Celebrate, Not Denigrate, Latino Involvement in California Desert Protections

I recently received the following Twitter message, "why does it matter the race of the people protecting our desert? I am so tired of bias." The Tweet was in response to photos we posted of a Latino faith-leader at the White House for an event to mark the designation of new national monuments in California.

As a matter of fact, I receive similar messages like this one each month. Many expose a level of racism and language skills that I'd rather not repeat in this forum, but, this question raises an interesting point that deserves examination.

Over the past three years, a growing coalition of Latinos has spoken up in support of protecting our California desert public lands. In particular, they were calling on President Obama to designate three new national monuments - Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains.

Latino faith leaders played an instrumental role in the effort. In fact, three pastors from the desert region - Pastors Frank Ruiz, Jesse Villarreal and Enrique Orellana - co-founded Por la Creación Faith-based Alliance (PLC), a national initiative uniting Latino faith leaders to develop stewards of God's creation. PLC members led hikes, events and camping trips for Latino community leaders, youth and families at Joshua Tree National Park, Mojave National Preserve, Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, San Jacinto Mountains, The Living Desert and Amboy Crater. This also led to support from 100 Latino faith leaders from Assemblies of God Southern Pacific District who jointly signed a letter to President Obama urging him to take action. Many of these leaders and youth from the Coachella Valley and High Desert region attended Sen. Dianne Feinstein's public meeting in the desert last October with the U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture to express their support for national monument designations.

And, yes, while Latinos were one of many groups - including Native Americans, local chambers of commerce, elected officials, veterans, conservationists, recreationists, historians, and others - there are reasons why our community's involvement is important.

  1. From a pure population standpoint, the California desert region's overall population is approximately 50 percent Hispanic/Latino. These monuments would affect a significant portion of the population and their voice deserved to be heard, which hasn't always been the case.

  • In recent years, there has been a growing movement of inclusion on conservation matters like national monuments. However, historically, Latinos not knowing how to or being asked to engage left a large group of stakeholders on the outside of the process. The California desert effort, as well as those around monuments in California's San Gabriel Mountains and Colorado's Browns Canyon, demonstrates change and the embracing of diversity.
  • For Latinos, our community's health is often linked to poor environmental health. For example, the Environmental Defense Fund found that Latinos are more likely to live in areas affected by pollution and die from asthma than other racial or ethnic groups. This mounting interest in safeguarding our nation's public lands will help address some of the larger health issues that affect our Latino community as a whole.
  • Latinos are a growing political force and not one tied simply to partisan definitions. On conservation matters, support is often characterized as a moral obligation, even from those who align on the right side of the political aisle. And Latino voters are expected to set a record for voter turnout this fall, a trend that will only continue.
  • As for bias, the effort to establish new California desert national monuments, as mentioned before, was supported by diverse stakeholders and polling underscores this vast support. A November poll from the Vet Voice Foundation found that 75 percent of California voters supported the President designating three National Monuments in the California desert, with comparable levels of support among residents in the desert region itself (70 percent).

    And you may notice our organization's name is Hispanic Access Foundation. So it's not surprising that we focus on the Latino community. For decades, our community has been disenfranchised. Immigrants were left to navigate a new, foreign system on their own - not much unlike my parents when I was young. Latinos have been discouraged or given no opportunity to engage civically. Support around education, health and even the workforce hasn't been the same for Latinos as it has been for other segments of the population.

    But we're not asking for bias or handouts or freebies or special treatment or giveaways or affirmative action. We are simply working to provide access - making sure that our community has the opportunity to participate, to have its voice heard. Just like in the California desert.

    And I'm not about to apologize for that.