Melodie Mendez discovered her passion for the outdoors as a child in New York City. She spent hours at the public park across the street from her apartment in the Bronx, learning to bike and roller skate and building elaborate structures out of wood. When she left home for college in North Carolina, however, Mendez began questioning whether her past experiences qualified her as a true outdoorswoman.
“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t go into the Catskills or kayak or do any of these remote backpacking hikes,'” she told Latino Rebels. “There was always this conflict of, ‘Am I truly outdoorsy?'”
After returning to New York and starting her career, Mendez resolved to reconnect with nature and add to her outdoor experiences. That’s what led her to Latino Outdoors, an organization seeking to increase Latino participation in outdoor activities through group outings, conservation initiatives and other programming. The group documents its activities extensively on blogs and social media, aiming to rewrite conventional narratives about Latinos and outdoor recreation, and show that nature can be a place for everyone.
Four years after attending her first event with Latino Outdoors, Mendez is still struck by the power of being out in nature with people who look and speak like her.
“I didn’t realize I was missing that so much until I discovered LO, and it felt like I was home,” said Mendez, who is now outings leader of the organization’s New York chapter. “For the first time, I felt like I had a community that said, ‘You don’t have to do this alone.'”
Filling a Void
Founded in California in 2013, Latino Outdoors looks to fill an unmet need for Latino-serving organizations focused on outdoor recreation and environmental conservation. Studies show that Latinos have significantly less access to green spaces than non-Latino white Americans, and high costs have limited Latino participation in many outdoor activities. By covering fees, hosting bilingual events and providing transportation to and from outings, Latino Outdoors eliminates common barriers Latinos face to enjoying the natural world.
“All of our programming is free,” Mendez explained. “Most of our participants are first-timers to these experiences, so it’s great to get them excited about our parks and outdoor spaces.”
A decade after its launch, Latino Outdoors has grown into a national organization powered by volunteers, with chapters in roughly 30 locations across the country. Chapters regularly collaborate with other groups on programming and tailor activities to the areas in which they operate.
“Individual volunteer leaders… are given the opportunity to listen to their community, and based on that input, lead how they want to lead,” said Christian La Mont, a Los Angeles resident and the head of storytelling, communications and advocacy at Latino Outdoors. “So you’ll get entirely different experiences based on what community members need.”
To date, Latino Outdoors has led almost 1,000 group outings for roughly 18,000 participants, with activities ranging from camping and backpacking to outdoor photography and stargazing. Some events can be as simple as a walk in the park or a visit to a local body of water, according to La Mont.
“A lot of folks in Los Angeles live within 30 minutes of the beach and have never visited it,” he said. “So to be able to open the eyes of kids and adults to that is really special.”
Protecting Shared Spaces
Latino Outdoors places a heavy emphasis on environmental stewardship. During Latino Conservation Week, which began July 15 and ended Sunday, individual chapters organized a series of events aimed at getting community members outside and enjoying natural spaces and resources with an eye toward protecting them. Events combined hiking and other outdoor activities with conservation projects and education.
On Saturday, Mendez and other New York City residents gathered at Orchard Beach in the Bronx to pick up litter and share a meal outside. The event attracted nearly two dozen volunteers, who filled 20 garbage bags with waste that would otherwise have washed into the ocean.
For many residents, Saturday’s event was an opportunity to discover a new outdoor space in the city while giving back to the local community.
“I’d never been to Orchard Beach before,” said David Monroy, a former park ranger who’s been coming to Latino Outdoors events since 2018. “It’s great to be out here with Latinos aside from myself and make an impact.”
Saturday’s cleanup was personal for Mendez, who grew up attending family barbeques at Orchard Beach. She remembers how polluted the sand and water were back then and feels proud to have contributed to its restoration.
“It’s not just stewardship for the sake of stewardship,” she said. “It’s stewardship because this is our space to be in. And just like we take care of our homes, we need to take care of our outdoor spaces.”
Mendez says that the past few months have underscored the growing threat that climate change poses to outdoor spaces. Citing the wildfires raging across North America and worsening air quality in U.S. cities, Mendez says these disasters will make it harder for everyone —not just Latinos— to enjoy the natural world.
“As a New Yorker, you learn very quickly that anywhere outside your apartment is a shared space, and that applies to our environment,” she said. “You can’t enjoy the outdoors if you can’t even go outside.”
Illan Martin Ireland is a summer correspondent at Futuro Media and a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.