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Not everyone has access to nature, and that needs to change

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In typical Latino culture, daughters are taught how to clean and cook to keep their men happy. Not me; I was raised by a single mom who worked two jobs and cleaned houses on the weekends. I was shown the miracles of what Fabuloso could do in a bathroom and how Vicks VapoRub could cure anything.

I was taught to be a strong, independent, classy go-getter who didn't need a man but when I got one, he would appreciate everything I had to offer. I grew up in the small town of Grover Beach. I was educated in predominantly "white" schools with most of my friends being gringas.

Sleepovers were almost like a rite of passage for my sisters and me. They weren't allowed. My Mexican mom could never understand why I'd want to sleep at someone else's house. Especially when I had a home to sleep at.

We grew up poor but never without. My mom always reminded us that we had to work twice as hard because we were Mexican-American: "We gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are, and we gotta prove to the Americans how American we are." As a teenager, trying to understand that was exhausting.

As I grew older and moved away to college, I had friends introduce me to the outdoors.

I went on my first hike when I was 23 years old in Eugene, Oregon. It was beautiful and something I remember only seeing in posters or movies. Growing up, I was completely unaware of hiking, climbing, and camping. Those outlets weren't available for my sisters and me. Vacations were nonexistent, as my mother had no leisure time.

After I moved back home from college, I remembered seeing my younger self in Latino kids. I thought about how when I was their age, not so long before, it would never have crossed my mind that you could just find a trail in the woods or along the coast and explore the natural world. It was never for lack of imagination or desire for new experiences. Those things are innate in every child. What was missing was someone to nurture and encourage them in me, someone who was willing to pass along the joy that someone had shared with them before.

When I turned 26, I got the opportunity to go to Yosemite with a group of friends from California that I had met through an outdoor meet-up. Everything about preparing for the trip felt foreign to me. I had to buy hiking boots, backpack gear, hiking poles, hiking socks. Anything and everything you could think of, I didn't have.

My first summit was Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. It is one of my proudest moments. A 17-mile hike that brought us more than 4,800 feet in elevation. It was one of the most challenging things I had done. Once I reached the summit, I was able to take in those Yosemite Valley views. It was truly magical. I rested and sat on top of the granite dome and took all of its beauty in. It was breathtaking, and I didn't want that moment to end.

When I got back home from Yosemite, the first thing I did was look up the next hike I wanted to do and what groups I could become a part of. For the next few years, I spent my vacations from work backpacking at national parks every year. I am at 22 parks and counting.

As I participated more in outdoor culture through the years, I could see the barriers that exclude communities of color. I noticed there was a lack of outdoor advocacy geared toward minorities. There is a misconception among nature lovers that nature is free and open to anyone who wants to get out in it. Nature is not free for everyone. There are economic barriers for people of color. It's never the lack of interest or initiative. Not everyone can afford all of that expensive outdoor gear or transportation. This is why it's so important that outdoor brands invest in communities of color. Limiting outdoor culture to a "white people thing" seems more apparent than ever, and I want to change that.

Living in Portland as an adult and having the knowledge I do about how excluded you can feel as a minority in a predominately white town makes me want to share my knowledge with all people of color. Joining Latino Outdoors has broken those barriers for me, and I hope more people of color who feel excluded will join our movement. Being poor should not be a barrier to the beauty of the outdoors. Let us join together and preserve our parks for further generations to enjoy. Yo cuento! Δ

Maritza Oropeza grew up in Grover Beach. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com or write a response for publication by emailing letters@newtimesslo.com.

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