately threatened by an armed man.

Despite these challenges, Mauricio forged a new path for himself, capitalizing on his charisma, infectious personality, and creativity. After finding odd jobs ranging from janitor to McDonald’s cashier, he landed an entry level position at the local Univision affiliate in Portland, Oregon, and worked his way up the ladder to eventually become the creative director. Univision is a Spanish-language television network and Mauricio’s Colombian roots coupled with his growing proficiency in the English language made him an ideal candidate for the job. In this role, Mauricio became a contact point between local government agencies and other groups hoping to increase interaction with the Spanish-speaking community. But often these groups missed the mark. Failure to understand the needs or identities of the Latino community meant many potential partners were overlooked.

Mauricio and his dog at the Oregon coast. Photo credit: Eva Valadrian

This fundamental miscommunication between the white and Latino communities, coupled by a desire to improve health and education for underserved groups, led Mauricio to form a consulting firm geared toward bridging this gap. Mauricio created a series of initiatives to improve health, education, and environmental stewardship in the Portland metro area. He worked with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, Portland Parks and Recreation, and other groups to accomplish these goals. Through this work, he identified several issues with cultural engagement and helped to educate partners on how to bridge this divide.

Mauricio is an ambassador for change. He inspires families to enjoy the outdoors while promoting health and education and forming lasting bonds with his community. Photo credit: Andrea Leoncavallo/Lionhorse Productions

For Mauricio, the essential issue with Latino engagement came from a failure to understand what members of this group needed. Messaging and services often reflected what the dominant culture was looking for, failing to resonate with other groups. Many agencies were not respectful of, nor did they cater to, the Latino cultural experience. In addition, Latin Americans often did not have a seat at the table when agencies were debating ways to serve the Hispanic community.

In 2016, Mauricio partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help expand engagement and better serve Latin Americans in the Portland metro area. He worked with staff and the Friends Group at the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge to promote the upcoming annual bird festival. Mauricio suggested incorporating elements of Latin culture into the event, and he and the festival planners started with one of the simplest ways to bring people together — through food. At the festival, they served food that reflected the community the planners were trying to reach. By bringing this simple element of familiarity to the program, Latino participants were made to feel welcome and began to share their own experiences with others.

Left: Birding at Tualatin River NWR, Photo credit: USFWS. Center: Mauricio, Photo credit: Andrea Leoncavallo/Lionhorse Productions. Right: Ducklings at Tualatin River NWR, Photo credit: USFWS

Continued efforts like this over the past five years have transformed the relationship between the Refuge and its neighbors. Mauricio remembers fondly one of the most profound success stories of the program — when he saw visitors speak to each other in their native languages, serving as ambassadors of nature as they relayed some of their favorite bird facts or refuge locations to friends and family. For the team, this success showed that building community engagement is an ongoing process. Being authentic, compassionate, and willing to listen and learn will bring groups together and help agencies like the Service connect fully with their community. Many of the lessons learned through the Service’s partnership with Mauricio are now used at other refuges and events, and the results have been tremendous.

Left: Mauricio wildlife watching with children, Photo credit: Michelle Craig. Right: A young girl meets an an American kestrel at Tualatin River NWR, Photo credit: Miel Corbett/USFWS

Mauricio also partnered with the Service and local non-profit, the Intertwine Alliance, to update the Northwest Family Daycaton App. This app connects families with free, local outdoor activities in the Portland metro area. Mauricio’s team reworked the program to make the content more relevant and culturally appealing for Latinos. The app now provides content in both English and Spanish and helps to educate the public about conservation and nature. The goal is to get families outside, interacting with their environment, while providing educational opportunities. The Northwest Family Daycation App and community-building efforts with local refuges are examples of successful grassroots programs that bring people together while educating the public about the importance of conservation.

Mauricio promoting the Northwest Family Daycation App. Photo credit: Eva Valadrian

Mauricio’s message is simple: to fight racism and to engage with non-white communities, you need to be authentic, honest, compassionate, and willing to listen and learn. We are all human and we are all members of the same human race. However, culture, history, and other barriers divide us and make working together more difficult. To break down these walls, agencies need to understand the groups they want to serve and work to build meaningful relationships founded on trust and respect. By employing grassroots efforts like these, we can begin to deconstruct centuries of institutional racism. Through collaboration we can bring conservation, education, and inclusion to our friends and neighbors from all walks of life, uniting us over a shared love of the outdoors.

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USFWS Columbia Pacific Northwest Region

USFWS Columbia Pacific Northwest Region

Conservation stories from one of the world’s most ecologically diverse regions.