By Jerry Otero
I grew up in Fruita, Colorado a small agricultural town that sits at intersection of the Rocky Mountains, the red rocks of the Colorado National Monument, the Colorado River, and the state of Utah-- just 15 miles away. When I was born in the 1980s, Fruita wasn’t doing so well. Reeling from the oil shale bust, our little town was more boarded up than open. The town had not yet realized its full potential as an outdoor destination, a reality that would come in the late 1990s and that would transform Fruita into the fun little place it is today. But despite the economic troubles of the times, Fruita was a great place to grow up, and it was so close to everything Colorado has to offer.
Both sides of my family have deep roots in the west, my mother is a third generation Arizonan, my grandfather is a World War II veteran, and my grandmother is a homemaker who had the tough job of raising eleven children in rural Pinal County, Arizona. My dad’s grandparents came from Antonito and Trinchera in southern Colorado near the turn of the century, and my great grandparents date back well into the 19th century before Colorado was even a state.
My dad, one of thirteen children, and having come from Fruita, makes me a 4th generation Coloradan with a lot of uncles and aunts. He grew up in a small adobe house my grandfather built at the end of unpaved Harrison Avenue. My dad did not grow up with money. My grandfather Maximilliano worked for decades doing backbreaking jobs, but had little economic opportunity. Unfortunately, he lived in a time when the color of his skin and his last name played a significant role in his prosperity. But despite being poor, my dad was rich in family and heritage. My grandparents taught their kids about god’s work, how to work hard, about the outdoors, and how to hunt and fish but not waste. They saved, they conserved, and they were efficient. They had a garden and ate elk and deer, they were “net zero certified” and “farm to table” before it was cool and trendy. And while hunting is now sport and tradition for my family, we don’t forget it was a valued food source for my dad’s family at the time. The knowledge of the outdoors, particularly hunting, allowed my family to provide for themselves and to avoid some the pressing realities of poverty.
You might ask, why does this matter today? Well, my Colorado roots have served as the primary influence on my connection to outdoors, as the Oteros have hunted, fished, and lived off Colorado lands for centuries. That influence continues today. Like many Latinos in the west, we cared about public lands before there were public lands.
Knowing my grandfather hunted and fished in the same places I have creates a powerful connection between me and the land. Beyond the experience of living in Colorado, these places represent my family, the memories of family and history that will always be a part of the landscape. I was out hunting with my family when I was 6 years old, and now the grandkids are doing the same just as generations of my family have done before.
This is why conservation and HECHO is important to me. These issues go far beyond just policy; this is our culture and history. We need to make sure the voices of those families that have been here for a long time are represented in the conservation movement and in the policies that our legislators put forward.
For Latinos in the Southwest, the land is just as important and integral to our identity as is other aspects of our culture. We care about our culture with food or holidays or celebrations, but the land defines who we are-- who I have become as an adult-- and what defines my family as much as any of those other things that we look at as Hispanic or Latino culture. The land has defined us throughout time and will continue to do so when we participate in important public lands debates.
Jerry Otero is a 4th generation Coloradan, a hunter, angler, and serves as an advisor to HECHO. He lives in Grand Junction, Colorado.