“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” —John Muir

These words, written many decades ago, are just one of many quotes from famed naturalist John Muir. They remind us of the immeasurable value there is in spending time outdoors, allowing nature’s beauty to heal us, to strengthen us, to inspire us. For most middle-class white families post World War II, the beauty of the natural world was available to explore any time they wished. Annual family vacations included hiking, fishing, camping, or visiting one of our National Parks. For them, it was something they simply took for granted.

But for members of the BIPOC communities (Black, Indigenous, People Of Color), enjoying the benefits of the great outdoors is not ingrained as a part of their growing up years. The reasons are many, but most have to do with social, cultural, and economic barriers. Farmworkers, for example, spend all day every day outside in the fields doing the back-breaking work of harvesting our food. Going outside “for fun” does not occur to them. As another example, many BIPOC families are single-parent households where there is neither the time nor the money for vacations of any sort, let alone the added cost of travel and expensive camping or hiking gear.

“There is a misconception among nature lovers that nature is free and open to anyone who wants to get out in it,” explains Maritza Oropeza. “Nature is NOT free for everyone. It’s not about lack of interest or initiative, but rather that there are all these barriers for people of color … Limiting outdoor culture to a “white people thing” seems more apparent than ever and I want to change that.”

Enter Latino Outdoors, a unique Latinx-led organization dedicated to “inspire, connect, and engage Latino communities in the outdoors …” and envisioning a world where “… all Latino communities enjoy nature as a safe, inclusive, and welcoming place—a place to share and celebrate stories, knowledge, and culture while building leadership and an active community of Latino outdoor users, mentors, and stewards.”

First formed in 2013 by the award-winning outdoor educator, Jose G. Gonzalez, Latino Outdoors began with a series of California-based blogs to address the lack of Latinx representation in the outdoor, conservation, and environmental education fields. Today, Latino Outdoors has grown to operate around the country and is open to all people who wish to celebrate diversity and inclusivity. Using trained and vetted volunteers, Latino Outdoors offers all manner of outdoor excursions to small groups, families, and students in cities and towns all across the nation.

Using various social media platforms to announce upcoming local events such as nature walks, hikes, and workshops, volunteers also hand out flyers to schools, libraries, and neighborhood stores and businesses. The Latino population is the fastest-growing demographic in the United States, but it’s also the most under-represented in conservation, outdoor recreation, and environmental education. Latino Outdoors seeks to change all that.

Maritza Oropeza joined Latino Outdoors because “… as a woman of color I found it difficult to find people who look like me when I first started exploring the outdoors,” she said, noting that she was 23 years old before going on her first hike in Eugene, Oregon.

“It was beautiful; something I’d only seen in posters or movies,” she explained. “Growing up, I was completely unaware of hiking, climbing, or camping. Those outlets weren’t available for my sisters and me. Vacations were non-existent because my mother had no leisure time.”

Oropeza, who holds a degree in Sociology from the University of Ore- gon and is a practicing social worker in Portland Oregon, gives freely and generously of her time to organize and lead groups and families on diverse outdoor trekking and hiking events, to give them some of the experiences she missed out on. Beyond that most practical purpose, she and other Latino Outdoors volunteers also work to educate and engage Latino communities in the conservation movement.

The year 2019 saw the six-year-old organization increase its reach, training numerous new volunteers to staff their three established programs: Vamos (Let’s Go), Yo Cuento (I Count), and Crecemos (We Grow). Having delivered close to 200 outings to more than 3,300 participants, Latino Outdoors began the new year with more than 90 volunteers across 20 locations nation-wide. The first outing of 2020 was held on January 1st, an enthusiastic start that was halted three months later when Covid-19 swept the country.

Though it was hard to suspend programming that so many had been deeply immersed in, Latino Outdoors quickly and creatively adapted to current conditions by offering virtual nature tours, outdoor best practices tutorials, and #TogetherApart activities. The latter is Latino Outdoors’s socially-distanced and geographically-dispersed outdoor engagement initiative that encourages members of the Latino community everywhere to take part in outdoor recreation activities and then share their experiences with them through words and images. See and read some of them on their website at latinooutdoors.org.

Born and raised in Grover Beach here on the Central Coast, Maritza Oropeza has been in talks recently to start a San Luis Obispo branch of Latino Outdoors. And she’s looking for volunteers. Keenly aware, from personal experience, of the socio-economic barriers between members of BIPOC communities and access to the great outdoors, Oropeza wants to build a network of volunteer leaders who will offer recreational and mentoring activities to youth, and work with partner organizations to educate and instill environmental responsibility.

“Being poor should not be a barrier to the beauty of the outdoors,” said Oropeza. Contact her at maritza@latinooutdoors.org.

As the vaccines to fight Covid-19 become more and more available, the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel grows ever bigger and brighter. Latino Outdoors and one of its most fervent advocates, Maritza Oropeza, look forward to getting back outside, back to leading newcomers into the wonders of the natural world where true healing and joy is possible. She invites us all to join her and do as John Muir so eloquently put it: “And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”