La Nueva Frontera: Latino Organizations Are Bridging the Nature Gap

The “Frontera a Frontera” film series will premiere at Our Heritage, Our Planet Film Week on Tuesday, October 11, at 4:30pm ET / 1:30pm PT. Free tickets for this virtual event can be found at

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Who belongs at a trailhead, who doesn’t—and what shapes that perception? “There’s this whole connotation that outdoor recreation isn’t for our communities [Latinos and people of color],” says Teresa Martinez, executive director and cofounder of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC), a nonprofit dedicated to community building and conservation along the Continental Divide Trail. “Because what we see so often … is this portrayal of outdoor experiences, as: You have to have all this gear, and it’s expensive, and you have to have special food.”  

In other words, the barriers to the outdoors that many historically marginalized communities in the United States face aren’t just physical or related to geography: They have historic, classist and racist roots. 

The Hispanic Access Foundation 2022 Conservation Policy Toolkit describes in detail the many causes of the “nature gap,” and the underlying reasons why Latinos and people of color—especially Black, brown and Asian people—recreate outdoors less than white people. “Latinos and other communities of color in the U.S. are three times as likely to live somewhere that is ‘nature deprived’ than white communities,” it states.  

It’s important to note that “Latino” itself encompasses many identities, as many Latinos identify as white, others may or may not speak Spanish; many identify as Indigenous, biracial and others find the entire notion of a shared Latino experience as reductionistic. For the purposes of this article, the term Latino encompasses white and nonwhite people with Hispanic ancestry. 

Hispanic Access Foundation director of conservation programs, Shanna Edberg says, “Together with the Center for American Progress in 2020, we published a report that found nature is being destroyed in the U.S. at the rate of one football field every 30 seconds. Where this nature destruction is happening is overwhelmingly in and around communities of color.”   

“This means there are far fewer parks, forests, streams, beaches and other natural places near Black, Latino and Asian communities,” the Hispanic Access Foundation toolkit echoes. Additionally, factors like language barriers, lack of public transportation and longer work hours due to pay disparities—exacerbate this problem for these communities.

The Continental Divide Trail Coalition often works alongside the Hispanic Access Foundation, which is dedicated to protecting public lands, conserving freshwater and ocean habitats and fighting climate change. “We also work directly with Latino communities, and physically bring them to the outdoors … to start leading hikes and nature walks and things like that themselves. It’s a combination of education, community engagement and advocacy,” Martinez says, combined with trying to raise awareness with reports like the nature gap.  

“And, working with policymakers to try and change the situation,” says Edberg.  

One of the Hispanic Access Foundation programs, the MANO Project, connects Latinos to job opportunities and fellowships at organizations like the National Park Service. The program aims to give Latinos a seat at the table when it comes to conservation and making the outdoors more accessible to diverse populations.  

KangJae “Jerry” Lee, assistant professor of parks and recreation and tourism management at North Carolina State University, explains, “When I was a grad student, more than 15 years ago, I started to notice distinctive patterns of racial and ethnic disparities in terms of access to nature. Throughout my academic career, I tried to explain why this type of racial and ethnic inequity exists.” 

In Lee’s research, he found that many people of color were often denied the right to access these parks through Jim Crow laws and threatened, harassed and intimidated from land use. Today, the educational materials at many public, state or national parks also distort or omit parts of history that showcase how land was taken away from Indigenous, Black, Latino and other people of color.  

Who wants to visit a park where their own history is denied? Where, as is the case at the Weccacoe playground in Philadelphia, the paved-over graves of countless Black ancestors continue to go unacknowledged?  

Lee says these places should communicate the stories of the people—especially, he says, “people who actually cultivated and occupy the land, or people who actually made a significant contribution in park development.” To Lee, who gets to tell this story is important: “We are living in a society with many different viewpoints, and our history could be interpreted differently. But, we cannot deliberately distort or hide what actually happened in the past … An important question that we need to ponder is, Who gets to decide which story to tell people?”   

That’s exactly what Martinez is focused on with CDTC: amplifying the voices of the people of color that history so often omits, what she calls “dismantling and deconstructing.” She uses human-centered and diversity-focused portrait projects like  Portraits of the CDT and Faces of the Continental Divide to reimagine outdoor storytelling, “especially for Latino communities, who for so long are forgotten in this space,” she says  

Martinez and her colleagues know there is room for Latino stories in nature—like that of the Aparcio family, the first people to ride the entire CDT by horseback, all three generations, all together. They want to lift up images of Latino families in the United States fishing, splashing around and playing by the riverside without anyone questioning whether they belong. 

To that end, the organizations have collaborated on a new video series called “Frontera a Frontera,” which highlights the Latinos who are changing what environmental stewardship, and belonging, mean.  

In addition to producing the short films, the CDTC is correcting the historic record by highlighting the contributions of Latinos and the Indigenous all along the Continental Divide Trail. Martinez’s grassroots organization is working with local communities to create nature walks led in Spanish, as well as collaborating with Hispanic and Acequia communities on initiatives to protect their water and lands, and advocating for people from these places to inform policies and take an active role when it comes to conservation.  

Fabiola Torres grew up in Puerto Rico and is a Master of Science in Biology from UCLA. Through the MANO Project, she was connected to fellowships at the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. She served as an Interagency National Monument Fellow at Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument and participated in the Directorate Fellows Program. She now works as a biologist at El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico.  

In addition to her work at El Yunque, Torres says, “I founded a nonprofit in 2021 during my last year of my master’s degree, to connect people with opportunities within environmental conservation.” Through her nonprofit, Conservation Opportunity, Torres hopes to give more Latinos the chance to change the face of conservation.  

Together, Torres, Martinez and the founders of other grassroots, Latino-led organizations are expanding the stories we tell about Latinos in conservation, and how Latinos in the United States experience the outdoors.  

Reflecting on the work the CDTC, Hispanic Access Foundation and groups like Latino Outdoors do and the people they bring together, Martinez says, “When I look at some of the leaders—in particular, Latino communities across New Mexico and the CDT—I see that, against all odds, they are fighting for their communities. And they’re standing up and they’re speaking out, even if it’s the unpopular thing, but it’s the right thing. And I think that is what we’re trying to celebrate—we need to create more space for that, so that all of us are inspired to do it together.” 

Martinez says, “Those stories need to be celebrated, so that other people doing this work know: There is somebody else out there that looks like you that is doing this work, that you belong, and that your contributions are just as valuable. They’re just as important as the John Muir stories of the world.” 

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