Refugio Mariscal has always felt a deep interest in the natural world.
Mariscal grew up in Lake County, Illinois, and spent his childhood playing in a creek near his parents’ home. He spent pretty much all day outside, Mariscal tells Inverse.
“From a young age, I felt that curiosity about nature,” he recalls.
That is why Mariscal is a champion of Latino Conservation Week (LCW), an annual event currently celebrating its seventh year, from July 18 to 26.
This week is attached to a handful of goals. First and foremost: Getting people outdoors, and inspiring them to protect nature.
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Another ambition is to make policymakers, as well as the public, aware of the role Latino communities play in conservation, says Jessica Godinez. Godinez is the conservation program associate at the Hispanic Access Foundation (HAF). The HAF also partners with local and national organizations to plan activities for Latino families throughout the week.
“More than anything, we want our community to be seen in the outdoors as recreationalists and an integral part of environmental and ocean conservation,” Godinez tells Inverse.
BREAKING BARRIERS — For Mariscal, breaking into conservation work wasn’t a matter of interest, but accessibility.
He graduated from college with a degree in geography and a focus in environmental science. It was the middle of the economic recession in the United States, and the job market was unstable. Many jobs in the environmental field required volunteer experience — creating a barrier to entry for those who can’t afford to work for free.
Mariscal began teaching middle school science and social studies, and worked part-time with Audubon’s Wild Indigo Nature Explorations, a community engagement program that focuses on connecting urban communities of color with their local natural areas. That position led to his current job as a conservation data coordinator for Audubon Great Lakes.
Having a cohesive event like LCW can help to inspire other budding conservationists, Mariscal says. It’s important for people to have mentors with shared experiences — something that may have benefitted Mariscal when he was first trying to break into the field.
Before working with Wild Indigo, “I had never met a person of color, or a Latino person, that was involved in the environmental field,” Mariscal says. “I studied this stuff but I was pretty close to not even having a career in it.”
LCW aims to increase the representation of Latino people doing conservation work.
“It lets people know that we’re out here,” Mariscal says. “Our viewpoints and our experiences are different than other people’s — our voices matter, they’re important when considering policies.”
EVENT PLANNING MID-PANDEMIC — Like most things scheduled for 2020, this year’s LCW looks different than usual.
“So much of Latino Conservation Week is really defined by sharing space outside with our community,” Godinez says. She's been involved in LCW for three years. Her team was nervous when it became clear that many events would have to relocate.
However, event partners were able to quickly adapt: A list of events on the LCW website includes online webinars, film screenings, and a virtual 5K run and walk where participants run on their own at various locations.
“The creativity that they’ve shown in this regard has been really amazing to watch,” Godinez says.
In a year when people are opening their eyes to long-standing systemic injustices, events like #BlackBirdersWeek, #BlackBotanistsWeek, and #BlackInAstro are helping to amplify people of color working in various spheres of nature and conservation. LCW is similar in its aim.
“Every year people pay a little bit more attention to the issues around conservation, particularly regarding BIPOC communities and Latinx communities,” Godinez says.
This year, perhaps people are also spending more time than usual on social media — and the online presence of LCW is growing, too. HAF has gained at least 1,000 new followers on social media in the past week. In the future it’s likely that LCW will continue to increase online efforts, Godinez says.
“It’s become a way for us to break down even more barriers of access,” Godinez says, including time and geography.
NEXT-GENERATION CONSERVATION — These days, Mariscal is raising his three-year-old daughter to enjoy nature just like her dad.
Mariscal takes his daughter birding and teaches her the names of birds in Spanish. He only recently learned Spanish bird names himself — that inspired him to plan a bilingual bird walk, which will be held online this year because of the pandemic.
So far, she’s super into it. That’s important for Mariscal, who wants to pass down a strong appreciation for nature.
Beyond appreciation, LCW can help shift future narratives surrounding conservation work — a field that, as Godniez puts it, is typically viewed as “white, expensive, and inaccessible."
For young people who want to work in nature, and face economic and structural hurdles, Mariscal wants to help build a path forward.
“It might seem sort of out-of-reach for them,” he says. “And it sort of is. But we’re trying to close that gap.”