There's a Racial Shift Underway in Who Visits America's National Parks
I remember the first time I gazed upon the towering redwoods at Redwoods National Park, majestic and magical in their presence. I felt a spiritual connection, walking among these ancients and elders, thinking about the magical realism of Latin American literature and wondering which familial spirit would be right around the trail bend, ready to give me advice.
I recall first gazing upon the Tetons of Grand Teton National Park and being awestruck by the visual spectacle created and recreated by the passing light of the sun and shifting cloud cover. I recall being mesmerized by the glorious sunsets and unique ecology of Joshua Tree National Park, and being stunned by the grandeur of the Grand Canyon – a creation of the once mighty Colorado River, which is now so depleted that it struggles to complete its journey into Mexico. I’ve been surprised by the beauty and art of the Badlands, a plein air masterpiece that seemed both extraterrestrial in its geology and yet also so wonderfully local. And I’ve marveled at the engineering of Mt. Rushmore, instantly recognizing the faces from my history class, carved on the sacred Black Hills.
Most of all, I remember first coming into the valley of Yosemite National Park, unveiling the mystery from this place that I had heard so many talk about. I’d grown up just a few hours away in the California Central Valley. But it was not until college that I was finally able to experience Yosemite the same way as countless travelers who skip over the agricultural towns in the Central Valley on their way to the national park. Many from my community work these flatlands as farmworkers. They are people who do not easily experience the land as outdoor recreation enthusiasts.
As I traveled to different national parks across the country, I began to couple the simple majesty and beauty of what I was seeing with the nuance and complexity of how these landscapes came to be. And more and more I began to notice which communities were present at these temples of nature and which were not.
Because what I did not automatically see when I first wandered out into our national parks was the varied mix of people I had grown accustomed to living amid in California. I missed, especially, the diversity of the Latino identity I had come to understand and appreciate in my evolution from an immigrant Mexicano to an American Chicano.
My journey exploring our public lands and the outdoors coincided with my journey inward, exploring my cultural identity. And as those paths intertwined, I came to realize that when we learn to feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for both our natural and cultural spaces, we have richer, fuller, and more empowering experiences.
When I first started exploring the outdoors and becoming interested in environmental issues as a college student in the early 2000s, there weren’t too many other Latinos who shared my interests. I felt a bit like an anomaly. At the time, I was a member of an environmental club as well as of the local chapter of MEChA – a student organization that promotes Chicano unity and empowerment through political action. Over time, I began functioning as a bridge between the two groups. At the environmental club, I would often bring up the issues and themes of environmental justice, stressing the importance of social justice in any environmental work we undertook. In MEChA, I would bring up environmental causes and talk about how they were and could be interlinked with our work bettering our communities. My fellow Mechistas dubbed me the “Green Chicano,” a nom de plume l carry to this day.
Our national parks should be spaces rich with experiences and narratives that connect with us all.
Back then I was also working as a teaching assistant for the California Mini-Corps Program. The program offers tutoring services to migrant students in grades K through 12 through a cadre of trained bilingual and bicultural college students who are interested in becoming teachers themselves. I wanted to be a teacher because in my community education had always been stressed as the best way we could advance. In many ways these students were just like me: They were growing up like I had, learning a new language and trying to find their place in a new culture. I wanted to help create the same opportunities for them that my education had provided me.
What’s really great about the Mini-Corps Program is that it also includes an outdoor education component aimed at teaching students to enjoy and respect nature. So while I spent the school year in the classroom, supporting a teacher instructing migrant students in math, English, science, and other academic subjects, I spent the summers at camps teaching these kids about the outdoors.
During those weeklong outdoor experiences, I would take them on nature walks and hikes, teach them about wilderness survival, and help them understand how nature works and how human beings affect the environment. It was through this program that I was able to see more of California’s open spaces while working in service to my community. And that is how I came to view nature and culture: as linked.
It was around this time that I realized that I could function competently and comfortably in two seemingly disparate cultures. So I began to explore the idea of being an “ambicultural” leader, a role in which I could leverage both my “Latino” culture and identity and my growing “outdoors” culture and identity. With Latino kids and their parents, I could communicate with understood cultural markers, for example family, music, and food, and at the same time I could get them excited about aquatic invertebrates and riparian ecosystems. Chespirito, Chapulin Colorado, Cholula, and chanclas were mixed with habitats, leave-no-trace principles, navigation tips, and countless John Muir quotes.
Eventually, in 2013 I founded Latino Outdoors – an organization that works to connect Latinos with the diversity of outdoor experiences and promotes active stewardship of our natural spaces. Many Latinos do hit the trails and go camping, but there are also many who can’t access the outdoors because of various obstacles like language, transportation, access to gear, and so forth. With that in mind, we approach this work as a question of equity, not just equality. We know our parks are there for all of us, but not all of us have had the same equitable access to them.
During this National Park Service centennial year, we are confronted with a variety of statistics that essentially say the same thing: Visitors to our national parks do not reflect the diversity of the American population. The park service’s most recent survey on the issue found that only 22 percent of visitors identified as non-white. This doesn’t bode well for the future of our national parks. Today’s youth are the most diverse generation in this country’s history. If they don’t learn to value and love our wilderness areas and open spaces, they won’t be interested in safeguarding them.
To its credit, the NPS has recognized this is a problem and is working to address it by collaborating with civil society and outdoor groups on ways to attract and engage more diverse people to our parks. This is a space I have decided to step into – even though this is not always an easy conversation to have – because more than a challenge, this is an opportunity.
This is an opportunity for us to confront how issues of race, bias, prejudice, equity, and inclusion play a role in who gets to visit our parks, to acknowledge that many of our communities were not always welcome on our public lands and that some of our national parks, national forests, and other open spaces were not created out of purely “open” space.
This is also an opportunity for us to recognize that park advocates of the future can and will look different. Perhaps they will look like me, an immigrant from Mexico who struggled with poverty growing up but is now a Yosemite Centennial Ambassador with his face in an REI catalog and Outside magazine; or Rhea Suh, the Korean-American president of the Natural Resources Defense Council; or Chelsea Griffie, the director of Los Angeles Wilderness Training, who works to get inner-city youth outdoors.
This is an opportunity for us to recognize that no matter what the shade of our skin, we can all have a common goal of safeguarding our public lands – from remote parks like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to urban rivers like the Delaware River in Philadelphia, where innovative programs like Canoemobile are enabling kids who do not have the equipment go paddling.
Our national parks are gems, but they need to be more multifaceted. These majestic natural landscapes should reflect the diverse and broad spectrum of the American experience, history, and values. They should, and can be, places rich with experiences and narratives that connect with us all.