Latinxs Remain Underrepresented in the U.S. Outdoor Community

When you think of someone outdoorsy, what comes to mind? If it’s a white man, you’re not alone

latinxs outdoors

Photo courtesy of Isabel Vasquez

When you think of someone outdoorsy, what comes to mind? If it’s a white man, you’re not alone. Most representation of outdoorsy folks in the U.S. fits that very demographic. However, as Latinas, being outdoors is in our blood. Some of the most amazing outdoor destinations lie in Latin America  and the Caribbean and our Indigenous ancestors exhibited a profound connection to the outdoors that we can tap into today. There are about 62.1 million Latinxs in the U.S. yet only 11.6 percent of Latinxs participated in outdoor activities, according to a 2020 Outdoor Industry Association report. In order to begin to bridge the gap, ten years ago  Latino Conservation Week started, which runs from July 15-23 this year, to support Latinxs exploring outdoor recreational activities. Yet being out in nature is a part of our cultura throughout Latin America so what’s at the root of this divide in the U.S.?

What’s keeping Latinxs from outdoor activities?

For decades, the National Park Service has noted disparities in who visits the national parks—American recreation hotspots. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior, a  2000 survey found that 36 percent of white non-Latinxs had visited a national park within the last two years, for Latinxs that number was 27 percent, and for African Americans only 13 percent. 

Some of the noted barriers to brown and Black folks’ visitation were high costs of travel to the parks and a lack of access to information about the parks and what to do in them, but these more practical barriers are not where it ends. A big hurdle for BIPOC getting more involved with the outdoors is the lack of diversity amongst visitors and staff at these parks. There have been reports of marginalized groups being discriminated against by white park staff, or harassed or attacked by other park guests. Furthermore, since the staff is predominantly white, researchers have found that they assume most park guests are white and as a result, cater to this population rather than attracting more BIPOC to the parks. Also, BIPOC might not participate in some outdoor recreation activities “because they do not reinforce an ethnic group’s collective identity”, according to a 2014 report published in  Race, Ethnicity and Leisure.

Accessibility Remains a Barriers for Latinxs 

Despite Latinxs and other BIPOC being underrepresented in U.S. outdoorsy culture, Latin American countries are home to some of the most incredible outdoor destinations, and people living near these destinations have a unique connection to nature. 

Latin Americans living in rural areas or near natural parks or forests regularly go on hikes (even if they’re not labeled as hikes) and work as porters or guides. When I spent two months living in rural Dominican Republic, I was falling behind as friends from the area blazed up a mountain, even though I was decked out in athletic wear and sneakers while they were in slides. 

latinxs outdoors

Photo courtesy of Isabel Vasquez

On that note, part of the issue may be that aside from race, we imagine we need a ton of gear to prepare for an outdoor excursion: the perfect daypack, the big enough water bottle, expensive hiking pants, and the list goes on. These items can come with a steep price tag; a daypack can cost upwards of $150 and a high-quality pair of hiking pants can cost close to $100. These lofty conceptions of what it takes to engage with the outdoors increase the barrier to entry for those who can’t access these resources. After all, part of why BIPOC in the U.S. spend less time in the outdoors is cost. Additionally, planning outdoor adventures beyond local hiking spots can feel like a costly trip considering having to either purchase camping gear — which can be upwards of hundreds of dollars — or pay to stay at a local hotel or cabin in addition to gas and vehicle fees. These are often not targeted or marketed to BIPOC communities so lack of information and accessibility are also major barriers. 

The natural beauty of Latin America

Latin America has it all—beaches, salt flats, rainforests, mountains, and waterfalls. In visiting my grandparents’ home islands of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, I’ve experienced breathtaking outdoor destinations; From El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico to the 27 Waterfalls of Damajagua in the Dominican Republic. In fact, these are some of my earliest memories of spending meaningful time engaging with the outdoors. 

I didn’t grow up being very outdoorsy. I grew up in the New York metro area, and aside from being a competitive soccer player, I had no interest in outdoor activities like camping or hiking. It’s a part of myself I discovered as I’ve moved through my 20s, when I discovered a love of out door activities including hiking, cycling, indoor rock climbing, kayaking, and scuba diving.

Last year, I had the privilege of spending two months traveling through eight countries in South America and Patagonia, a region in the southernmost tip of South America, is where this all clicked. It is an absolutely breathtaking region, and I was in complete awe of Torres del Paine National Park. The snow-capped mountains and bright blue lakes looked like a photograph, not real life. 

Patagonia Isabel Vasquez

Photo courtesy of Isabel Vasquez

I thought about how I was relying on Chileans and Argentinians working at the hostel or hotel I was staying at for recommendations for the best hikes. I remembered being hauled up waterfalls in the Dominican Republic a few years ago by local workers who were far more comfortable in the rainforest. 

In the U.S., these aren’t the people associated with a deep understanding of the outdoors despite these deep connections we see in LATAM. In fact, as of 2020, only 5.6 percent of the National Park Service workforce identifies as Hispanic/Latino, even though we make up 18.5 percent of the U.S. population. 

Our indigenous ancestors & their connection to nature

From the Taínos of the Caribbean to the Quechua people of Peru to the Garifuna of Central America, many Latinxs have some Indigenous heritage, and Indigenous communities are some of the most tuned in to the natural world. Their respect for, understanding of, and protection of the natural world is profound and admirable. Their deities are often associated with animals, they engage in sustainable farming practices, and they use their natural resources for survival. The common belief among Indigenous communities is that nature is sacred and humans need to respect the land and learn to live within in. These practices are in our blood, and we can lean into our ancestral connection to the outdoors to fuel a love for it today.

Even though Latinxs are underrepresented in outdoor culture in the U.S., our Indigenous ancestry and the rich outdoor culture in Latin American countries demonstrate that we truly belong in the outdoors.

Fortunately, the outdoor community is addressing this lack of representation more. There’s Hello, Nature, a podcast about the National Parks hosted by Misha Euceph, a Pakistani-American that showcases diverse perspectives on spending time in the outdoors and sheds light on BIPOC’s connection to the outdoors.  Latino Outdoors which regularly hosts events for Latinxs to explore the outdoors together. Plus, there are a number of social media influencers advocating for BIPOC people in the outdoors including Karen Ramos
(@naturechola) who founded Get Out, Stay Out/Vamos Afuera, a grassroots nonprofit that provides outdoor programming for Indigenous children, Evelynn Escobar-Thomas (@evemeetswest) who founded Hike Clerb, an intersectional nonprofit and hiking community, and Luz Lituma & Adriana Garcia (@luz.lituma & @outdoorhomie) who created Latinx Hikers, a grassroots initiative to encourage BIPOC to participate in outdoor recreational activities. 

These can all help counter barriers BIPOC face when engaging with the outdoors, close the racial and ethnic gap of outdoor engagement, and help remind us that as Latinas we absolutely do belong in the outdoors. 

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