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De aqui y de alla: Navigating Cultural Identity and the Outdoors

“Ni de aqui, ni de alla.” That’s an expression in Spanish, often heard in different facets of the Latine community to describe a shared experience of not feeling like belonging: “neither here nor there.”  It’s a state of in-betweenness that is not necessarily affirming; a liminal space containing more fraught than opportunity.

It comes with emotional labor too. If you have watched the movie “Selena”, you see the dad, Abraham Quintanilla Jr., explaining it as a Mexican-American: “We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time! It's exhausting!”

And while the quote’s use has expanded to describe a space where both identities overlap, it can also create a gap. I found a familiarity in that when it came to my cultural identity and my interest and connection to the outdoors in the U.S.

A man facing a mountain range in the distance, wearing a tan hat and a blue backpack. Image via José González

I’m an immigrant to U.S. from Mexico, arriving in California as a fourth grader. One of the first things I noticed was that there were so many words in Spanish—places with names like Los Angeles, Atascadero, Paso Robles, Merced and more—though they were not pronounced as such. Years later, I would better grasp the roots of those words in colonization, but as a kid they were a connection to the familiar in a new and different land.

Later in school, I would hear about “Hispanic Heritage Month” and its reason for being. And much later in high school and college we would get into debates about “What term do you use and how do you self-identify?”—debates that continue to this day and that speak to the fluidity and growth of language and how we come to better understand our expansive identities.

But that’s its own conversation for another time.

Hispanic Heritage Month (HMM) started in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon Johnson and was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to cover a 30-day period starting on September 15 and ending on October 15, and enacted into law accordingly. This timing coincides with mid-September because that’s when many Latin American countries gained independence from Spain.

While I have my nuanced and layered thoughts on heritage months in general and HHM specifically, I work on having the month represent an inclusive starting point for cultural identity, especially one as varied as our own.

This intention, one of cultural connection and, conversely, where culture may be exclusive, is a lens I brought into my interest, curiosity and connection to the outdoors in the U.S., and later into what would form as Latino Outdoors.

A man holding a blue backpack and wearing a tan het, with people in the background Image via José González

Growing up in Mexico, the outdoors were just outside. My “hiking” was walking to school or my grandparents milpa (crop field). My “camping” was spending an overnight at the rancho. The U.S. offered my first introduction to a protected landscape in the form of state or national parks. This did not mean that national parks or gear like backpacks did not exist in Mexico. It was simply a function of the relatively rural area where I grew up.

Our arrival in California was not to a large urban area. We settled in the Central Valley with its vast agricultural fields and farming industry, where it was people like my parents that worked the fields. Still, we would find time on weekends to travel to the outdoors in the form of a regional river park. It was a temporary escape into recreation and play from the harsh reality of socioeconomic poverty and the political malignment of life as a Mexican immigrant. And while we lived within two hours of Yosemite National Park, I would not get a chance to visit it until I was in college.

Still, it was through an elementary school field trip that I first visited sequoias at a state park and it provided an impressive memory that would seed a connection to the outdoors. In time and with additional support, that connection would grow into a sort of sequoia of its own: the work I do.

Eventually, I would go into teaching and develop a career in support of outdoor access and equity. And as I worked in this space, my understanding of my cultural identity grew while I unpacked what that meant in relation to the outdoors. I wanted to avoid  the feeling of “ni de aqui ni de alla” in relation to the outdoors, where I would suddenly be “too white” for my interest in outdoor activities but not “outdoorsy” enough unless I left my cultura at the trailhead. I wanted to be “de aqui y de alla.”

A man wearing a backpack and tan hat holding his sunglasses near his face, with mountains in the background. Image via José González

When I first arrived in the U.S., I began to wonder what it meant to be bicultural and how that was supported or subsumed. As working to be bilingual was not always supported—“In this country we speak English!”—I wanted to see how I could leverage my identity through ambicultural leadership and transform the sense of shame I felt growing up into pride. Like an ambidextrous person who is able to use their right and left hands equally well, how could I do the same when it came to culture? This would later expand how I approached my cultural identity, but it was an affirming start and challenged the pressures of a dominant culture.

This showed up in my work in the outdoors as I began to explore what it felt like to stop leaving my cultura at the trailhead, whether carrying my huaraches with me or welcoming familiar food for families in new outdoor settings. It moved the early shame and deficit I had around my cultural identity into value, affirmation and pride, and that became an asset in the work we were doing. It moved my cultural code-switching from one of surviving to one of thriving.

A man standing with his backpacking gear along a rocky backdrop Image via José González

It is this learning, path and process that I bring to the work I do now through Latino Outdoors, and that I share with others who are on their journey through cultural responsiveness and outdoor equity. It is a way that I enjoy the outdoors while supporting it as a place of cultural learning and healing.

Years ago, I asked myself “Where are the others like me?” Now, I’m grateful that a community and organization like Latino Outdoors, and so many other cultural and identity affinity groups, exists to provide a point of inclusion; a space of affirmation that says “you can be de aqui y de alla. From here and from there.”

Nos vemos on the trail!

A man wearing a red running vest and blue running clothes jumping along a trail Image via José González


José González is a professional educator with training in conservation while engaging in different artistic endeavors—often exploring the intersection of the environment and culture. He is the founder of Latino Outdoors(Se abre en una ventana nueva), a non-profit that connects and engages Latinx communities in the outdoors, and a co-founder of the Outdoorist Oath for planet, adventure, and inclusion. He also serves as a partner to The Avarna Group(Se abre en una ventana nueva), a BIPOC and women-led diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) consulting firm.