By Christine Alonzo, Executive Director, Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy, and Research Organization (CLLARO)
I grew up in a very small town in Las Vegas, New Mexico and we did a lot of things outdoors. At the time, it wasn’t considered recreation; pretty much everything we did was about survival (not so different than the generations who came before us and relied on nature for sustenance). Everyone in the neighborhood was related in one way or another – I had grandparents that lived on one side of the block and aunts and uncles on the other side. Everybody pitched in to buy chickens or a goat or a sheep. When we slaughtered the animals, we’d make good use of it from the blood to the wool and everything else that the animal had to offer.
That resourcefulness extended to every aspect of life. Part of it was due to being poor, but a larger part of it was our heritage – conservation and reverence for the natural world. My great grandfather would say “Why don’t you go out and look for bottles?” because at the time you could go out and Pepsi and Coke would give you 10 or 5 cents per bottle to recycle. We’d get a saco de gangoche (gunny sack) and walk along the river bed and collect aluminum cans or bottles. For us kids, it was a means of making a little bit of extra money for us to go to the candy store, but my great grandfather – who would speak to us in Spanish – would have a different perspective of maintaining the beauty of the land.
Day after day, we foraged. We didn’t go to a farmer’s market to get organic produce. We were the farmers, gently picking the apples off the trees so as not to harm the branches. We didn’t go to the pharmacy when we felt ill. My great grandmother grew herbs and plants that she’d mix into salves and teas to treat our afflictions. We didn’t go to the hardware store. We kept our eyes peeled for metal scraps and other materials to repurpose – hunting for resources in the great outdoors. Back then, you didn’t have to berate people to ‘eat local.’ That was all we had. You didn’t have to tell the kids to get outside and go hiking to get some exercise. That’s what we were always doing – we just didn’t call it that. You didn’t even have to hop in a car to go to a park or the woods. It was right out our back door. And with every action, we were getting acquainted with our natural resources and deepening our bonds with our planet and our heritage.
The newest generation of Latinos is growing up in a very different world. With more and more people living in urban areas, time spent in nature is rare. It’s causing our children to lose sight of our rich, cultural heritage and it’s also impacting their health. Latino kids are more overweight than their non-Latino counterparts, in part because they’re not as active. A lot of our family members and relatives can’t afford outdoor sports, and there isn’t a lot that our kids can do in an urban setting – where there’s little (or perhaps no) open space for them to be creative and run and play like we did growing up.
There are various efforts underway to try to get our kids back outside and exploring our public lands, like the National Park Foundation’s Every Kid in a Park initiative, but we could be doing more on a local level. I believe community gardens could be a simple solution to the erosion of our way of life – a modern way to hand down our Latino heritage. Community gardens have proven themselves over and over again to build a sense of community, improve neighborhoods and increase people’s connection to nature – all while providing fresh, healthy produce and plants. Community gardens also create more green spaces, making nature more accessible to our youth. Research shows that involving youth in community gardening increases how much exercise they get, increases their practical understanding of science, and promotes healthy eating choices. As if all of that were not enough, there is a growing body of research showing how being in nature – or even just looking at plants – reduces stress and promotes mental health.
Growing up, I was receiving all of those benefits simply from our way of life. There were no community programs or studies showing we should live one way or another. This lifestyle is our culture. Latinos have a deep connection to the land. And simply because we are not all lucky enough to live in vast, wide-open spaces, does not mean we can’t continue our heritage and pass on our legacy on smaller pieces of land.
Christine Alonzo is the Executive Director of the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy and Research Organization (CLLARO). She was born in Las Vegas New Mexico, and moved to Colorado in 1988. She loves spending time with her children and granddaughter; and cooking breakfast on Sundays while listening to Cancion Mexicana.