Nature’s Trailblazer

By Laura Hilgers

Latino Outdoors founder José González spreads his wings

José González leads a Latino Outdoors hike (in collaboration with the Latino Community Foundation) through Redwood City’s Edgewood Park & Natural Preserve.
José González leads a Latino Outdoors hike (in collaboration with the Latino Community Foundation) through Redwood City’s Edgewood Park & Natural Preserve.
What’s in a bird’s name? For the American Ornithological Society, that’s a loaded question. A number of North American birds have historically been named after people — and it turns out some of those people embraced racist ideas. So when the organization convened a virtual “congress” in April to explore issues around changing the birds’ names, they brought in one of the leading voices for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the environmental movement to facilitate: José González.

González, founder and director emeritus of the nonprofit Latino Outdoors, led the society through a two-hour discussion. He listened carefully to all points of view and helped to develop what the organization called on Twitter a “thoughtful success agreement.” The outcome was typical for González, who has a gift for making people feel comfortable during difficult discussions.

The discussion was particularly relevant in light of an incident that took place in New York’s Central Park last year, in which a white woman called the police on a Black birdwatcher — and it was one of the many ways in which González works to make conservation and outdoors organizations more inclusive. “He’s out in front in this effort,” says Annie Burke, executive director of Together Bay Area, a regional coalition working to make the Bay Area more resilient to climate change. “He’s at the bow of the ship, breaking through some of the water — the water being the white-dominant culture of a conservation or environmental organization — and he’s saying these things that need to be said.” Burke describes González and Rue Mapp, the East Bay–based founder of Outdoor Afro, as “two pillars of the movement” who have inspired many others to follow suit.

For González, 39, this takes the form of many types of work. He’s a partner with the Avarna Group, an organization that works with DEI issues in the outdoors and environmental sectors. He sits on a number of boards — including Parks California — and is a councilor for Save the Redwoods League, as well as a trustee of the National Recreation Foundation. He has served as an adviser, facilitator and trainer for the Lawrence Hall of Science’s Beetles outdoor science education program. And he’s a sought-after speaker at industry events, most recently speaking at One Tam’s 2020 Virtual Summit on Climate. In nonpandemic times, he travels constantly for work.

But when I meet González for a conversation at a park in Sacramento — where he relocated from the Bay Area to find more affordable housing — he explains that he never burned with the desire to create a nonprofit or to become a leader. He is soft-spoken and thoughtful and wears a whimsical T-shirt he designed himself, with the words “Conchas Colchas & Chill,” which translates loosely as “Sweet Bread, Blanket & Chill,” a play on the words “Live, Love, Laugh and Have a Taco.” Above his face mask, his expressive eyes convey the full panoply of emotions.

González tells me that rather than being driven by an overriding linear passion, his life and career path have been more like a “braided river, in which the water flows and bends, but still has a direction.”

The oldest of nine children, he was born in Amatlan de Cañas in the Mexican state of Nayarit. He developed a love of the outdoors in Mexico, playing in the river and foothills surrounding his home. Shortly before he turned 9, his family moved to the U.S. and settled in Turlock, where his father worked in poultry processing and his mother took various jobs while raising their family.

González was a Dreamer, one of the thousands of undocumented young adults brought to the U.S. as children. He didn’t know he was undocumented, however, until his junior year in high school, when he needed his Social Security number to take a class that would give him community college credit. After asking his mother for the number, he learned he didn’t have one.

José González is all smiles during an invigorating Latino Outdoors backpacking trip in April 2018.
José González is all smiles during an invigorating Latino Outdoors backpacking trip in April 2018.

It was an oversight — his father qualified to be in the U.S. under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and had been slow in filling out the paperwork for his family. But being undocumented left its mark on González. “You grow up feeling uncertain,” he says, “not knowing whether this is something you should tell other people or not because you don’t know what it means and you also don’t know how people around you would actually react.”

The needed paperwork was eventually filed, paving the way for González, a 4.0 student, to attend UC Davis, where he studied to become a history teacher. As part of his teacher training program, he worked as an outdoor education instructor for migrant students. The outings reignited his love of the outdoors and led him to get a master’s degree at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability.

When he moved to the Bay Area after grad school, González Googled “Latino” and “outdoors,” hoping to find some intersection between the major environmental organizations and Latino-led groups — and maybe a few kindred spirits. His search came up nearly dry, so he bought the domain name Latino Outdoors for $10. Following Mapp’s example, he decided to start a blog. The blog sparked interest and brought together people who wanted to offer outings, like day hikes and camping trips, for the Bay Area Latinx community. In 2013, González officially launched the organization Latino Outdoors to engage Latinos (and all other interested folks, for that matter) in nature and conservation and began offering free outdoor activities for people of all ages. The nonprofit grew quickly, and now has more than 20 locations across the country.

González ran Latino Outdoors for five years before realizing that he didn’t want to be the nuts-andbolts guy, overseeing and expanding an organization. He saw himself as a creator, a vision guy. He stepped down in 2017 to focus on bringing his message to the larger world. In addition to the many hats he wears, this effort included a trip to Yosemite a couple of years ago, where he and a group of other activists met with park officials to discuss how national parks could better engage underrepresented communities — and helped persuade Yosemite to (finally) offer brochures in languages other than English.

Despite being a “walking encyclopedia of information,” according to Teresa Baker, founder of the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge, González also has a wild, adventurous side. “If you’re out on a hike with José and he says, ‘Let me take the lead,’” Baker says, “do not follow him. He’ll start off by saying, ‘Oh, this will be a simple fun hike.’ Don’t believe it. José will have you on some treacherous hike through wetlands and bushes. It’s not going to be fun and pleasant. It’s going to be a rough, dirty hike.”

Once he’s cleaned up, though, González resumes being the thoughtful leader, convincing environmental organizations that they’re unlikely to create urgency around climate change by talking to Latinx communities about polar bears. “But if you make the clear connection that driving electric vehicles will help reduce asthma in the kids in the Central Valley,” he says, “then you’re speaking to us, too.”

Top Hikes

Latino Outdoors founder José González has spent years exploring the trails of the Bay Area. His criteria for a favorite trail? One that is less crowded (and often lesser known) and also offers variety in terms of geography and landscape. Here are five hiking spots that have provided him with hardy workouts, unparalleled scenery and great memories over the years.

Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve, Morgan Hill, Santa Clara County

This destination is “remote enough that you get space” and has a really good loop trail, González says. It’s also “a great example of that valley oak woodland.”

Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park connecting with Joaquin Miller Park, Oakland, Alameda County

Highlights include the majestic redwoods and the “incredible variety of trails.” González also notes, “[There are] many great lookout spots, too, and a variety of habitats between redwood and coastal chaparral.”

Olompali State Historic Park, Novato, Marin County

“A varied loop trail, accessible, and just out of the way [enough] to not be too crowded,” notes González. He also enjoys being surrounded by the property’s beautiful oak trees.

Leona Heights Park, Oakland, Alameda County

This outdoor paradise offers what González sums up as “a relatively short hike but a quick elevation.” And it’s worth it: “You get to the top with fantastic views of the Bay.”

Fernandez Ranch, Martinez, Contra Costa County

This is “a fantastic loop trail with lots of variety and not too crowded,” González says. Plus, there’s an “amazing range of oaks and hills.”

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