Q&A: HECHO Advisory Board Member Senator Mo Denis

“We need to provide our children with the things that make life worth living, and getting out and participating in the outdoors is very important for that.”

- Nevada Senator Mo Denis

HECHO Advisory Board member Senator Mo Denis has been serving as a Nevada state representative for over ten years and was a past Chairperson of the Nevada Hispanic Legislative Caucus. Born to immigrant parents from Cuba, Senator Denis was raised in Las Vegas from an early age and was taught to care for and respect his community and the environment. HECHO spoke with him recently about where his passion for the outdoors came from, and why he hopes his five children, as well as his constituents, will share this passion. 

Q: Why did you join the HECHO Advisory Board?

Sen Denis: I’ve always been very involved in the outdoors. My family went camping a lot when I was growing up, and I’ve always been involved with the Boy Scouts in some capacity – both when I was young and now as an adult. I enjoy camping and biking and hiking. I see a lot of Latinos in our community enjoying the outdoors, but I also see everything they leave behind, like garbage. If we want this to be a good thing for our families in our future, I want to make sure we’re responsible for the outdoors. I joined HECHO to help get more Latinos into the outdoors, but also to promote being responsible for the environment. 

Q: In addition to helping more Latinos get outdoors, how do you feel about getting more Latinos involved in conservation policy? 

SD:  It’s very important for Latinos to be involved in that discussion, because we’re such a large percentage of the population – and will be even more going into the future. When we talk about the environment, Latinos first of all need to be educated. Our communities need to know what the ramifications are of what’s going on, and be a part of the solutions. As a Latino legislator, it’s important that we hear Latino voices, but they have to understand the issues first, and then they can be more involved.  

Q: How do you teach your kids the importance of the outdoors?

SD:  My family goes camping and hiking and biking. I have two grown sons that are Eagle Scouts, and with my younger son and two daughters we go camping through our church. They have an opportunity to see the beautiful wilderness and I get to preach the importance of taking care of what we’ve got. This summer we went to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and to the mountains of New Mexico and Colorado. The beauty of these types of surroundings never ceases to amaze me, and I often think about how we can protect that. 

Q: What are the benefits to Latino kids of spending time in the outdoors?

SD:  It lets them see that there is life beyond their urban environments. They need to get out into the wilderness and see the beauty to bring balance into their lives. It’s important to have a place you can go that’s not part of the busy hubbub of noise and pollution. Somewhere you can go and feel at one with nature to just listen and relax and breathe. It helps you appreciate what you truly have. 

Q: Why do you think more Latino families don’t take advantage of the recreational opportunities available on our public lands?

SD: People think it takes too much time and too much money to do it, when it doesn’t really cost that much. Some people may be working two or three jobs, and they just don’t have the time. But I think if people understood the benefits to their family, going out to camp or hike, even just for a few hours, I think that’s important. It’s important to provide for your family, but it’s also important to take time out for your family. We need to provide our children with the things that make life worth living, and getting out and participating in the outdoors is very important for that.

Q:  What do you think of federal versus state control over public lands?

SD:  There has to be a balance with public lands, because we don’t want it all to be commercialized. There has to be a balance between areas that are protected versus lands that can become privatized and are only available to a few. State control over these lands can be problematic for our communities if the funds are not there to properly manage them. Working families may not have the money to buy a cabin in the mountains like more privileged people can. With public lands, everyone can be out there and take advantage.

Q: How did your parents teach you a love for the outdoors? 

SD:  We used to travel across the country, and as we went we’d stop and go to different parks. Later on we’d go camping, not just driving and stopping and looking. One time we were at Lake Powell in Southern Utah and a huge rainstorm came. We were in our tent and it was raining really hard, and I remember the excitement of the lightning and thunder. For us kids, that was a cool thing. Some of my fondest memories of childhood were from camping. I hope that my kids have similar feelings. Now I take my kids and their kids, so we’re four generations participating in the outdoors.

Q: What outdoor activity are you most passionate about? 

SD: I love to get out anytime I can. But the highlight for me is when it rains. Having grown up in the desert we don’t get much rain. When I went to Boy Scout camp when I was 12 it was a mud pit -- it rained every day -- and I had so much fun.  That’s how I gauge anything that I do. If I’m camping or hiking or cycling -- if it rains, it’s that much better. Some of my fondest outdoor experiences also have to do with preservation – cleaning trails or doing projects with the Eagle Scouts, like putting in a foot bridge or creating new trails. I’ve been out on the Old Spanish Trail that goes through southern Nevada. There are some areas that are so pristine the park service doesn’t even let people go out there. They let us go onto this land to do some trash pickup, and it’s just like it was in the 1800s. You think about people riding covered wagons and horses 150 years ago – it’s cool to go out and preserve some of that. There are Indian writings on the side of a rock – you can see there was some kind of a dwelling there. You’re enjoying the outdoors and you see some evidence of past history– those things are kind of fun, almost like a treasure hunt.

Q: In your work with the Boy Scouts do you see many Latino kids involved?

SD: I’m involved because Latinos don’t have a tradition of scouting. So for the last 20 years I have focused specifically on how to get scouting into the Latino neighborhoods. In many of the Latino countries boyscouting is only for rich kids, but here anybody can participate. It’s not that expensive, but the initial scout troops cost a little money to join. I fundraise to help participants that don’t have any money at all. That’s sometimes what it takes for Latinos to participate in programs – some money and education to communities.  Once they understand, they appreciate it.