Personal Connections Key to Getting Latinos Out Into Nature

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Jaime and Edna Torres peer over the edge of a floating dock, trying to identify the sea life below. (Michelle Dutro/KQED)

The brim of his baseball cap sticking out above a pair of binoculars, preteen Jaime Torres scans a muddy pond filled with birds. Zeroing in on a cluster of sandpipers, seagulls and a great blue heron, he leans into a wooden fence, trying to get a closer look.

“I saw a baby bird! A baby bird!” Jaime shouts excitedly, pointing at the flock.

Jaime is on a hike at the Palo Alto Baylands -- a premier spot for bird-watching on the West Coast. He and his family were invited by a group called Latino Outdoors, a nonprofit trying to get more families like Jaime’s out into nature.

Record-high temperatures are sending Californians out to explore the state’s parks in droves these days. But those people are mostly white. That's why state and private groups are launching a new effort to welcome people of color to parks.

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Jose Gonzalez runs Latino Outdoors. He says Latinos and others face barriers that often keep them out of parks. Many families need to build personal relationships to be welcomed into green spaces.

Translating a park sign into Spanish, Gonzalez points out a bird species commonly found in the Baylands.
Translating a park sign into Spanish, Gonzalez points out a bird species commonly found in the Baylands. (Michelle Dutro/KQED)

“Rather than just saying, 'Well, the parks are open, why aren’t [Latinos] coming?' ” Gonzalez says.

Demetrio Huesca and his family are also on the hike. Huesca says often his first contact with parks staff is confrontational.

“Generally, I’m not afraid to approach rangers," Huesca explains, "but I feel that misunderstanding tends to be about what park regulations are, and the first interaction is usually being approached and [rangers] saying, ‘Do you have a permit for what you’re doing?’ and then me saying, ‘I don’t. I didn’t know.’ ”

Latino Outdoors isn’t the only group doing this kind of outreach. Outdoor Afro works to reconnect African-Americans with nature.  On the state level, a commission called Parks Forward announced a multimillion-dollar investment earlier this year. The plan is to make transportation more accessible, build larger picnic areas to accommodate large families and add more multilingual signs, among other things.

But all the Spanish signs in the world can’t have an impact if Latinos aren’t visiting the parks in the first place. Unfortunately, statistics on the age, race and gender of park visitors don’t exist for state parks. However, national studies show 11 percent of visitors to Yosemite are Latino and only 9 percent of visitors to all national parks are Latino.

With Latinos making up 39 percent of the population in California and 17 percent in the U.S. overall, these numbers just don’t add up. Gonzalez says these numbers mean a lot of cultural expression through nature is being lost.

“Nature is an entry point not just to knowledge about wildlife, but knowledge about a person’s history, the community’s  history, a person’s memories about their childhood and how we weave these memories together," he says.

Crouching down next to a patch of mint, Jose Gonzalez encourages the group to sample the plant.
Crouching down next to a patch of mint, Jose Gonzalez encourages the group to sample the plant. (Michelle Dutro/KQED)

Walking along the meandering path through the Baylands, the group makes frequent stops while Gonzalez translates signs into Spanish and samples mint and fennel plants.

After rounding a corner, the group arrives at a floating dock. The kids run excitedly to the end, looking for birds.

“Oh, my God, they have a brown face. Except that the only part that’s brown is its head and its body. But the part here is black,” Jaime says, describing a bird.

Along with his sister, Edna, Jaime watches a bird dive into the water. Using an iPad, Edna times how long the bird can hold its breath under water. The bird surfaces on the other side of the dock, startling the onlookers. After a few trials, Edna and Jaime clock the bird with a 42-second dive.

Established Latino Outdoors programs span the state. Gonzalez says his next challenge is taking it national. He has already set up programs in Wyoming, Colorado and Texas. Now he’s starting on the East Coast, building Latino Outdoors into the leading group for Latino conservation and outreach. Meanwhile, Parks Forward hopes to revamp California parks over the next 10 years.