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Encouraging Latino families to explore nature together

Encouraging inclusion with the outdoors

Sonoma County parks systems and nonprofits aim to increase engagement with Latinos and other groups underrepresented in outdoor recreation through ongoing programs such as these:

Sonoma Ecology Center: Four beginner-friendly camping outings at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, aimed at primarily Spanish speakers, are planned for June and July. The dates are June 18-20, June 25-27, July 9-11 and July 16-18. Equipment is provided, and people from underrepresented groups are especially welcome. For more information, go to sugarloafpark.org/events and click on June or July.

Sonoma County Regional Parks: Low-cost parks passes are available at discounted rates for low-income families and individuals. Go to bit.ly/3oMg21q and look for Vehicle Entry Passes. Also, the county parks offers swimming lessons for kids and water safety lessons for parents, in Spanish. To learn more about the Vamos a Nadar program, call the parks’ aquatics program at 707-565-8034. Find information and dates at bit.ly/3vk1too. Saturdays in June, July and August, starting June 26.

LandPaths: The next Vamos Afuera event, a hike to explore the post-fire landscape at Riddell Preserve and learn about natural resource management after wildfires, is planned for June 5. The 400-acre preserve was impacted by last year’s Walbridge fire, and now regenerative growth is visible. Cost to participate is based on a sliding scale, and no one will be turned away for lack of funds. For questions, email Guadalupe Casco at guadalupe@landpaths.org or learn more at bit.ly/2RIn6A8

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

Alma Shaw was raised by her grandparents in Mexico, where if they didn’t work the family street stand, they didn’t eat dinner that night. The idea of hiking or camping rarely crossed her mind.

Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, Mirella Ramos had a father “who worked Monday through Sunday.” There was never much leisure time for driving to open spaces.

Irma Cuevas learned to swim in Mendocino rivers while growing up in Boonville, but it wasn’t until she met Southern California friends, in her early 20s, that she took up hiking.

Raised by a single mother in downtown Los Angeles, Guadalupe Casco was mostly surrounded by concrete and buildings. She didn’t go camping until she was 23, on a college outing in Monterrey.

Now, they’re all working to make sure Latino children and families in Sonoma County grow up with more of an appreciation for nature than they did.

Over the past decade, the national diversity gap in outdoor recreation has been widely documented in blogs, books and studies, showing that white people make up 77% of annual visitors to national parks, whereas people of color account for 23%. Nationally, non-Latino whites account for 60% of the total population.

But in Sonoma County, organizations led by a devoted group of bilingual, bicultural Latinas are working to bridge that gap, inspiring underserved and underrepresented families to explore the bounty of public lands that surround us. And they’re doing it in a way that reflects distinct cultural identities, looking at what each group wants when visiting open spaces, while listening at every step.

“It’s crucial that the people in the Latino community have agency and a voice in determining where they want to go and what they want to do.” — Guadalupe Casco, senior bilingual field specialist for LandPaths

‘We do this, too’

“If you’ve never been exposed to it and you don’t know what it is, of course it’s going to be daunting,” Cuevas, Sonoma County Regional Parks community engagement coordinator, said about public outings and nature events like those she organizes.

“Because you see mostly white people doing it, you’re going to assume it’s a white thing. But I think that now, in the last decade, there are more people of color advocating for and coming to the forefront and saying, ‘Yeah, we do this, too. We do it differently. We bring our own flair and our own culture. But we do it, and we don’t necessarily have to have REI gear to do it.’”

That means one outing might be holding a Las Posadas celebration in December at Andy’s Unity Park in Santa Rosa, with a DJ and plenty of carne asada on the table. On another outing, Cuevas will create a “fogatas” campfire experience for families at Spring Lake.

“I’ve found that promoting things as educational does not work,” she said. “You need to put the party in the front and the education in the back. So I advertise everything as fun and social, you know, come out and explore.”

A weekend camping trip at Doran Beach will allow for plenty of beach time but also include tide-pooling and a tour of the nearby UC Davis-Bodega Marine Laboratory. When she asks people what they like the most about the experience, the word she hears most often is “convivencia,” which “literally translates into coexisting,” she said.

“But what it really means is the socializing. Yes, we are so appreciative of being in this beautiful space, and that’s really amplified and magnified in this space of being together.”

Outings full of discovery

Many of the barriers to outdoor recreation — language, money (from parking passes to gear expenses) and the time to spend on leisure activities — have only been magnified during the pandemic. But when obstacles are overcome with funding and outreach, there’s a visceral payoff out on the trail: the thrill of discovery.

As bilingual youth programs coordinator at Sonoma Land Trust, Ramos will never forget the look in the eyes of a 17-year-old who had never been to Sonoma Coast State Park before.

“She didn’t know it existed, and she told me she would definitely be taking her siblings and family back there,” Ramos remembered.

The outing was part of Sonoma Land Trust’s recently created Conservation Council program for underrepresented teens who came up with the idea of joining together to conduct biodiversity research. In return, they each receive a $1,000 stipend and money for outdoor gear and equipment.

“When we went tide-pooling and saw sea anemones, the way they were poking around and looking at everything and their eyes lighting up, you could see they’d never experienced anything like it before,” Ramos said.

Encouraging inclusion with the outdoors

Sonoma County parks systems and nonprofits aim to increase engagement with Latinos and other groups underrepresented in outdoor recreation through ongoing programs such as these:

Sonoma Ecology Center: Four beginner-friendly camping outings at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, aimed at primarily Spanish speakers, are planned for June and July. The dates are June 18-20, June 25-27, July 9-11 and July 16-18. Equipment is provided, and people from underrepresented groups are especially welcome. For more information, go to sugarloafpark.org/events and click on June or July.

Sonoma County Regional Parks: Low-cost parks passes are available at discounted rates for low-income families and individuals. Go to bit.ly/3oMg21q and look for Vehicle Entry Passes. Also, the county parks offers swimming lessons for kids and water safety lessons for parents, in Spanish. To learn more about the Vamos a Nadar program, call the parks’ aquatics program at 707-565-8034. Find information and dates at bit.ly/3vk1too. Saturdays in June, July and August, starting June 26.

LandPaths: The next Vamos Afuera event, a hike to explore the post-fire landscape at Riddell Preserve and learn about natural resource management after wildfires, is planned for June 5. The 400-acre preserve was impacted by last year’s Walbridge fire, and now regenerative growth is visible. Cost to participate is based on a sliding scale, and no one will be turned away for lack of funds. For questions, email Guadalupe Casco at guadalupe@landpaths.org or learn more at bit.ly/2RIn6A8

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

Ramos also runs the Familias al Aire Libre program. Started in 2019, the program featured outings once a month before the pandemic, with Latino families meeting up and traveling by caravan out to Sonoma Land Trust open spaces and other parks to connect with nature and often gather around a picnic.

Her position at Sonoma Land Trust was created after they partnered with La Luz Center to create Bay Camp, a summer camp, and noticed that bilingual counselors were important, even though many kids spoke English. It was just as crucial to have administrative staff who speak Spanish, too, to create that cultural bond with parents, many who don’t speak English, said Neal Ramus, director of community programs.

Spanish-focused programs

Sometimes, guides have to drill down beyond a bilingual audience to get to the core audience.

On a hike in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Shaw was interrupted by “an English speaker who said, ‘Are you just going to repeat the same story in Spanish? Do I have to listen to you talk in Spanish just to repeat the story?’ That was not cool.”

So now, as program coordinator at Sugarloaf and the Sonoma Ecology Center, she leads the grant-supported Senderos Naturales program entirely in Spanish.

“I think they were hoping the programming would be bilingual, and as much as I would like it to be, I have decided to do it in Spanish because I find it takes a lot longer to go through a heavily interpretive program when you’re having to translate back and forth,” she said.

It’s the perfect way to engage curious Latino families who are often seeing a particular park or camping overnight for the first time.

Likewise, the Vamos Afuera program at LandPaths is led in Spanish. It was started 10 years ago, not long after LandPaths created the Bayer Farm community garden in 2007 to collaborate with the Latino community on a 2-acre space in Roseland.

“I always say, I think of myself as a bridge between the opportunities that LandPaths has to offer and the community I come from,” said Casco, a bilingual field specialist with LandPaths. “Being the daughter of immigrants and (having) a single mom who had trouble speaking English, and being the first of my family to go to college and get a degree — that’s opened up opportunities for me. Now that I’ve been able to experience going camping and kayaking, I want my community to experience that, too. I want them to feel comfortable and feel safe and feel like they belong.”

One of her first trips, when she joined LandPaths in 2016, was to help lead 49 people on a Vamos Afuera camping expedition to Yosemite National Park — a trip that was totally conceived by the Latino campers, who wanted to experience an overnight expedition outside of Sonoma County.

“When the idea came about, there was no funding for it,” Casco said. “We had to really figure it out and have the commitment from the community to invest in it.”

It’s what LandPaths has done so well from the beginning, by listening to the needs of their audience instead of telling them what they need.

“It’s crucial that the people in the Latino community have agency and a voice in determining where they want to go and what they want to do,” Casco said.

But even with all the healthy strides and more inclusive outings held over the past decade in Sonoma County, it’s only a start, these women said. In trail terms, if this long-term push for diversity is a like a journey — say the Pacific Crest Trail that spans from the Mexican border across California, Oregon and Washington to Canada – where are we along the path?

“It feels like the county itself is just getting ready to go hiking,” Shaw said.

Casco agreed.

“I think this is just the beginning. We’ve definitely started this journey, but there are lots of miles to cover before I can feel confident in saying, ‘We’re almost there.’ There’s a lot left to do.”

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