Photo courtesy of Latino Outdoors.
“Conservation roots have been ingrained in la cultura Latina for generations.”
A Q&A with Latino Outdoors Executive Director Luis Villa
When Latino Outdoors Executive Director Luis Villa moved back to the U.S. from where he’d been working on conservation projects in Costa Rica, he joined the national organization in April 2018 as its only full-time employee. Now, the Latino Outdoors leadership team has grown to six full-time people working to bring the nonprofit’s mission to life: supporting and organizing the scores of volunteers that lead local conservation and outdoor education projects around the country. Completely Latinx-led, the organization is focused on expanding and amplifying the Latinx experience in the outdoors—and they do so by providing leadership, mentorship, and professional opportunities, while also serving as a platform “for sharing cultural connections and narratives that are often overlooked by the traditional outdoor movement.”
Conservation—the act of respecting resources and preventing wasteful use—is nothing new to Latinx communities across the Americas. As the Latino Outdoors website states, “Conservation roots have been ingrained in la cultura Latina for generations.” As groups like Latino Outdoors continue to grow, it’s up to the outdoor industry and conservation gatekeepers (traditionally white folks in positions of power) to recognize the bountiful synergy, collaboration opportunities, and future friendships readily available.
As executive director, Villa says he still wears a lot of hats at Latino Outdoors, but what he’s most looking forward to is a future that continues blending social and environmental justice—the conservation of both human and natural resources, the celebration of diversity in all its forms: in ecosystems, in urban communities, in public parks, in neighborhoods, and in culture.
We spoke to Villa from his childhood home in Los Angeles, California about how his life experiences inform the work he’s doing today and the future he envisions for tomorrow. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What’s the most underrated part of your job as Latino Outdoors Executive Director?
Being a still relatively small organization—and I think this is a characteristic of many nonprofits—you still have to wear many hats. We're definitely on people's radars a lot more than we were three-and-a-half years ago, we get a lot of inquiries about collaboration, so the bandwidth of the organization still feels stretched, which means that all of us on staff now still have to wear many hats. I still do stuff that people wouldn't typically expect from an executive director, day-to-day stuff, like looking over expense reports to make sure that they're prepared properly—just the little things that come up everyday.
You’re from Los Angeles—where do you live now? What’s your current favorite way to recreate?
I happen to be in LA now, just visiting my parents who still live here in the house where I grew up, but I now live in Fresno, California, which is in the Central Valley.
That's such a timely question because I'm actually going to go on my first real vacation, where I think I'm going to do my darndest to not look at emails while I'm away for about a week and a half. I'm going back to visit people that I consider family in Costa Rica. We're going to do a couple of hikes, and that's what I love to do. I just love walking. It doesn't matter if I'm hiking up through a rainforest, up a mountain on the coast, or in the neighborhood. I just—I love walking. I always enjoyed it. I can walk for miles, and I think what drives me is just curiosity. I'm always curious about what's around the bend.
I’d like to ask you about the relationship between outdoor recreation and conservation. Do you think access to the outdoors and recreational exposure to nature, especially for kids, plays a role in conservation work?
We have a theory of change at Latino Outdoors, and basically what we express in our theory of change is that if folks have equitable access to outdoor recreation—we can easily access our public land, national parks and state parks, et cetera—that prompts us to start building a relationship with these special places, these protected areas. And without that relationship, it's difficult to foster in someone a conservation ethic. There's a quote that I read when I was doing conservation work in Costa Rica, it's from Wendell Berry, who said, "What I stand for is what I stand on." And so you have to know what you're defending, you have to have a relationship with it. So that starts with experiences and building memories.
From your bio on the Latino Outdoors website, it sounds like you created your own outdoor adventures, even in an urban environment. Did your childhood experiences outside lead you into the social and environmental work you do today?
As a child, I don't know exactly what was the catalyst, I have a number of theories. I grew up in the early 80s, and that was a time when kids still craved just being outside in the neighborhood playing. We didn't have any screens, you know, and so I loved going outside the house here, with my brothers and best friend who just lived down the block. And our yards were not just yards. They were these places of adventure—they were bigger in our imagination than they were in real life.
I remember wanting to be a Boy Scout or a Cub Scout because I was fascinated by the 80s' camp movies, the movies where kids go off to summer camp and they jumped in the lake and have a great time, and then one of them gets lost and they all have to find him, and then they find him and everyone lives happily. So I was just fascinated by the setting of the movies, and I wanted to be there. When I had the opportunity to be a Cub Scout, I joined—there was a neighbor, a woman with kids about our age and she decided to be a Den Mother, so she offered kids in the neighborhoods the opportunity to be Cub Scouts and we had a jamboree, which is where all the troops get together and go camping someplace. And I have to say, it really was one of the most disappointing experiences. I was envisioning the places that I just described in the movie, but we ended up camping in a barren field–some big field that maybe they use for something like the LA County Fair or something. There was no trees, not a blade of grass or anything. It was just setting up tents on this dirt field. But you know, we gotta fail as kids. Like I said, we were outdoors, even if it wasn't an urban setting. I would ride my bike on the LA river bed, which is absurd, right? A concrete riverbed, you know, straight-jacketed in concrete because it's a flood management issue. I would just go riding with my best friend. We rode our bikes from Lynwood, California down to Long Beach, to the mouth of the river.
I think we all—all people—have a connection with nature with the outdoors, just evolutionarily speaking. It's only been relatively recently in our evolutionary history that we've settled into civilizations. If you think about the fact that we evolved in the out-of-doors as nomads as hunters, etc.–when you think about the timescale, being sedentary as a society, it's not been a very long time. I think we all have an affinity for being outdoors, to being connected with nature. There's a biologist, Edward O. Wilson, who coined the term biophilia: a love of life, a love of nature. And I think we all have that, and in some of us maybe it's dormant and it needs something to kind of make it come alive. For me, certain experiences as a kid did that. And then certainly when I left to live in Costa Rica, I remember flying in for the first time, looking down at the landscape from the plane. I remember my first thought was, I've never seen so much green in one place.
In Costa Rica, you worked at the Nectandra Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation and restoration of tropical cloud forests. What lessons did you learn there that you brought back with you to your work at Latino Outdoors?
There are many lessons to be learned from nature that apply to human society and human systems, right? And one of the biggest lessons is that diversity is key to sustainability and to robust systems. So when you look at nature and you look at an ecosystem that is healthy, it's healthy by virtue of being diverse. There's a lot of different types of flora and fauna species, right? And they're all playing their role. And that translates to human society, whether we're talking about economic systems or cultural systems or social systems. The tendency I believe that we're seeing with human systems is one of eliminating this diversity—particularly that elimination is being driven by our socioeconomic systems. And that's why I think we're in a precarious place now; we're facing the issues that we're facing, such as climate change, civil unrest, and whatnot. The parallels, the lessons that nature can teach us, that's certainly something that I brought back with me.
What’s the biggest thing you feel or see the outdoor industry (at large) getting wrong or misses the mark about Latino communities in the outdoors and the idea, as stated on the Latino Outdoors’ website, your mission to embrace cultura y familia?
That statement is very, very intentional. Because different communities, different cultural groups, different people engage with the outdoors in different ways. And for the longest time, the mainstream narrative around what it means to be an outdoor enthusiast has looked a certain way. Again, going back to diversity and the lack of it: When there's a lack of diversity in narratives, that has an adverse effect on society—it leaves people out. And so I think I'm probably preaching to the choir here, but engaging with nature, connecting with the outdoors, outdoor recreation, it all brings with it a multitude of health and wellness benefits. And if the mainstream narrative around outdoor recreation is really just inviting a select group of people, you've got all these others that don't feel welcome. Maybe the mainstream narrative doesn't reflect the opportunities that exist for communities that really like to connect with nature with their families together, and not in an individualistic way, which oftentimes is how the mainstream is portrayed—summiting that fourteener, or running that trail, pushing yourself as an individual. All of that is fantastic and that's great—we should all as individuals challenge ourselves, but we can't forget the community aspect of it, the family aspect of it. I think that needs to be better represented.
Geartrade is a website that facilitates selling used gear; I myself am on a year-long project to buy nothing new and I’ve seen the ways gear exchanges can have positive impacts on different communities. Do you see second-hand gear within or as part of your community or Latino Outdoors at large?
There's a place for second-hand gear and thrifting for everyone, not just Latinx communities, because going back to what I was saying earlier about socioeconomic systems, we really need to steer away to some degree from, the consumptive mentality that we have as a society, and this is one way of doing that. But, you know, when we're talking about Latinex communities specifically, I'm not saying anything new by saying that Latinx communities and communities of color in general, there's a correlation between these communities and low-income communities. And so just from an economic standpoint, it's a way to gain access to the gear that's needed for specialized or technical outdoor activities, that we don't have access to because maybe we don't have the financial wherewithal to buy the expensive gear new. Anecdotally, I've seen in the circles that I'm in and with Latino Outdoors that individuals and families from Latino communities maybe start off like me, just walking or hiking, and then that serves as a gateway to something more challenging or specialized, like backcountry backpacking, or rock climbing or kayaking. It's then that you start to feel the need for the specialized equipment. And so, of course, something that makes gear more accessible, financially speaking, there's opportunities to break down barriers with that.
Looking ahead, towards various intersecting issues—including climate change, social reckonings around race and ethnicity, public health pandemics—what are Latino Outdoors’ main goals for the future?
From the very beginning of my time at Latino outdoors I've expressed that we're more than just an outdoor engagement organization. We're part of a bigger movement, a movement towards a more just and equitable society. There are other organizations, much more prevalent frontline organizations that are doing much harder work and have a bigger lift, but nonetheless, I'm proud that Latino Outdoors is part of this overall movement. And, addition to expressing that, I also believe that the conservation-slash-environmental movement and the social justice movement are related. They're very interrelated—there's a lot of overlap that often isn't appreciated.
I put it this way, conservationists/environmentalists are basically looking out for the planet's biodiversity and the proper management of the planet's natural resources. The social justice movement is looking out for diversity and people systems, and the proper management of people resources, or social resources. Because people systems do not operate in a vacuum, we are part of the greater ecosystem. Really we're nested within this bigger movement to manage our resources in a sustainable way. The analogy or metaphor that I can share from the overlap between the natural and the human worlds is agriculture. This is something that I really paid attention to in Costa Rica. When you clear a rainforest to make room for a monoculture like, African Palm, or pineapple, or bananas—those are three big exports from Costa Rica, and a lot of biodiverse ecosystems have been destroyed to make room for those monocultures—you do that, but then you open this kind of Pandora's box because now you have to put in all of these artificial inputs, like pesticides and herbicides and all these chemicals right into the soil to maintain that monoculture. It's like you're swimming against the current and trying to maintain this, because the tendency of the natural world is to be diverse, and it's the same thing in the human world.
If you start to concentrate financial capital, manufactured capital, etc, in the hands of few, you're going to have to do so much to maintain that status quo. It's a really unstable place to be. It could unleash all sorts of things, and, we're seeing some of the manifestations of that already. So there's a real opportunity between environmentalists, conservationists, and social justice activists to join forces. I hope there's a merging of these movements, and if that happens, I believe we can achieve the critical mass that's necessary for real change.
Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.
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