Latino Outdoors Interview: A Conversation with Jessica Gonzalez

 

We always love profiling our leaders in the movement and in the field. Here is another interview in our series to showcase the individuals that embody the Latino Outdoors story, ambicultural leadership in action. Here is Jessica Gonzalez, a National Park Service program director in New York. 

Tell us your story, what is your connection to the land and conservation?

I grew up in Brooklyn, not exactly a spot known for its purple mountains majesty.  Growing up, my connection to nature was emphasized by my parents. My parents took messages to heart like “Recycle today for a better tomorrow”, and made sure to tell all guests at our house and even family and friends when we weren’t at home.  Although NYC is thought of as a concrete jungle, that’s not the reality. South Brooklyn is very green and I have been lucky enough to live on land that was previously farmland until the 1920s.  I’ve explored the waterways of Brooklyn in my kayak and used my bike to explore on land.  The dichotomy of living in a city with intense pollution in some locations and dirt so clean you can grow vegetables in it makes one aware of the value of clean land and the impact of humans.

We also had a house in the woods in Pennsylvania where we would just wander through the woods, see wildlife up close, and stargaze with a telescope off our deck. We explored nature because we could, and because we saw the value of interacting with a natural environment.

How is this connection celebrated in your community and culture—in the broader conservation community?

Gateway is lucky to have so many partner groups engage the park in an effort to connect their community members to nature.  Casual exploration is one of the best ways people encounter nature, especially in a big city. Nature doesn’t always have to meet a 6 hour trip to mountains, followed by camping without electricity and hot water.  So often people don’t enter a green area or walk up to an activity because they assume it’s not for them.  Through the Your Park! Your Health! program we invite new visitors, we seek out communities that may know know of our park programs or how they can participate. Your Park! Your Health teaches these new visitors skills they can take with them to other outdoor adventures and connect underserved communities to other wonderful park programs such as kayaking or camping.

We see huge numbers of youth volunteering to help protect, preserve and clean up natural areas. The desire for conservation is there, and people should understand that even little steps like recycling matter.

Latino/a 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? 

Growing up, we explored, simply because we could.

Latino Identities are connected to the outdoors because they are surrounded by la naturaleza. I spent time in El Salvador and saw how integrated the villagers were with their natural surroundings, and it was the same interactions you see with all kids who live near open fields and hills and streams.

Connections to the outdoors to me look like families and individuals safely exploring, learning, appreciating the outdoors, but more importantly coming back, and maybe one day either working in their public lands, or working to protect them.

These words reflect my life because I remember all my life in my visits to my family in Puerto Rico hiking through the jungle, walking out of the house to pick fruit right off the tree, and how we were just surrounded by nature. Nature wasn’t something we had to travel to see, it wasn’t separated from every-day life.

While some us us (me included) may not have grown up camping in a tent, because as my parents said “ why should I sleep in a tent when I could sleep in a bed” it is becoming easier to learn outdoor skills. There is the assumption at times that we wouldn’t be interested in outdoor activities. Luckily I find that this is not a majority opinion and that Latinos are learning about outdoor opportunities through friends, family and the power of social media to de-stigmatize the perceived difficulty of outdoor activities.

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?

Latinos have had a connection to conservation since the beginning of the National Park Service. George Melendez Wright was a Latino of El Salvadorian descent and conducted the first survey of fauna for the National Park Service  In order to grow,  Latinos need to be allowed to leave the boxes they’ve been put in, which is to only work on “Latino” issues and to have a seat at the table for discussions over engagement, conservation, recruitment and retention. These are issues that affect all populations.

To truly move conservation, both natural and historical, into the 21st century we need to modernize. There is a great benefit from having access to institutional knowledge, but we need to continue modernizing our processes and reaching out to new audiences. Local communities should be involved in the conservation movement, and in those instances where agencies, communities and other interested parties have come together for discussions have resulted in more success due to the collaborative nature of the process.

Why does this issue and work matter to you?

As a Latina who had exposure to nature early on, I feel the need to help connect new and existing communities to the nature that surrounds them. I work in an urban park and I’m still surprised when kids or even adults are experiencing nature for the first time, without being behind glass.  A special joy is experienced when a visitor is taught about the world they live in and can bring those lessons home when they leave the park.

The Your Park! Your Health! team, based out of New York City leads a kayaking every other Tuesday night in the park. The audiences we serve are very diverse.  They are from different cultural backgrounds and with different life experiences. We are still amazed that we have to invite passers-by to kayaking. There is still the assumption that a recreational activity is not for them and possibly only available to people with money. There are countless studies that laud the benefits of exposure to natural environments. By increasing stewardship we ensure that new generations who support their public lands.

What does success in all this look like to you?

Support for our public lands is essential for everyone. Existing communities benefit from community involvement because many voices are more powerful than one. Good ideas come from many places and the conservation movement benefits from more people of all backgrounds participating.

How is your work with NPS reflective of all this?

My park, Gateway National Recreation Area,  has connected to the diverse communities surrounding New York City through the program Your Park! Your Health! (formerly Tu Parque! Tu Salud!). Every summer we bring a team of interns from the surrounding communities into the park to learn about the programs and activities that are available to the public and then host these same programs like Kayaking and camping for friends, family and the public and introduce them to the activities right in their backyard.

Last year we joined the movement to #optoutside the day after Thanksgiving and we’re happy to be hosting Latino Outdoors outside on a cool hike.  The year 2016 marks the 100th birthday of the National Park Service and we hope to continue helping all communities to #findtheirpark or #encuentratuparque.

One phrase we heard constantly is that people didn’t know these activities and spaces were open and available to them. It takes more than just showing up, sometimes it means holding out that hand and becoming a trusted ambassador for the park.

Jessica Gonzalez

 

Jessica Gonzalez is the Program Director of the “Your Park! Your Health!” program at Gateway National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service.


How Skiing Changed My Relationship with the Outdoors ~ By Monique Limón

 

Growing up, I was surrounded by kids in schools who talked about skiing and going to places with snow. I vividly remember coming back from winter break and sitting in a high school geometry course and having all of my tablemates tell me about their visit to Mammoth over the winter vacation.

I didn’t grow up visiting ski resorts but remembered hearing about them and wondering not only what Mammoth was like…but also what snow was like. As a young first-generation Latina from Southern California, snow was not part of my reality. I do remember making it to Santa’s Village in San Bernardino in the early 80’s and seeing some snow used to decorate the place.

It wasn’t until I became an adult that I had that one “outdoors friend” who encouraged me to take a trip to Tahoe because she knew someone who could get us discounted tickets to go skiing. I was a working adult who could now afford the ticket to go skiing and to see the snow. So I did.

My trip to Tahoe changed my relationship with the outdoors. I took ski lessons the first half of the morning and skied the rest of the day. I didn’t pick up skiing easily and struggled quite a bit. Nonetheless, it put a genuine smile on my face. I loved being on the mountain and challenging myself to get down while gliding through the snow. I liked the snow and learned how much I liked skiing on powder. In addition to the physical joy it brought to me, it also allowed me to temporarily put aside all other worries, concerns, and distractions and simply focus on the skis, the mountain, and me.

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Feeling joy.

That first experience has led to many others. I must admit that while I’m still not the best of skiers, I continue to enjoy skiing as much as I did day one – that hasn’t changed one bit. That experience also motivated me to try other outdoor experiences. So when that one “outdoor friend” invited me to Yosemite, I was happy to say yes to my very first visit to the national park.

My current professional and community commitments keep me very busy and I don’t get to ski as often as I would like (which could explain why my skills as a skier have plateaued). I do however think about what it means to give people the opportunity to experience the outdoors in a meaningful way for the first time. In my role as a School Board Member, I have been thoughtful about what it means to have students live minutes from the beach yet not ever have the opportunity to visit the ocean and hesitate going into the water because they don’t know how to swim. Or, how for some students in the school district, their sixth grade science camp experience is the first and perhaps only camping experience they will ever have.

Skiing changed my relationship with the outdoors and helped me think differently about outdoor experiences. While I may not ski as much as I’d like and still think about the costs associated with the activity, I don’t hesitate to find ways in my life or the life of others to experience the outdoors.

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Skiing in Big Bear, California.

 

 

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Weekend trips with friends has become a favorite past time.

Monique Limón is a School Board Member for Santa Barbara Unified School District. In this capacity, she is part of a governing body that serves over 15,500 students.

Twitter:
@SMoniqueLimon
https://twitter.com/SMoniqueLimon


Bird is the Word: Birding Adventures by Nydia Gutiérrez

Here in the northeast the foliage has well begun to showcase the variance of colors as the trees are beginning their “sleep-cycle” and our summer migrators have left for their voyage south. Looking back at these successful seasons in birding, I see my “Birding Life List” is increasing with the various warblers and songbirds I would have otherwise not seen if I hadn’t gotten up early morning (I mean early) and get outdoors! During breeding season in spring birds are active locating a fruitful, suiting territory while showcasing their best tune to increase their chances of finding a mate. For birders and enthusiasts alike, this provides an ample opportunity to seek out certain species as (let’s be real) they are loud and a bit easier to spot. Below are a few short “bird stories” covering some of the adventures I have had with friends and colleagues here in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia area otherwise known as the “DMV”.

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(March 21, 2015) During this birding adventure on Kingman Island in D.C. we spotted everything from the tiny Downy Woodpecker to the majestic Wood Duck and a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds along with a Ruby-crowned Kinglet whose distinctive red mark over the head helps with the identification.

 

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(April 11, 2015) In the woods of NPS: Prince William Forest Park we identified a pair of highly active Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and learned that the Carolina Chickadee and Black-capped Chickadee are hard to distinguish as they successfully interbreed and appear to look identical.

 

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(April 13, 2015) Urban birding can be a great escape from the same ol’, same ol’. On this day we spotted a Red-bellied Woodpecker hard at work outside the courtyard of a luxury hotel in the Woodley Park area. Notice the famous Cherry Blossoms in bloom.

 

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(April 25, 2015) This outing was certainly one for the books. Out in Fletcher’s Cove we spotted a Prothonotary Warbler with it’s distinct solid black beak, mostly yellow body and gray wings. 

 

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(May 2, 2015) The U.S. National Arboretum serves as an excellent location to learn about the local flora and fauna. On this outing I learned the distinct call of the Indigo Bunting. Learning calls can be a direct form of identifying a bird when visuals are not available at the moment. 

 

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(May 31, 2015) When on a group outing (photo on the left) can be a familiar sight. Birder who spots the bird passes the word along to the group and points out the species. Here in Fort Dupont Park we were in search of D.C.’s state bird, the Wood Thrush which was not spotted that day. Some days are hot, some days are not. 

 

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(August 15, 2015) On this very special day, I got to take my niece out on her very first birding trip! We spotted large waterfowl such as the Great Blue Heron (pictured above) at the NPS: Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. #LatinasOutdoors

 

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(November 22, 2015) Here is a preview of what fall birding will look like. As the birding adventures continue so do the great times outdoors. We spotted Ring-necked Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Bufflehead Duck and a Great Blue Heron at Luther Goldman Birding Trail in Maryland.

Of note, I do not have many photos of actual birds. For photos, especially for the smaller guys, it is necessary to have a professional lens one that my smartphone camera does not have.

I encourage folks to get out, dust off dad’s old binoculars from the garage and take a look at what you may find. Happy to help folks identify the birds, send me a note here: Nydia@LatinoOutdoors.org

¡Feliz Birding!

 

About Me:

Nydia Gutiérrez is a Texas native, hailing from the Rio Grande Valley, a major bird migratory corridor. Ornithology became a passion after taking it as a course in college which required students to enjoy the outdoors and identify birds. Gutiérrez currently resides in Washington, D.C. where she continues to chase the sun and follow the birds.