Connecting Through Conservation
José González Of Latino Outdoors
José González is the founder of Latino Outdoors and a Backcountry Trailbreaker, one of the advocates we sponsor to create a more inclusive outdoors. Latino Outdoors has a mission to inspire, connect, and engage Latino communities in the outdoors through active participation as not only athletes, but as mentors to others and stewards to the land. We sat down with José to discuss conservation, future projects, National Hispanic Heritage Month, and more.
What inspired you to create Latino Outdoors?
At its core, it was to answer the question of “where are there others like me?” I was looking for a space and a community, which in my mind existed, and to support that space of belonging. I had been blessed with experiences as an undergraduate student providing outdoor experiences to migrant students. That led me to want to provide more of that, but also to connect with others and expand on the narrative of what it meant for the diversity of Latinx identities to interconnect with the diversity of outdoor experiences.
What barriers to outdoor experiences do you see the Latino community experience most often?
The barriers are common to many communities that have faced cultural, systemic, and/or historic exclusion and marginalization in the outdoors—cost of gear and transportation, negative interactions with law enforcement, lack of representation, etc. And there may be some unique ones as well in terms of language barriers, particularly with new immigrant communities.
The one that cuts across most is not feeling welcome. This can seem tricky because it is not direct and overt exclusion. It can be about who is welcoming them, how is the value of the space and experience being communicated, and how is culture, where applicable and appropriate, taken into account.
Tell us about an unforgettable experience you’ve had with Latino Outdoors.
During a family hike, one of the dads began recognizing some of the plants, so I asked him to tell me more. I told him he was showing his naturalist skills, as many park or nature staff do. He had not thought about it that way. I asked him how it was that he was familiar with some of the plants. He responded, “Well, I’m a landscaper.”
When we concluded the hike and gathered to eat together, the same dad that stepped into being the naturalist he didn’t know he was, asked me if he could play his guitar. He said it was in the car and wasn’t sure if he should get it because he didn’t want to interrupt whatever plan we had. I told him being together was the plan and it would be great if he could play. He went to get his guitar and started playing. I recognized the song as a regional Mexican song, but he quickly started improvising and riffing on it, changing verses to include the nature around it, from the squirrels to the trees. The group of families loved it, not just laughing at the humor, but appreciating the creativity.
How does conservation intersect with inclusivity?
People will protect what they care about. If we want to build on the conservation success of the past, and create the success of the future, that needs to be inclusive of a changing demographic. Through their intentional inclusion, we need to recognize that the space and ways of making decisions can, and likely should, change. The conservation of the 2050s will not be the same of the conservation of the 1950s.
What does a better backcountry look like to you?
One in which no matter who is recreating in it, everyone feels they can be their authentic selves and have a relationship with it in a way that they care for and protect it. A better backcountry is one that is welcoming to all, and that those who already feel welcomed in it hold space for understanding how that may not be true for others, and are willing to support it being more welcoming and inclusive.
“That passion we feel for the outdoors, the stoke that drives us, the joy in experience—if you believe that it should be accessible to others, regardless of their lived experience and background, then it requires active work.”
Have the events of 2020—like the pandemic and the reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement—changed anything for you personally or Latino Outdoors? If so, how?
If you are grounded in this work, the work does not fundamentally change. But what can change is the awareness of the dominant culture to engage with it, to actually undertake transformation work. COVID-19 has amplified and magnified the social and structural inequities that were already there, across the board, including what that looks like in terms of access to green space, nature, and outdoor recreation.
Social injustice has been present since this country’s founding, but like the build-up of tinder for destructive wildfire, we have practiced too much suppression in our social spaces, so we cannot be surprised by how it burns in the face of systemic oppression.
For Latino Outdoors the work continues. I would like to think that it means I get to do it in a more receptive space, and with many more colleagues in community and solidarity.
What projects are on your radar for now and in the future?
I’m designing a few pieces of art, working on a book proposal, and facilitating a few cohort spaces, such as the Rethink Outside Fellowship. There are conservation groups and outdoor brands with whom we do trainings and workshops around equity and inclusion. I also have the fortune of working with groups, like the Outdoor F.U.T.U.R.E initiative, towards a national outdoor equity fund like those in New Mexico, California, and Colorado. I definitely would like to do more creative projects with outdoor brands and companies.
National Hispanic Heritage Month is coming up. What does this month mean to you, and what do you think it means to the Hispanic community? Are there any ways you or Latino Outdoors will mark the occasion?
This often sparks a conversation around “what term to use” as some struggle with the use of “Latinx.” For me, it’s an invitation to be inclusive through expansiveness, and honors the question of “how do we support the seeing, hearing, and valuing of others?” Especially when it comes at no harm or cost to me. It is practicing allyship in ways that can still ground me in the values of the community.
As a product of being “colonizer and colonized,” there is much generational and cultural healing to undertake. So when I say I am “Mexican by birth nationality, U.S. citizen through naturalization, Latino through sociocultural identity, Chicano through socio-political identity, and Hispanic by Census count,” I am choosing (with a bit of humor) to look at what bridges me in service of the community, rather than what sets me up for further division.
National Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity to bring to light all of this—regardless of what term we use. How does that further the community work and ensure what we value culturally is passed on, and what have we inherited that no longer serves us? Yes, it’s a celebration, but it’s also an invitation to continue to do better, to be better. And I, and Latino Outdoors, will share that as best we can.
Anything else you want to tell us about you or Latino Outdoors?
I am grateful for our community of leadership that it is, for the blossoming of community that it supports, and for the diversity of Latinx identities it seeks to represent. I welcome all to support that, be it through shoutouts, donations, or looking for ways to partner that invite co-creation and are not strictly transactional.