Encouraging Latino families to explore nature together
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.
‘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.