Educator José González shares his mission to nurture a lifelong love of nature in Latino children, their families, and their communities.
Being outside comes naturally to José González. The 36-year-old arts and outdoors educator grew up in a rural town in the Mexican Pacific Coast state of Nayarit, where spending time in nature was woven into daily life. “I played by the river, walked to school along a hillside trail, and helped my grandparents tend the crops,” he says.
After his family migrated to a suburb in California’s Central Valley when he was 8, González’s outdoor experiences occurred mostly at city parks with his family.
His passions for nature and education merged at the University of California–Davis, where he was employed by a teacher-training program called California Mini-Corps. “You’re placed in a classroom to work with the teacher to provide direct services to students,” González explains. “What was unique about this was that the students were migrant students.”
During the summers, González joined California Mini-Corps’s outdoor-education component, instructing migrant students during multiweek outings. It was here that he realized the importance of adding culture to nature activities.
“I was looking for Latino-led and Latino-serving programs and institutions, kind of like the Sierra Club,” he says. When he couldn’t locate any, he founded Latino Outdoors in 2013 to fill the gap. The group includes a network of conservation leaders dedicated to magnifying and expanding the Latino experience in the outdoors.
Latino Outdoors now operates in nine states, providing outdoor and conservation groups with a road map for engaging diverse populations and educating the next generation of explorers.
González’s leadership earned him the National Conservation Education Award from the National Wildlife Federation in 2016. Still, he credits the group’s dedicated volunteers for its success, noting that they’ve led more than 80 outings in places from coast to coast. “They’re the leaders,” he says.
“They’re connecting their excitement for nature and passion for being of service to getting more diverse communities outdoors. I’m just glad to play a role in supporting that.”
Q&A With José González
Experience Life | One of the goals of Latino Outdoors is to bring “culture to the outdoor narrative.” What does that mean?
José González | First, it’s about bringing awareness that there’s such a thing as an outdoor culture. I start by defining “culture” in its simplest terms: It’s about comfort and familiarity. There are behaviors, values, and norms that make you feel included, and give you a sense of connection and shared history. These can come through food, traditions, or practices.
It’s the same for being in the outdoors. When you go out on a trail, there’s often an expectation about what people will be wearing, doing, eating, and thinking about. So, in the outdoor culture, it can seem like you need to wear the right gear, shop at the correct store, and eat the right food.
EL | How do these norms affect people with a Latino identity?
JG | Those with a strong Latino identity — which is diverse and encompasses, for example, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans — tend to value tradition and their roots, heritage, and practices. So, when you go out on the trail as a Latino, you might feel like you must leave your culture at the trailhead because you’re transitioning to a different exclusive culture.
Many Latino families who hike might not have poles, for instance. Instead of an expensive branded daypack, they might have a JanSport backpack that they got as a kid. For food, they might have a lunch their parents packed instead of something prepackaged like granola bars.
What we are striving to do is point out the overlap between someone’s heritage and the outdoor narrative — that regardless of who you are, there is already an appreciation for and connection with nature, and everyone can be out on a trail. As my friend Juan Martínez says, “Trees don’t care what’s in your bank account, and mosquitoes don’t care what skin color you are. They will go after you just the same.”
EL | Latino Outdoors programs target youths and families. Why is having nature experiences important for them?
JG | It’s always important to focus on the next generation, because how young people connect with something affects their future decision-making. Experiencing nature, for example, cultivates an appreciation for — and a desire to care for — nature. A deep connection to nature may lead a kid to becoming a park ranger or wilderness advocate and impacts how he or she votes. Being outside also provides positive physical and mental-health benefits.
It’s imperative to include families because sometimes the parents haven’t had access to outdoor opportunities. Including relatives in the activities builds support for a child’s interest in the outdoors, fosters deeper familial relationships, and improves everyone’s health.
EL | How does Latino Outdoors help people foster a connection with nature?
JG | We provide entry points — most of our activities are introductory, nature-based outdoor experiences with an element that explains the health and wellness benefits of being in nature.
Our leader in the Marin County area, Alicia Cruz, for example, created a program called Wellness Walks, because participants asked to get out into nature to help themselves feel better mentally and physically rather than focusing on learning to identify flora and fauna.
EL | Do you have tips for connecting with nature?
JG | First, remember there’s a spectrum of outdoor and nature experiences. It’s not a pyramid with the best ones at the top.
Begin by seeing and valuing nature that’s right outside your front door, like a local city park, trees around your neighborhood and the animals that might be in them, and even grassy patches in an empty lot. Once you get to your neighborhood park or near a stream, engage with what’s happening around you by asking questions like “Why does the water flow this way?” or “Where are the squirrels going?”
For finding an experience farther from home, tools like Google Maps are helpful. Center the map on where you are — the shaded green areas are likely going to be green spaces.
In terms of getting there — and transportation can be a big barrier sometimes — check a park’s website to see if it offers a shuttle service or if it’s accessible by bus. These days, you can grab a shuttle in San Francisco or nearby that takes you directly to Muir Woods. Even though a lot of public transit wasn’t set up to get to nature preserves and open spaces, some cities are changing that. In California’s Central Valley, for example, there’s a bus that you can take from Fresno all the way to Yosemite.
EL | What do you love about being out in nature?
JG | For me, going out into nature is a practice of self-care — every time I get out there, I feel a sense of peace and calm.
Nature helps overcome directed-attention fatigue. It’s a neurological phenomenon: Essentially, all the stimuli in our modern environments exhaust our ability to pay attention because we’re doing a lot of things — responding to emails or attending meetings — that may not be intuitively fascinating to us.
You don’t need to go out into nature with a plan to learn something or stick to a schedule to reap the benefits. Just being out there is filling the reservoir back up.