Latine Leaders Changing the Outdoor Community

Sep 15 to Oct 15 marks National Hispanic Heritage Month. Greater Bay Area Latine leaders are changing the way we view our natural world.

By Naomi Friedland

Oct. 4, 2023—The greater Bay Area has long been characterized by its rugged natural landscape intermingled with urban areas boasting innovation. It is no surprise that this pocket of California has attracted nature enthusiasts eager to make a mark on the outdoor community—from agricultural justice to increasing accessibility to public parks.

There are many Latine outdoor leaders in just Santa Cruz and Silicon Valley. Here are just a handful of individuals who have forged their own paths in outdoor education, recreation, and agriculture in the name of connecting more Latine and BIPOC people to nature. 
Mayra Pelagio-Muñoz
Mayra Pelagio-Muñoz’s childhood in rural Mexico was shaped by her great-grandmother’s fruit trees and the little birds that she fed each morning. She watched her great-grandmother sing to her birds and sell her produce in nearby towns. Her family helped foster a long-lasting connection to the outdoors. 
When Pelagio-Muñoz turned 13, her family migrated to East San Jose. It was a major adjustment living in a busy urban area with no nature in sight. The only nearby natural spot, she recalls, was a polluted creek behind her high school that school administration discouraged students from visiting. Craving any glimmer of the natural world, she rebelled and visited the creek with her friends in her senior year. Spending time at the creek made Pelagio-Muñoz realize just how important her connection to nature is. 
After graduating from UC Davis in 2017, Pelagio-Muñoz returned to East San Jose and pursued a master's at San Jose State University. Her thesis about Latine connections to wildlife planted the seed for her current project, Reconnect Outdoors, which aims to bring more Latines and immigrants from East San Jose to local parks. 
After transitioning out of her executive director position at Latinos United for a New America in May 2023, she collaborated with other organizers at the Environmental Justice Organizing Academy to conduct weekly sessions with East San Jose community members to assess local environmental concerns and needs. 
“In the first session, I shared my upbringing and found out that all those immigrants had similar stories of being really deeply connected to nature in their hometowns, and losing that connection when they moved to the US,” Pelagio-Muñoz says. That was an “Aha” moment for her. “We were connected and needed to be reconnected.” 
Receiving a grant from Justice Outside to pursue this project, Pelagio-Muñoz says her first intergenerational hike will be in October or November of this year. “Providing a space for multigenerational existence in the outdoors can help reconnect people with their family members and learn about their struggles,” she says.  
Héktor Calderon-Victoria
Similarly, Héktor Calderon-Victoria, co-owner of Three Feathers Farm in Morgan Hill, is deeply rooted in an ancestral and cultural relationship to the land. After traveling to different rural areas around the world, learning from resourceful and knowledgeable elders and farmers, he realized he wanted to be a farmer. In his 20s he also discovered that his great-grandfather was a great-scale producer in Guerrero, Mexico. Not only is agriculture in his blood, but he feels that land and food are integral to connecting to his culture. 
Just over a year ago, Héktor Calderon-Victoria and Dilip Sharma created Three Feathers Farm where they use ancestral techniques from their cultures— Calderon-Victoria with familial roots in Mexico— to grow culturally relevant produce. Once they’ve established connections with sellers, they hope to bring produce to local Southeast Asian communities and work with nonprofit-run community-supported agriculture (CSAs). 
Calderon-Victoria also aims to shift the narrative of who is a farmer and who owns farms. “The primary idea of a farmer is an old white man with his straw hat sitting on a red tractor with a red barn in the background,” he says. “In reality that is not necessarily true.” He says that the US has plenty of BIPOC growers but we need to bring them to the forefront. One of his goals as  BIPOC farm-owner is to get more BIPOC-owned small farms, especially as many farmers are retiring and a new generation is emerging. 
Daniel Rodriguez 
Growing up in the suburban sprawl of Santa Ana, CA, Daniel Rodriguez says, his relationship to nature was almost nonexistent. Discovering the outdoors as a young adult, Rodriguez realized his cultural ancestral connection to nature that was forgotten through immigration to the US. As the head of program at Vida Verde, a justice-centered outdoor education organization, he feels fortunate to share his love of the outdoors to underserved Latine youth with similar backgrounds to him. 
“Students are sacred mirrors” is a phrase Rodriguez frequently says. “With students that come up from similar backgrounds and similar cultures, I can put myself in their shoes.”   
Rodriguez says he understands what it is like to live in a crowded urban apartment with little space to think. Through his many years as an outdoor educator, he has seen how being in nature drowns out that constant noise for students. 
“I am part of the movement that changes the view of the ‘outdoors’ from leisure to necessity—from a white colonized viewpoint to the indigenous viewpoint of healing,” Rodriguez says. He hopes to be that bridge for Latine youth and get them excited about creating a deep connection with the land and in turn, their own history. 
Antonella De La Tore Marcenaro 
Antonella De La Tore Marcenaro found a passion for the outdoors in her 20s, motivating her to give Latine youth a transformative experience in nature—in a way that meets the needs of the community. Marcenaro was born in Lima, Peru and moved to the US when they were seven. They moved to Santa Cruz in 2011 to attend UC Santa Cruz and immediately became enamored by the redwoods. 
Before starting their first year of college, they participated in their first backpacking trip through Wilderness Orientation, an organized backpacking trip through UCSC that helps new students transition to college life and greater independence. Being immersed in nature gave her the space to reflect on everything that brought her to where they were at that moment. 
As a Community Studies major, De La Tore Marcenaro met people with a diversity of life experiences and wanted to learn more about the disparities they witnessed amongst their peers. “My first class had grassroots organizations come in. It was a big inspiration to see how change can happen at a community level. I wanted to be involved in that in some way,” she says. 
The Community Studies program requires students to participate in a field study at a non-profit. Having focused their studies on agriculture, De La Tore Marcenaro decided to work at Pie Ranch in Pescadero. They worked with high school youth in the outdoor kitchen, cooking dishes from the diverse array of students’ cultural backgrounds. Her main take-away from that experience is that the conversations that come from sharing food can be a fruitful place to create social change. 
Towards the end of college De La Tore Marcenaro participated in a three-month long backpacking trip in the Sierras. They enjoyed the simple lifestyle in the backcountry but felt frustrated by the largely white male reading she was assigned for her courses in nature philosophy and ecopsychology. “It was my first exposure to these subjects, but I kept thinking: where do my ancestors fall into this?”
De La Tore Marcenaro’s culmination of experiences creating community, based on shared connections to land and long trips in the wilderness, inspired her to create PUENTES two years ago. They wanted to create a space for Latine young adults to experience the outdoors that pertained to their cultures and backgrounds. PUENTES led one cohort in the spring and summer of 2023 where they took eight participants on five outgoings. Outside of that program, PUENTES led two overnight camping trips in collaboration with Outdoor Educators Institute.
When working with consultants at the beginning stages of PUENTES, one of her first questions was “How do I take people outside without causing pain?” 
De La Tore Marcenaro explains that there is a lot of traumatization and retraumatization that comes with trying something new. Aspects of outdoor adventures like driving past military bases or walking through deserts can be triggering for many Latines and immigrants. Most outdoor education programs are oblivious to those potential sensitivities, but as a Latine-led organization serving Latines, these concerns are taken into consideration. Even with leave-no-trace principles, De La Tore Marcenaro finds ways to better adjust them to Latine experiences. “I’m not going to tell someone who’s indigenous to the land to not pick a flower.”
PUENTES is still in its preliminary stages and they hope to expand to include more partner programs, offer more outings, and create a gear library as a resource. 
Interested in learning more or getting involved in local Latine outdoor organizations? Click the links below. 
Vida Verde provides free, overnight environmental learning experiences for students from low-income, underserved schools. There are opportunities to donate and volunteer in the educational garden and Education Barn. 
Based out of Watsonville, PUENTES leads outdoor programming for Latine and immigrant young adults ages 18-24. 
Starting in California, Latino Outdoors has grown into a nationwide Latine-led organization that supports leaders in outdoor recreation, conservation, and environmental education, expanding Latine involvement in the outdoors. The organization is run by staff and over 200 volunteers. 
Three Feathers Farm is a five-acre organic farm in Morgan Hill. It’s stewarded by two BIPOC farmers, Héktor Calderón-Victoria and Dilip Sharma, who utilize their ancestral agricultural practices and provide culturally relevant food to local communities.