Latino Outdoors Interview: A Conversation with Melissa Sotelo
Tell us your story, what is your connection to the land and conservation?
I grew up in Montbello, located in the far northeast corridor of Denver, Colorado. Both my parents worked all day and hardly had time to take my sister and me out of the city. When I was a little girl my mom would take me to the park almost every day until the age of eight. We moved and both my parents started to work all day. The only connection I had was gone, I never returned to the park. At the age of 16 my friend invited me to join an organization that she thought I would benefit from. Once I joined Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK) I found a fascination for camping, hiking, fishing, and finally seeing how many stars the sky actually had. It was my first time I felt reconnected with the outdoors in a more profound way.
How is this connection celebrated or misunderstood in your community and culture—in the broader conservation community?
In high school I would hear other Latinas my age say that Latinos/Mexicans don’t camp, “We don’t do outdoors”, and “we don’t like to be in nature”. It was discouraging and at times embarrassing to say that I had a great experience for the time in my life associated with the great outdoors; it was as if it was my secret. There is this huge barrier that comes between some urban Latino youth and the outdoors.
Latino/Chicano identities are connected to the outdoors, the environment, and conservation—how are those words reflective of YOU and what you do?
Growing up, I was told the story of how the U.S bought Mexican land for cheap and the consequence being that the lands were taken. That left the Mexican population alienated and isolated from what once was theirs; there has been a continued perpetuation of that alienation toward lands for many people who identify as Latino/Chicano. There was never a connection with the environment, outdoors or conservation, until I joined ELK, and in working with ELK again, I have grown to be passionate in environmental justice.
What needs to change? How do we grow, celebrate, and have the broader conservation movement connect with the role and values Latinos bring to the field?
We need to continue having conversations, to start having more conversation with Urban Latino youth on the issues that affect us, the lack of access to resources that some are denied and how to overcome those obstacles that society imposes on a population.
Why does this matter to you?
In many urban areas many urban Latino youth grow up feeling like the outdoors is not meant for them. There is a lack of access and it becomes reflected on their attitudes towards outdoor recreation. It matters to me because everyone should have access and feel like the outdoors is theirs to enjoy. There are many benefits associated mentally, emotionally, and physically with nature.
What does success look like to you?
Success in all this looks like having more Latino students seeking STEM related majors and entering in a STEM related field. When the numbers of Latino representation increases, and when more young urban Latino boys and girls are not afraid to go camping nor talk about their first experience of the outdoors freely inspiring others to go for the first time.
How has work with ELK connected to all of this?
I work for Environmental Learning for kids (ELK), a nonprofit that works with inner city, culturally diverse, low income youth and their families in teaching science education, outdoor recreation, and career exploration. Through working with this organization and being an alumnus of ELK, I have come to acknowledge the power and impact of exposure and inspiration through transformation and education in creating tomorrow’s conservationists, visionaries and inventors. I am always captivated in seeing a Kid catch their first fish, or being nervous for going camping for the first time. It always brings me back to my experiences and keeps me motivated to continue working towards environmental justice for all underprivileged youth.
One of the most inspirational quotes in terms of inclusivity and social justice for me is “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound with mine, then let us work together.”-Lilla Watson.
This quote reminds me to continue to work towards empowering one another, the foundation that bridges love, respect, unity, leadership and equality for one another.
Melissa was born and raised in Denver, CO and is an ELK alum. She graduated from Montbello High School in 2008, and received her Bachelor of Art degree in Sociology, from Colorado State University, with a concentration in Criminal Justice and two minors in Ethnic Studies and Peace and Reconciliation Studies. Throughout her college career, she committed to attending Social Justice Retreats, Alternative Spring Break trips, and even studied abroad in India to work on developing a further understanding and an increased awareness to diversity, cultural immersion, political and economic differences. She currently works at Environmental Learning for Kids and is looking into going to grad school for Conservation Leadership.