Sitting on the Texas border with Mexico, Big Bend National Park is a 800,000-plus acre expanse of vast, Basin-and-Range canyons, ocotillo-dotted desert terrain, hidden waterfalls and 244 miles of a shifting, deceptively dangerous Rio Grande river.
But when Midy Aponte, the executive director of the American Latino Heritage Fund of the National Park Foundation (ALHF), pulled into the park for the first time, there was one thing that truly stood out to her.
“I was struck by the deafening silence,” said Aponte, a born-and-raised Florida girl who was more used to falling asleep to the pulsating rhythms of a Miami night than the natural sounds of the windswept Texas arroyo. “It was a silence I had never experienced before.”
Aponte’s first real experience in the wilderness of the U.S. National Parks – she had taken field trips to the Everglades National Park in South Florida as a student – was a life altering event and one that reaffirmed her commitment to bringing more Latinos to U.S. parks.
The fact is more Latinos should be visiting our national parks but the reality is that our national parks are not a reflection of our Latino roots...One thing that is very important to the national parks is that they work to include all Americans.
- Former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar
Aponte and others have made it their mission to encourage Latinos – a group that spends much of their vacation time visiting their home countries and whose idea, for many, of embracing nature means spending a day at the beach – to learn to love the national park system in the U.S.
Latinos, who traditionally concentrate in big cities, tend to live a more urban culture and often don’t grow up spending their free time hiking or roughing it up in a rustic campground.
But recent national campaigns – including one that partners food service giant Aramark and outdoor retailer REI called American Latino Expeditions – have the aim of sharing the park experience with the Latino community.
“The landscape you view and the appeal of the outdoors was something I wasn’t exposed to as a kid,” Aponte said. “But once you see the canyons and the sky, it changes you.”
A 2011 University of Wyoming report commissioned by the Park Service found that only about one in five visitors to a national park site was nonwhite, and only about 1 in 10 were Latino — a particularly uninspiring percentage for what is the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group.
Since the first national park was founded by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 at Yellowstone, the park system has been heralded as one of the country’s greatest successes – and a barometer by which other nations judge their own open space. Champions of the parks, such as President Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist Jon Muir, were instrumental in expanding the parks – from Florida’s Dry Tortugas and California’s Death Valley to Alaska’s Denali and Washington’s Mt. Rainer.
But unlike their White counterparts, Latinos have been slow to embrace these natural wonders.
Experts cite a number of reasons for the low visitation rates by Hispanics, including a purported culture that doesn’t value activities like camping and hiking and who live far from many outdoor Meccas. And, experts say, Latinos lack a personal connection to the national park system.
The National Park Service, the ALHF and non-profit groups, however, are working to reverse this trend, with concerted government efforts to help connect minority groups with the national parks and recruit minority students for careers in the Park Service.
“Every community should have the ability to find their own heritage in the parks,” said David Vela, an associate director at the National Park Service. “We’re trying to help them know that and let them find their stories in the park.”
Along with outreach and promotional campaigns that highlight the efforts of Hispanics at historic parks, like Gettysburg and Appomattox Courthouse, the Park Service is also making a big push to make the parks become more reflective of the Latino community. Last month, it recommended that Congress create a new historic park to honor the late farm labor leader Cesar Chavez.
“The fact is more Latinos should be visiting our national parks. But the reality is that our national parks are not a reflection of our Latino roots,” former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar told Fox News Latino. “One thing that is very important to the national parks is that they work to include all Americans.”
While he served on the presidential cabinet, Salazar, a former Colorado senator, was credited with spearheading Latino outreach programs throughout the national park and helping create the American Latino Heritage Fund.
“My connection to the outdoors and the planet comes from spending time growing up as a rancher and a farmer and spending time outdoors,” Salazar said.
The perceived dislike of roughing it in the wild – Latinas are typically portrayed, fair or not, by non-Latinas, as high-heel-strutting ladies who don’t leave the house without make-up and hair made up – and the fact that many Latinos in the U.S. grow up in urban environments, is something that activists and the Park Service are looking to jointly tackle by targeting young Hispanics.
While Salazar spent his formative years on the plains of Colorado, to Aponte and other urban-born Latinos, the idea of setting up tent and lighting a fire wasn’t in the cards during their formative years. To other Latinos, whose families have escaped meager rural existences in places like Central America and Mexico, spending days in the woods seems like taking a step backward.
“Camping is not part of our culture,” Aponte said. “We’re just not by nature park visitors.”
This has led the Park Service, as well as groups like the Fresh Air Fund, to engage a younger generation of Latinos in outdoor activities and possibly in careers with the Park Service.
The Fresh Air Fund, founded in 1877, has for over a century actively worked to expose the mainly Latino and African-American inner-city youth to nature by home stays in places like the Catskill and Adirondack mountains in upstate New York along with a series of camps where the city kids learn to fish and hike among other activities.
“It’s an opportunity to play as children, to swim, fish, roll in the grass,” said Jenny Morgenthau, the Fresh Air Fund’s executive director. “One of the most amazing things is that the kids always stare at the stars. They just see stars like that in the city.”
As part of an initiative to promote careers in the outdoors, the Park Service has also branched out their outreach campaigns among Latinos and African-Americans with programs that take groups of college students to places like Grand Teton National Park and Alaska to experience what life as a ranger entails.
These mainly minority students spend a week in the wilderness, where they are taught conservation techniques and other skills used daily by Park Service rangers in the backwoods.
“This is the best recruitment tool we have,” Vela said.
The Park Service is also battling the common complaint by many in the U.S. – not just Latinos – that many parks are inaccessible to the everyday traveler. A novice will have a tough, if not deadly, time attempting to climb the North America Wall in Yosemite and many parts of Alaska’s Wrangell–St. Elias National Park can only be accessed by a helicopter, but advocates like Vela and Salazar argue that doesn’t mean city-dwelling Latinos can’t find the great outdoors in their own town.
The Obama administration is currently mulling over a Park Service plan to revamp the Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City. If the plan goes through, citizens will be able to walk from the subway to the country’s largest urban national park to camp, fish and hike along the Jamaica Bay and Atlantic Ocean.
Aponte acknowledges that the campaign they’re waging is not easily won. But she hopes that once Latinos visit a place like Big Bend – with its wide, open skies, clean desert air and harrowing canyon views – they’ll become outdoor converts.
“It is an incredibly rewarding experience,” she said. “We’re just now uncovering this and it’s truly exciting.”
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.