I wake up to the sound of careful laughter and open my eyes to the rising sun. The view of the Southern Appalachian and Great Smoky Mountains, suddenly & ephemerally painted in sunrise pastels, greets me to a promising day. I just cowboy camped for the first time after dancing salsa, merengue, and bachata until the early morning hours. My body is exhausted, but I feel alive.
I spent Labor Day weekend overseeing the Smokies from the Appalachian Highlands Science Center in the presence of 20+ people, most of them of Hispanic heritage like myself, for what has become the first Latinos Aventureros Leadership Summit(Opens in a new window). This group of individuals, all with their own backgrounds, experiences, accents, and outdoor knowledge, gathered to share a unique space where learning, and sometimes unlearning, was the common grounds for new insights. By noon on Monday, September 4th, there were 15 newly certified Wilderness First Aid certified leaders, mostly bilingual. Beyond the technical training, however, was a carefully designed program to engage in meaningful conversations surrounding heritage, culture, and the collective responsibility the team shared as outdoor leaders.
Latinos Aventureros en las Carolinas(Opens in a new window) (Latin Adventurers in the Carolinas, or LAC) was started by Vivianette Ortiz and Sandra Aguirre, two North Carolina residents who saw an unmet need for a safe space for Latine adults and families to get into outdoor recreation. The state is a mecca for outdoor recreation in the Southeast, with incredible views, endless waterfalls, technical terrain, pristine coastline, world-class rapids, and more. It also has a 9.5% (and growing) Hispanic population.
Like many other newcomers in the industry, Vivianette Ortiz felt the pull towards outdoor recreation when she was unable to go home to Puerto Rico during the pandemic. Serendipitously, she found some Facebook groups and soon enough connected with Honduran native Sandra, and together, without barely knowing each other, planned a group sunrise hike during and in honor Hispanic Heritage Month. Over 20 people showed up for what was described as a “magical adventure”, and suddenly, the group Latinos Aventureros en las Carolinas was born. Since its inception, the group has grown steadily to over 3,500 members on Facebook, over 1,100 followers on Instagram, and more importantly, a dedicated collective of hike leaders and logistics coordinators that now spend nearly every weekend (and some weeknights) leading family walks, group hikes, and even backpacking trips to bucket-list worthy destinations in the area.
In May 2022, a few of LAC's leaders attended the Appalachian Trail Latinx Summit, an event hosted by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) in close collaboration with Latino Outdoors. Also held during a long weekend, the 2022 Latinx Summit was focused on cultivating connections and building community through a restorative and educational experience held outdoors. For Vivianette, the camaraderie and depth of crucial conversations carried throughout that weekend drove a deep desire to share a similar experience with all the other leaders she had spent years working with to develop as brand ambassadors for LAC. Over the past year, this is the idea that she worked to develop alongside Julie Judkins, one of the past masterminds of the ATC's Latinx Summit, co-founder of Just-Trails(Opens in a new window), and a champion of diverse representation in outdoor spaces.
This year’s Summit was focused on the needs of the Latine community in the North Carolina area, and catered to the learning needs of a team that has been involved in outdoor recreation mostly as adults, parents, or even grandparents. These people, myself included, have had to learn about gear, layering, safety systems, Leave No Trace, basic survivalist skills, and so many other things through trial and error, without the cushion of experienced family members or community to teach us. THIS is one of the many barriers that underrepresented populations in the outdoors face. Although we come from cultures rooted in connection to nature, the approach to recreating in nature is grounded in rules, systems, and knowledge that is incredibly difficult to access and understand as a solo adult learner. THIS is why this work that Vivi, Sandra, Julie, and so many others from LAC are doing is vital to truly and equitably diversifying the outdoors.
Most of the participants spent long, daily hours doing rigorous exercises simulating actual wilderness first aid situations. They also learned from Shennelle Feather, Education Program Manager of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, on Indigenous place-based history, and Abel González, who spoke of Mexican Indigenous cultural and language preservation. Drawing parallels on the history of the Indigenous communities of the area and their own Indigenous histories, from Puerto Rico to Perú, was a sobering moment for most. Learning about trail maintenance from Greg Ritson (ATC) and biodiversity from Natrieifia Miller (NPS) rounded out skills-building. The event closed with a call to action regarding responsible stewardship for our peoples, as leaders with both technical and people skills to bring others together. For Vivianette, the Summit was a dream come to life through hard work and support of many people, presenters, and sponsors. In my opinion, this is just the beginning for LAC, and my hope is that more brands and partners can support the movement moving forward.
The Hispanic population in the US grew by 23% between Census years 2010 and 2020 and is expected to be above 25% of the total US population by 2050. This means that targeting efforts that support the well-being of these communities - in plural, yes, because Hispanidad is a spectrum of looks, customs, history, and dialects - has direct impacts on what this country will be like and operate in a few decades. This is especially relevant to the outdoor industry where there’s both a responsibility and an opportunity to bring our peoples back to nature. Back because our cultures, regardless of their differences, is rooted in the respect for and deep connection with the lands that built our identities over generations.
Nosotros pertecenemos. We belong.