It’s a bracing 49 degrees, and a biting wind whips across Lake Natoma as Xico Gonzalez orders two shivering Met Sacramento High School students to put kayaks into the water.
Gonzalez barks out orders for the two to use their oars as they make their way slowly across the still lake. One of those is 18-year-old Elena Lopez, who has kayaked before, but welcomes Gonzalez’s call to get Latino students like her out on the water.
“When you paddle back late, there’s sometimes a hard current to paddle against, so it’s a big challenge,” she said. “We were out a long time and part of it was sitting on the shore just talking about school and being outdoors.”
It wasn’t long ago, only five years to be exact, that Gonzalez was a novice to kayaks, paddles and hiking trails. Now he’s helping other young Latinos discover those same pleasures as part of a coordinated effort to bring more diversity to outdoor recreation areas and encourage more environmental awareness among young Latinos.
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To date, Gonzalez, a teacher at the Met Sacramento charter school, has led more than 40 trips to the outdoors for students. He chronicles each trip on a website he created called “Xicano in the Wilderness.” Each outing offers plenty of photos of high school students in the mountains or by rivers, standing behind Gonzalez, in selfie smile mode.
“Becoming politically aware about environmental issues is an important offshoot of participating in the outdoors,” he said.
It’s a telling example of how some urban Latinos are changing their relationship to such areas, and how federal and state agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service are courting them.
The goal, for Gonzalez and the agencies, is to raise the low usage rates among Latinos of California’s ample recreation spots.
A recent study by the NPS found that only 11 percent of those who visited Yosemite National Park were Latino, despite the ethnic group making up 39 percent of the state’s population.
Latinos are the nation’s largest ethnic or racial minority, at 17 percent of the population, but they don’t use parks at a comparable rate. A 2009 Park Service survey found that more than half of white respondents had visited a park within the previous two years, compared with 32 percent of Latinos.
The survey found Latinos tended not to know much about parks, viewed them as unsafe, and couldn’t find information about what to do once inside a park.
Language was also a factor: Latinos interviewed in Spanish reported higher negative opinions about park experiences and expectations than those interviewed in English.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is courting the demographic as a social equity issue, hoping that once engaged, Latinos will strengthen the conservation and stewardship goals of the agency, said Bruce Forman, a naturalist with the department.
On Jan. 30, the department offered a birding outing near Live Oak in which 15 Latino visitors took their first birding trip in rice country. Hundreds of sandhill cranes, snow geese and tundra swans were seen on the trip, Forman said.
The federal Bureau of Land Management recently partnered with the nonprofit group Latinos Outdoors to set up a kayaking outing at the Cosumnes River Preserve. Thirty people participated, most of them canoeing or kayaking for the first time.
“Being able to reach out to Latinos has been key,” said Jacky Elizarraraz, a bureau youth coordinator. “We realize the population is changing and our audience is changing, so we want to make sure we’re meeting everyone halfway and not just one population.”
Latinos Outdoors, a national volunteer movement, was founded in 2013 by UC Davis alum José Gonzalez and operates in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and the Central Valley. Since it was founded, it has partnered with the National Park Service on a campaign to connect people with local parks, and on a White House initiative giving fourth-graders free access to the national park system.
“Latinos are expected to become the minority-majority in the nation,” said José Gonzalez, who isn’t related to Xico Gonzalez. “The more Latinos interact with the outdoors, the more they will get involved in climate change issues.”
José Gonzalez believes environmental issues are also crucial ones for Latinos given that many live in polluted communities. In a study on air quality between 2006 and 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more Latinos lived in areas where clean air rules are violated than any other racial or ethnic group.
He said engagement with the outdoors also will intensify the muscle Latinos that wield in environmental legislation issues. “Latinos were key in defeating the referendum on (climate change bill) AB 32,” he said.
A 2015 poll conducted by Latino Decisions for the national advocacy organization Earthjustice found that 81 percent of registered Latino voters in California strongly support state clean energy standards to combat climate change. On a national level, the poll found that 72 percent said they support policies and candidates that seek to protect the environment.
“We have seen the effects of pollution in Chicano communities like all the junkyards in San Diego’s Chicano Park,” said Xico Gonzalez.
That San Diego community, which is 85 percent Latino, borders an industrial area on San Diego Bay and is considered to have some of the worst air pollution in San Diego County.
For Xico Gonzalez, the discovery of environmentalism came gradually. When growing up in Mexico, spending time in the outdoors was, typically, not about exercise or relaxation.
“If I wanted to go camping, I’d go to the rancha, and when you go hunting in Mexico you do it for the food.” he said. “We were removed from our rural lifestyle. … We didn’t understand the concept of spending time in the outdoors.”
Those perceptions came with him to the United States. “I had always seen hiking, kayaking and canoeing as something white people do,” he said. “I was all caught up in the life of an activist in an urban setting.”
Then he signed up as a chaperone for a Met High School trip to Wrights Lake in Eldorado National Forest. He was 35.
“It was May and there was snow on the ground still. It was beautiful and peaceful. Summiting mountains felt so good. I felt accomplished and at one with nature. I fell in love with the outdoors,” he said.
Soon afterward, he won a scholarship from the Wyoming-based National Outdoor Leadership School, a nonprofit outdoor educational center. The scholarship was designed to increase wilderness participation and outdoor leadership skills for people of color. Gonzalez spent two weeks backpacking and canoeing through Canada’s Yukon Territory. He was the only person of color on the trip.
Gonzalez started leading wilderness outings for young Latinos such as kayaking at the Cosumnes River Preserve and trips to Winnemucca Lake. Since then he has taken over his school’s outdoor club.
“Now it is up to me to train the students,” he said.
Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz