Tell us your story – What is your connection to the land and conservation?
In a conch shell, I’m from South Side Tucson, Arizona and my journey began when my mom traveled from Santa Maria del Tule, Oaxaca to Nogales, Sonora where she worked in a maquiladora, she met my father who was an albañil, at the age of two the border crossed me, I learned choppy English in elementary, learned about guns and drugs in middle school, in high school I really learned my colors, I learned a different type of sign language. After being a trouble maker for a good while dodging bullets and ducking the law, I started losing friends. One friend in particular really impacted me, my best friend whom I lost through gang violence. After this I remembered conversations I had with him and he told me I was smart and I should go to school, after all the memories and liquor passed through my mind I decided it was time to enroll in community college, after a year in college a girl invited me to a community garden by the name of Tierra Y Libertad, I would say that I would go and I never showed up and I eventually gave in, so I showed up one Saturday morning in the fall, I walked to the address provided and I had this imagination of vegetables, trees, tomatoes and chickens but when I arrived there wasn’t anything but a dirt backyard, and I asked where the garden was and the response I got was, “we’re going to create it.” Tierra Y Libertad was a grassroots group in the south side of Tucson that talked about healthy food, gardening, and environmental justice. It saved my life and I thought they were crazy when I met them, I eventually became crazy myself. Now I create gardens in homes, schools and community centers. I have found my purpose, something the world needs, something I love, something I’m good at, something I can get paid to do, and something that makes my mother proud. Now I find myself working with kids creating food justice trough their little hands. Because it’s more than growing vegetables, it’s about seeing the magic when their eyes blow up and their smiles glow when they pull up their first carrot or taste their first cherry tomato, it’s about changing the environment that we live in, making our dreams our reality and it’s about creating value to our lives. Through mother earth we learn respect, value and humility. And of course if we ever run into each other I can tell you a gang(← did you catch the pun jaja) of stories that will make you laugh, wonder and maybe cry.
How is this connection celebrated/expressed and understood/misunderstood in your community and culture—in the broader conservation community?
The green movement has created a belief that people of color do not care for the environment when that’s what our culture is all about! We are reflections of our realities and its time to change our realities, lets make the hood healthy, we express our needs and dreams through hood clean ups, art, fiestas, ceremonies. Sometimes we do have neighbors or friends who say, “Why you got to be such a tree hugger” obviously I’m quoting a nice version of this. Eventually what we do rubs off on people because conservation work or sustainability work doesn’t have to be super literal or linear. In society we are told to be a cholo is a bad thing but when we look at history and our language cholo is an “aztequismo” derived from the nahuatl work xolotl wich is the dog that guides us to next world in our passing. In my journey as an eco-cholo I have heard stories of nanas referring to the homeboys who would protect the barrio from anyone wanting to do harm us. So a cholo is a protector, I am proud to be a cholo, to bring back ways to not only protect the neighborhood from drive-bys but also drive-thrus. I love talking to youngsters about being green and what it really means to take care of the hood, about what it takes to be an enVATOmentalist. And don’t get me wrong this work is not only pertaining to the barrio but also to our mountains, to our rivers, to our rains. We do everything we can to show anyone willing to learn about our desert medicines, how to conserve the rain, how to ask permission before stepping on a mountain, we need to bring back our connection as indigenous people back into our daily life, because if we don’t we will just end up being conquistadores with no soul, no respect and no understanding of the connection that everything holds.
Latino/Chicano identities are connected to the outdoors, the environment, and conservation—how are those words reflective of YOU, how is it expressed, what does it look like?
First off I’m Mexicano, a paisa and a cholo, I feel like I could never identify as a latino or hispano because I come from the people of the clouds, I’m a Zapoteca, from my mothers blood, from my mothers food, from my mothers love. When I look at my farthest relatives that I still had a connection with they speak about farming and raising animals and how they would converse with the plant nation, everything was treated with respect.
Our outdoors happens as soon as we look out or step out of the door of our home, what do we see, what do we smell and what do we hear. The outdoors and our environment are our reality, I live in the hood where hipsters in chanclas would get stung by haroin needles, were sex workers run business up and down the street and homefree people harvest tunas from the near by empty lot. But this is my environment and I feel safe in it.
My wife and I just recently came back from our honeymoon trip exploring the outdoors of Arizona in respects to national parks and monuments. I got to see beautiful site from Montezuma’s castle, the Petrified Forest, antelope canyon and many more before reaching the Grand Canyon. Our experience was a little crazy by the end of the trip I was just in awe of how everything was described with Eurocentric lenses, even when there was a chance to show a glimpse of native knowledge it was still white washed. As a brown man who hardly leaves his city (big step because before I wouldn’t even leave my barrio) it was amazing to witness the ignorance many people carried with them, from “ugly looking injuns” to white males being the first to have laid eyes on the magnificent wonders of nature when clearly there has been ceremonies carried out at all these sites for millions of years. (I’m not an archeologist). Other than that I fell in love with the mountains, the rock formations, the water that cut through rocks to make beautiful rivers and streams. Night skies are definitely beautiful when your with the love of your life.
What needs to change and how do we grow, celebrate, and have the broader conservation movement connect with the role and values Latinos bring to the field?
I think one of the biggest changes that I see Latino Outdoors doing is education and leading by example, that we as a people belong in the outdoors, to return to our mother, to learn from her. One thing that my wife and I noticed on our trip was that there were not many people of color working in national parks and that’s a change that I would love to see! Personally I would like to have a guideline on how to be in the outdoors like what to take and what to be aware of. I think we feel like we need hiking boots or fancy backpacks to be out here but we are hiking in chucks and dickies and we need to know that that’s ok too. It also cost money to enter some of the parks and I understand the need for that money but when a family is dealing with a low income the outdoors seem quite out of reach and we have to work harder to bring it within reach. Also as local Latino/Chicano/indigenous organizations wherever you are, you need to get in contact with outdoor organizations, the conservation groups, the people who are making decisions because we need to be at that table if not we are going to be on their menu, but never forget that you have to build your own table too because if not you’ll just be picking up their plates. Always make it fun, at least that what we strive for, make people feel welcomed and appreciated but y’all do this already.
Why does this issue and work matter to you?
It matters to me because I need my kids to be able to hike, run and swim in the forest, in the valleys and in the canyons. I need my kids to go with their mother to harvest herbs, go hunting and fishing with their uncles. There are things that can be measured that don’t matter and things that matter that can’t be measured. Our environment is immeasurable, pictures cannot do justice to the real beauty and magical feeling one gets from being in the middle of nature. We are surrounded by concrete too much that we forget the health benefits of going on hikes, eating wild foods, breathing fresh air. I mean don’t get me wrong I love the roar of a work truck but that noise will never compare to the roar of a mountain lion or a coyotes howl.
What does success in all this (a Chicano/Latino conservation identity, community connection, land conservation with Latino support, diversification of conservation movement, etc.) look like to you?
Success in my eyes is happiness. If we can make families or individuals happy and knowledgeable of their own backyards then I think we may be doing something right. In the work that I do in regards to urban food production I see success when a gardener does not need me any more, when they can handle it, when they know what they are doing and are growing better peppers than me. It’s about making others better, letting it all spiral into something bigger. I mean at first I was like what is Latinos Outdoors? Then I understood when I played with my own identity and messed around with Cholos Outdoors, making myself comfortable with who I was in the environment that I placed myself in. Some of the conservation work that I have partaken in has also included building with adobe, a dying art, now we are working to conserving homes in the barrio through a Mexicano lens. I wasn’t even planning on doing this but my wife pulled me in and I’m all for it.
How has work with (your organization/current project) connected to/is reflective of all this?
My work is building strong, safe and sustainable communities through urban food production. We are outside working in the dirt, creating mini eco systems in our backyard, restoring alleys and neighborhoods that the city has forgotten. Teaching youth skills that can help them start something in their home to ease the stresses of eating healthy and living healthy. We work towards changing the hood environment; a design that was meant to kill our people should motivate us to find the means to live a healthier, happier life. We are surrounded by liquor stores, fast food, and police militarization how can we not care, its our duty to act for the our generation, our generation before us and the ones that will come after us.
I want to thank Latino Outdoors and Jose Gonzales for the opportunity.