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The strangeness of being a Latina who loves hiking

I didn’t think the outdoors were for me. I was wrong.

Chelin Lauer

After three days hiking in the Ecuadorian mountains, I arrived at my aunt’s house in Quito wearing stained cargo pants, my dirty socks stuffed in one side of my backpack and my sneakers hanging by the shoelaces from the other.

I didn’t need my aunt to say what I already knew: as a Latina woman, showing up like this was at best surprising, and at worst inappropriate. Since I was young, I was told a lady always looked bien arreglada. That meant ironed blouses, maquillaje, and polished shoes. And yet there I was, standing at my aunt’s door in dirty clothes.

I spent a large part of my early 20s worrying about what moments like these meant. Could I honor my identity as both a Latina and a person who loves the outdoors? Here’s how I finally learned I could be both.

I went hiking for the first time at age 19. I had no idea where to buy “gear.”

I tried hiking for the first time at 19 years old because my university’s outdoors club sponsored a backpacking trip at a discounted price. The trip took us on a four-day trek through the White Mountains in New Hampshire.

Everything about preparing for that trip felt foreign to me and my family. Since we had no clue where to buy “gear,” my mother bought my hiking shorts and wool socks at an Army surplus store that sold used clothing for under $10. Unclear of what “water-resistant” meant, my dad offered his 1980s windbreaker as my rain jacket. I bought my hiking boots a few weeks later while visiting my college roommate in her home state of Maine, where she introduced me to L.L. Bean and helped me pick out my first pair.

Once on the trip, there were more firsts: my first time using a compass, my first time cooking with a camping stove, my first time drinking water from a stream, my first time digging holes for my poop and storing the toilet paper in a plastic bag. But perhaps most significantly, it was my first time carrying everything I needed to survive on my back, while walking for days in the middle of nowhere. Though everything else felt new and different, something about that somehow felt natural, as if I had been meant to do this all along.

I was the only Latinx in my group. Those demographics reflected the statistics nationally: A 2011 report by the University of Wyoming found that only one in five National Park visitors in the US was nonwhite. For Latinxs, the number is 1 in 10.

For other forms of outdoor recreation, the numbers are bleaker: A rock-climbing survey found 3.8 percent of climbers were Latinx, and 0.2 percent were black or Asian. A survey by the Outdoor Foundation reported that just 8 percent of Hispanics participated in outdoor sports in 2014.

African-American outdoorsman James Mills called this “the Adventure Gap,” and many others have explored the reasons behind what a Sierra Club blog post called “the unbearable whiteness of hiking.” Ryan Kearney at the New Republic argued that part of the problem was class dynamics. He cited data from the Outdoor Foundation that found 40 percent of people who participate in outdoor recreation have household incomes of $75,000 or more, an income level that only a quarter of Latinx households have. (There’s a significant wage gap between white and Latinx families: College-educated Latinxs still only earn around 69 percent of what white men earn.)

In his piece, Kearney admits that his initial way of accessing outdoor culture — an expensive summer sleepover camp in Upstate New York — is financially out of reach for many people: “I fell in love with the outdoors because I had the means to do so.” In my neighborhood growing up, I also associated outdoor recreation with family affluence: In the summer, the rich kids went away to camp and hiked and played outside. The poor and middle-class kids stayed home.

But even when my family had the financial means, outdoors culture still conflicted with the persona they had worked hard to create. Whenever I’d tell my parents about a backpacking trip in the wilderness, my parents joked about the irony: As immigrants, they had worked all their lives to ensure I had a roof under my head and presentable clothes to wear. And now I was intentionally choosing to sleep outside, wearing clothes covered in dirt?

With the stereotypes that endure already, many Latinxs I knew felt the need to prove they lived comfortably. I knew Latina women who manicured their hands specifically to give others the impression that they never had to work outside. And I knew Latinx families who hesitated to book hostels or camp when they traveled because they feared it implied they couldn’t afford a “real” place to stay. Culturally, you can’t get interested in going off the grid when you’re still trying to prove to people you can afford to live on it.

In my family, gender also played a role. Growing up, I had internalized messages about how a respectful Latina woman was supposed to behave: To be a “lady” meant to treat myself delicately, and to be a gentleman meant to honor a woman’s fragility. I was never expected to carry much, or do anything remotely dangerous without a man’s protection or assistance. Nothing about me lugging a 30-pound pack across the mountains aligned with those ideas.

In an interview for Everywhere All the Time, a blog about race and travel, Jose Gonzalez, the director of Latino Outdoors, spoke about how even small details, like camping food, can also make the outdoors feel culturally distant: “Trail mix? Though I fell in love with it after trying it, when I first laid eyes on it, I thought, ‘Why are we mixing peanuts with chocolate? Where’s the hot sauce or the chile y limon?’” In an episode of NPR’s Code Switch podcast, host Adrian Florido and other people of color shared anecdotes of how they too felt culturally out of place in the outdoors.

When I taught mostly students of color near Oakland, California, it didn’t surprise me when many told me they never had hiked a day in their life, even though they lived within a few of miles of famous state parks and beaches and only a few hours away from Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. Some had never seen the ocean. This is the unfortunate cycle of outdoors culture: Systemic economic and cultural barriers exclude communities of color, which later leads us to adopt the idea that somehow, nature is not our “thing.”

As I participated more in outdoor culture, I envied my friends who could enjoy nature without thinking of these issues, who could enjoy a weekend in the woods without also considering the impact of class, race, gender, and privilege that exists within it. As writer Narinda Heng argued in a piece for the blog Racialicious, too often people use the “chill culture” of outdoor recreation as an excuse for not looking critically at social issues. But as people of color, we don't necessarily have the privilege of relaxing as much as others. As Heng writes: “I navigate my race/sex/class everywhere, all the time. ... There’s a lot more in play when I’m trying to get into the ‘pure’ part of the activity.”

How I reconciled my identities as a Latina and an outdoors lover

Thankfully, after I arrived at my aunt’s house that day in "dirtbag" condition, she and my cousins never expressed disapproval explicitly. But they still seemed confused by the idea of me wanting to spend so much of my travels in the mountains, instead of the beach or the city. When they asked about my upcoming plans, I told them I wanted to visit small towns like Vilcabamba. Hearing this, they would scoff, “What’s there to do there?”

“Hike,” I would say, and they would just stare blankly, as if expecting there to be more. The notion of visiting somewhere only to spend days walking on trails didn’t seem to make any sense. In their lifetime of living within hours of the town, none of my family members had ever been there before.

Needless to say, I was desperate for a role model. At the time, the Latinas I commonly saw on TV wore heels, owned fancy handbags, and hair-sprayed their hair: Sofia Vergara on Modern Family, Eva Longoria from Desperate Housewives, or the stars of almost every novela. In movies, it was Reese Witherspoon starring in Wild and Jennifer Lopez starring in The Wedding Planner. I still can’t think of one Latina character in the media who looks like she could believably spend a night outside, other than Dora the Explorer (and she’s a cartoon).

But after leaving my aunt’s house in Quito, I found what I was looking for. While visiting the town of Huaraz, Peru, I met a Peruvian woman around my age named Mery. On Facebook, Mery had a picture of herself carrying a mountain bike on her shoulders up a trail. Another showed her in crampons and a harness, hoisting up an ice ax at the top of a mountain. The rest were mostly selfies with snowy peaks and crater lakes in the nearby national park.

I had never met a Latin American woman like Mery before. Before meeting her, I don’t think I really believed a woman like her existed. Instead, I had bought into the US idea of what a Latina women looked like. And yet here was Mery proving it all wrong.

Later on through my travels in South America, I would meet more Latin Americans who were climbers, hikers, kayakers, mountaineers, whitewater rafters. Something about seeing these people from my family’s culture in water-repellent rain jackets and quick-dry shorts, carrying headlamps and Camelbaks felt not only empowering but deeply necessary. Limiting outdoors culture to a “white people thing” seemed more arbitrary and inaccurate than ever before. Once “outdoorsy” looked Latin American, everything about it suddenly changed.

I realized during that trip that if anything, my love for the mountains makes me more connected to my culture, rather than detached from it. For Latinxs from families in the Andes, hiking is in our blood. In pre-Columbian South America, the Incas used to employ runners known as chasquis to hike across the Andes delivering messages and food from one city to another. When the Inca emperor in Cuzco requested fresh fish from the sea, the chasquis would run through the mountains all the way to Lima and back in less than two days.

The people I met while traveling in Peru carried on that tradition. In Cuzco, when I signed up as a tourist for the “four-day Inca Trail,” many locals told me they had run that same trail in under 48 hours. Our porters on the Inca Trail hiked the whole thing in sandals, while carrying at least three times the amount of weight I did. While hiking in other parts of the Andes, I still often passed indigenous people (notably, they were most often women) using the same trail to lug and transport crops or materials, or to simply get from one place to the next. These experiences reminded me that before hiking became a hobby and a tourist attraction, for people from my culture it was simply a need. And before people in the United States shelled out $300 for Gore-Tex boots and Under Armour, people from my culture made it to the peak with a poncho and chanclas.

Minorities often feel excluded from the outdoor community — but that’s starting to change

Despite beginning to embrace my identity as a Latina who loves nature, I still often feel culturally distant from the outdoor community. These divides become even more significant (and frustrating) as I get older and choose where to live. Whenever I consider a city as a potential new home, I often feel forced to decide whether access to the outdoors or access to a Latinx community is my greater priority. In the United States, “the great outdoors” often also means the greatest homogeneity. Seventy-eight percent of Latinxs live in the country’s largest urban areas; by contrast, some of the most naturally beautiful, remote the areas in the United States are not diverse at all. (A few examples: Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is 91 percent white. Big Sky, Montana, is 93.2 percent white.)

Often while traveling, I’d meet couples who had dropped everything to move to a stunning natural location, where they bragged about being only minutes away from the best skiing and hiking in the world. But as a Latinx, it’s more difficult for me to see these spaces as only outdoor paradises without also feeling nagged by the fear that I do not belong. While outdoorsy friends rave about the unspoiled wilderness of Idaho, the red-rock landscapes of Utah, or the hidden gem mountain towns in Washington and Oregon, I question whether the picturesque beauty of these places is enough to overcome their cultural isolation.

In a New York Times article, Japanese-American writer Glenn Nelson argued that remote, natural locations present people of color with questions of basic safety: “There was always nervous banter as we cruised through small rural towns on our way to a park. And there were jokes about finding a ‘Whites Only’ sign at the entrance to our destination or the perils of being lynched or attacked while collecting firewood after the sun went down. Our cultural history taught us what to expect.” In the article, he reported results of a 2011 park service survey that found nonwhites were more than three times as likely as whites to say that the parks were not safe to visit.

Thankfully, many outdoors organizations have begun owning up to these realities. The National Park Service recently created an Office of Relevancy, Diversity, and Inclusion. The Sierra Club recently elected its first African-American president and hired its first director of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The same university outdoors program that introduced me to hiking almost 10 years ago recently published a “self-education” guide, which is offered to participants. The guide is titled “Identity, Privilege, and Oppression in the Outdoors,” and argues “the way we experience the outdoors is inherently political.” It quotes academic Karen Warren, who writes, “The collective memory of past experiences of legally mandated segregation, the flight from rural to urban areas due to forced labor outdoors, and racially motivated violence that most typically occurred in remote areas continues to play a role in deciding how people of color spend time in nature.” Because of this history, she argues that the notion of “the natural environment as a sanctuary or a place of refuge” is not necessarily shared by marginalized communities in the United States.

As the outdoor community begins acknowledging these problems, other organizations have worked to solve them. Organizations like the Fresh Air Fund, Vida Verde, Outdoor Afro, and Latino Outdoors all help offer more outdoor experiences to communities of color. These communities have also gained a greater presence on social media thanks to Facebook groups Hikers of Color and H.E.A.T. and Instagram accounts like Brown People Camping. They have all helped reinvent what outdoor culture can look like and mean.

In a recent piece in the Huffington Post, Rod Torrez also argued that at least in some areas of the United States, Latinxs may already like the outdoors more than we think: The results of one poll found that more than 90 percent of Latinxs in Colorado and New Mexico engage in outdoor recreation. A majority of Latinxs in those states also visited public lands at least once a month.

Meanwhile, I’m becoming more and more confident admitting that I like it too. I like the dirt, I like the aches, I like the freedom. I like the moment when I first unzip my tent and see the morning. I like the way my coffee tastes when I’m hovering over my mug and sitting on a log. I like the feeling of carrying everything I need for the week on my back. And I know now that liking those things doesn’t have to mean letting go of Latinx connection. As the demographics hopefully continue to change, I’m excited for the day I pitch a tent around a campfire, surrounded by my Latinx community, knowing we are exactly where we’re meant to be.

Amanda Machado is a writer, editor, content strategist, and facilitator who works with publications and nonprofits around the world. You can learn more about her work at her website.

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