By Antonio Hernandez
…When I thought about what a conservationist looked like I did not picture myself, the son of 1st generation immigrants…
Today marks the end of Latino Conservation (not to be mistaken for “conservative”) week. To be honest, conservation was not a word I was familiar with before 2018. Even then I was hesitant to call myself a conservationist. When I thought about what a conservationist looked like I did not picture myself, the son of 1st generation immigrants from Oaxaca, Mexico who mostly spoke español and spent most of their lives working with their hands and doing backbreaking work that others turned their noses at in order to provide me with an opportunity to find success in the United States. I could not see myself in this movement that has been historically white lead, excluding the indigenous people who have tended and cared for the land for thousands of years. It was made obvious to me that black and brown folx were seen as unwanted visitors to public lands dominated by mostly white campers, backpackers, and lovers of “the great outdoors”. What I was able to see instead were the plants outside my childhood home and the containers in my family’s fridge.
I was named after my grandmother Antonia. Growing up in Nampa, Idaho I was partially raised by my grandmother who looked after me when most of my family was out working in the fields. In Idaho, when a Latinx person told you they were “working in the fields” that often meant using a asadon (or by the unfortunate English name “hoe”) to clear weeds from enormous acres of farmland where onion, corn, sugar beet, and our famous potatoes would grow until the crops were close to being ready for harvest. But before the corn was ready for harvest workers would have to detassel the corn. This season of important time sensitive work was known as la espiga (“the spike”). As a teenager, this is where I thought the derogatory term “spic” came from but that’s another story.
My grandmother has always had a strong connection to the natural world. She had me help her plant apple, peach, plum, cherry and pear trees in our backyard. Picture a 10-year-old boy digging holes in the hot sun like a character in a Louis Sachar novel except it wasn’t to punish me or find a lost hidden treasure, it was a simple reality of the work it takes to grow your own food. We also grew (or at least tried to grow) most of the vegetable and medicinal herbs she was familiar with in Oaxaca: different types of chilies, lemon, avocado, spices but also yerba santa (know in English as “Mexican pepperleaf” or “root beer plant”), yerba buena (“Mexican peppermint”), telimon (lemongrass), guajes (known as “jumbay” or “river tamarind” pods), epazote (also known as “wormseed”), pepicha (what scientist call “porophyllum linaria”), nopales (“prickly pear” pads) and estafiate (goes by many names including “sacred sage”, “prairie sage” and “silver wormwood”). Our backyard was a miniature farm complete with chickens, roosters, cows, goats, and a very mischievous peacock that caused the city to pay us a couple of visits a year. What my grandmother had me help create for us was a place where we could have what we needed without depending too much on an English speaking world.
When we did leave the house it was to go to the store to get processed foods we couldn’t easily make at home: butter, lard, chips, sour cream, cottage cheese, yogurt, etc. Since this was an infrequent occasion we’d always buy large containers of this stuff. I’m talking Costco sized sour cream containers. Anytime I’d wander towards the kitchen and open the fridge looking for something to eat and think to myself “Mmm I want some sour cream to go with some chips” I’d open the container… and it would full of arroz (rice), frijoles (beans), mole (traditional Oaxacan sauce) or salsa. Never sour cream. That’s because my entire family constantly reused these plastic containers rather than throw it out in the trash, to the point that the logo had completely faded from the number of times the container had been washed and or reused. My family has been doing this for as long as I can remember. I’m 30 years old. I believe that’s longer than we’ve had recycling available in Nampa.
These anecdotes are part of a tapestry of cultural environmentalism that has existed in Latinx households for generations redefining the image of what a conservationist looks like.
These anecdotes are part of a tapestry of cultural environmentalism that has existed in Latinx households for generations redefining the image of what a conservationist looks like. Conservation isn’t about buying expensive gear to climb up the tallest mountain. It has always been a moral philosophy used to guide us in choosing how to best take care of this planet and the life that exists here. This is why Latinx communities are so important to the conservation movement and in my case, the conservation voter movement. People vote with their values and if we continue to fail to include a vast voting block that has a culture of being connected to the natural environment I find it hard to imagine how we will be able to protect access to clean air, clean water and a decent quality of life for all of us.