The Outdoors Isn’t Just for White People

Words by Aime Mira
Edited by Abigail Vela

Traditionally recreational spaces have served White communities, while the history of institutional racism, including discrimination by race and immigration status, has created barriers to how people of color use outdoor spaces.

In grade school, we learned of the Jim Crow Laws that legalized racial segregation of African Americans, denying them the right to vote, receive an education, and partake in outdoor spaces. However, the history of segregation of Mexicans in public spaces is not a common subject matter in the state’s public schooling. As a result, there is a part of history that has failed to be taught. 

Moments of anti-immigration violence and discrimination, such as La Matanza, Mexican Repatriation, and Operation Wetback left a mark on the Latinx community at large. These events may even shape how Latinx and POC individuals in the Rio Grande Valley interact with the outdoors in 2023.

With the ongoing political climate of anti-immigration, increased fear and uncertainty in the daily lives of some families have escalated toxic stress in adults and children. In an article by Samantha Artiga, immigrant families stated, they are only leaving the house when necessary, such as for work; limiting driving; and no longer participating in recreational activities.”

Researchers found that the impact of anti-immigrant policies on Latino children included:

“(a) concern for their family’s safety and sense of responsibility in “helping change their families’ circumstances”; (b) fear of the threat of deportation and hypervigilance (e.g., asking parents to not go to work); (c) sadness and crying; (d) depression (particularly in children whose parent had been deported)” to name a few.

Border Patrol Vehicle on the property of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

Immigration, in addition to being a burden to the safety, wellness, and mental health of families, also poses an obstacle to the benefits of nature and our connection to it.  The nature gap in the Rio Grande Valley may be attributed to the proximity of nature parks to the Mexican-American border and the region’s increased militarization. For example, 3 out of 4 State Parks and 6 out of 7 Wildlife Refuge Centers are situated along the Rio Grande border. In addition, other recreational spaces like The National Butterfly Center and Sabal Palm Sanctuary, whose slogan is “Right by the River,” are only accessible by driving alongside the border wall, where the area is constantly under surveillance by vehicles and blimps. 

The Border Wall Next to Sabal Palm Sanctuary VIA Google Maps

This is unfortunate because the physiological response to being in nature includes health benefits like “improved attention, lower stress, better mood,” and a “reduced risk of psychiatric disorders.” Still, these spaces continue to be victimized by border militarization, causing alarm to keep out.

As one Dreamer from Los Fresnos said, “I’ve only felt (unsafe) when I am near the border…I was always feeling like I was going to get picked up and get deported. It’s stressful, especially when going to El Centro was one of my favorite things to do… but now I feel unsafe.”

The peace of being surrounded by the natural world should be an experience accessible to all. Recognizing that the recreational system historically was built on oppression means there is a need to dismantle the effects of racism that have affected communities of color. Spreading awareness and supporting indigenous communities, environmental groups, nature enthusiasts, and organizations can bridge the nature gap.

The National Wildlife Federation Green Hour is helping encourage children and parents to enjoy the outdoors with FREE nature activities to help improve children’s mental and physical health. Many of these activities can be done at home. 

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