José González & Latino Outdoors: Tapping into a Passion for Nature
Everyone is jammed into a yellow school bus, chattering with anticipation of a snowshoe outing at Snoqualmie Pass, some 40 minutes outside Seattle. Joe Camacho, an educator and one of the trip leaders, begins an orientation, holding up a pair of gaiters. The coverings are zipped together for storage in a way that, to beginning outdoor recreationists, looks like gear fitted for a giant.
“These,” Camacho says, “are for keeping snow out of your pants.”
Someone whispers in Camacho’s ear.
“Oh, these” he amends, “are for keeping snow out of your boots.”
There’s laughter all around. And the laughter continues throughout the morning and into the afternoon as the inter-generational group cavorts with the wintry wonderland. This could be a scene from any number of introductory outdoor recreation expeditions taking place across the country every year, but there is a major difference: All the people in this bus going up and down are brown, brown, brown, and the snacks being passed around include pan dolce and Mexican candies.
This is the brave, new world that José González imagined three years ago. Back then, he was looking for a movement, not to start one. He’d performed an internet search for “Latinos” and “outdoors,” and found nothing. So González started a Facebook page that begat a blog that, in the last year, has started to look a lot more like a movement to inspire recreation, stewardship and education in the outdoors, where his community is underrepresented.
Today, Latino Outdoors has a presence in 14 states, including up and down California, the first large state in which Latinos have overtaken whites as the largest ethnic group. Like that population, Latino Outdoors is growing at light speed; last year, its team of 42 volunteers and two fulltime employees led or collaborated on some 80 outdoor outings, coast to coast.
Buoyed by new grants and publicity, Latino Outdoors has a full plate of projects ahead: It soon will experiment with a membership program; build regional coalitions with partner organizations; nail down its own non-profit status, and take a role in the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, launched by the White House to offer job training, mentorships and educational opportunities to struggling boys and young men of color.
And so it is that the man who never intended to start an organization now has his own executive assistant, who shapes González’s frenetic schedule, while learning the ropes of what he does.
GONZÁLEZ AND LATINO OUTDOORS are riding a great wave of self-examination in the outdoors and conservation sectors. There is a growing understanding that, without the support and leadership of the soon-to-be non-white majority in this country, the public lands where much of the nation’s recreation takes place will be more vulnerable to privatization and development, and that addressing existential issues, such as climate change, will be impossible.
The building blocks already are in place. Latinos, the largest ethnic group in the U.S., already spend more per capita on outdoor gear than any racial group, including whites, according to the Outdoor Industry Association’s ConsumerVue research. They also have a close attachment to public lands: A 2016 poll of conducted by Colorado College State of the Rockies Project in Western states, found that 84 percent of Latinos consider issues involving public lands, waters, and wildlife as important as the economy, health care and education when deciding whether to support an elected public official, and 65 percent oppose giving state governments control over public lands. This firepower has spawned dozens of Latino-led groups and programs over the past few years.
González, 34, was greatly influenced by Hugo Morales, the founder of ground-breaking Radio Bilingue, often referred to as the “Latino NPR.” Under a Butler Koshland fellowship, González trailed and quizzed Morales for a year, accessed his mentor’s connections, and honed his own ideas around building something reconnecting Latinos to nature. The time also led him to the people – Melissa Avery, Lesly Caballero and Eduardo Gonzalez – who would become the core of his organization. González has picked up a fundamental philosophy from these relationships: “Whatever social capital that I build, and whatever privileges I acquire, I want to be able to use to get other people where they want to go.”
They’ll have to go fast, just to catch a burn off González’s exhaust. These days he brandishes the hashtag, #whereisjose, on social media, just so his followers can keep up with his ever-shifting locations. One day he’s shaking hands with President Obama in the White House, the next he’s on the road organizing new affiliates, or on the trail with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at the one of the country’s newest national monuments, Berryessa Snow Mountain in California, for which González and Latino Outdoors helped advocate.
ON A RECENT WARM, HAZY DAY, González once again is kicking up a cloud of dust, this time in the Sonoran Desert, southwest of Tucson. He is behind the wheel, en route to the Kitt Peak National Observatory, telling a story he’s rarely told anyone – that, during high school, he discovered that he was an undocumented immigrant. Mid-tale, González says, matter-of-factly, “Looks like a checkpoint coming up.”
Confused, I ask, “Checkpoint?”
“Border patrol,” González explains.
“But we’re not anywhere near the border,” I point out.
Claudio Rodriguez and his wife, Nelda Ruiz, are community activists in Tucson and seated in the back of the car. “The border is coming to us,” Rodriguez says.
We stop, are questioned by men in uniform about our citizenship status, then waved on. I cannot easily shake what feels like a profound violation. I learn later that the Border Patrol exercises extra-Constitutional powers to operate fixed immigration checkpoints within a 100-mile zone of land and coastal borders. About two-thirds of the U.S. population resides in that zone. This fact startles me, but everyone else in the car shrugs and tells of other stops far more eventful than this. For Gonzalez, the enforced separation of immigrants from this land deeply informs his work to reconnect Latino communities to the natural world.
And it mirrors his own family history. He was born José Guadalupe Adonis González Rosales in the mountain town of Amatlan de Cañas in the southwestern Mexican state of Nayarit. His grandfather made churros there. His father did migrant cannery work in the U.S., and González, his mother and siblings moved often between Mexico and the U.S. before permanently relocating to Turlock, Calif., when he was 9. González was a straight-A, high-school student with big expectations for college. But one day a teacher helping him apply for a college-credit course asked for his social-security number and, to his surprise, he did not have one. His father had missed a deadline for submitting documentation, so González technically was in the country illegally, and had been for years.
“It put into question everything I had done,” he says.
When González regrouped and was on the cusp of gaining his naturalized citizenship, he had, he says, “a moment of hesitation.” As much as he was inclined to celebrate what he was about to gain, he also mourned what he was about to lose – the sense of belonging to the best of two different worlds and the ability to move freely between them. González replaced that loss by applying what he refers to as his “ambicultural” nature to what was beginning to emerge as his calling. He became so enchanted with environmental causes at the University of California, Davis, that his M.E.Ch.A. (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan) group dubbed him, “Green Chicano,” a handle he continues to use on social media. While earning his teaching certificate, he worked two summers in a California Mini-Corps program in which aspiring teachers with migrant backgrounds provide outdoor education for migrant children.
As much as González enjoyed teaching, he yearned to make a bigger impact, and the outdoor arena beckoned. After he earned a master’s degree at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, González received a grant to take a group on an outing to Point Reyes National Seashore in northern California. The trip was not only a success, he realized, but proof of concept for Latino Outdoors; Alicia Cruz, who helped organize the outing, became that region’s Latino Outdoors “Ambassador,” part of what now is a nationwide network of trip leaders and organizers.
GONZÁLEZ SAYS HE DIDN’T fully grasp the traction he was gaining until an indignity boomeranged back as a sign of success. While putting Latino Outdoors into place, he applied for a community outreach job at a non-profit organization for redwoods conservation, but never heard back. Months later, someone from the organization did call him – not to offer a job, but to seek his advice as the founder of Latino Outdoors on how to engage local communities.
This story is not recounted by González with any obvious relish. It’s a way about him. He exudes a thoughtful, Zen-like quality. I ask if he gets angry, and he replies with the three times in his life that it’s happened – once when he threw a bicycle at someone and twice at the end of relationships. His is a quiet intensity that can at times come across as chillingly authoritative.
“At first, I was intimidated because he was so soft-spoken” says Graciela Cabello, Latino Outdoor’s national director and first paid employee. “But I’ve found him to be much more playful than I first interpreted.”
Cabello says they are in constant pursuit of laughs, just to buffer themselves from the chaotic challenges of rapid growth. She and board president Richard Rojas, Sr., are working on non-profit status for the organization, which is forming its strategic plan with the aid of the Rivers, Trails, Conservation Assistance (RTCA) program, an arm of the National Park Service that supports community-led outdoor projects. Latino Outdoors last year helped form the Latino Conservation Alliance with Green Latinos, HECHO, Hispanic Federation, Hispanic Access Foundation, and La Madre Tierra.
José González sits peaceably in the eye of the storm he’s conjured. He talks frequently about how the outdoors can speak for itself. And how being outdoors helps his community stand and be counted.
“Estamos aqui,” is the message, Gonzalez says. It’s a declaration Latinos are making, more and more, while stepping off yellow buses and other modes of mobility onto slopes, beaches and peaks across the country: “We are here.”
NOTE: This story was part of our winning entry in Outstanding Beat Reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists