Para nuestra salud: Latino health and the outdoors

The recent reintroduction of the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) underscores the clear connection between healthy kids, healthy communities, and a healthy outdoors. It is recognition of the curative aspects of nature, and specifically of how the outdoors serves as a platform for health. More and more it is accepted as part of the outdoor culture, from the discussion on nature deficit disorder, to important work on healing veterans with wilderness experiences. But in some ways it is also recognition that all communities need this and have cultural connections that recognize this value. We need the outdoors—Para Nuestra Salud.

In Spanish we have a phrase, “La Cultura Cura”-- Culture Cures. It refers to the healing power of culture, recognizing the value of connecting in community, but also seeing what habits, traditions, and practices are restorative—and that our community and elders practice them for a reason and with a purpose, especially in passing them down to future generations. Embedded in the narrative of “La Cultura Cura” is the need for a healthy environment—Latino communities are no different than other communities in a desire for clean air, land, and water—and a general need for a healthy outdoors. 

George B. Sánchez- Tello, who heads up the San Gabriel Mountains Forever Leadership Academy, illustrated recently how legislation and efforts like the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act is important in strengthening the health connections between Latino communities and the outdoors. This also points to the need to have healthy protected outdoor spaces as a public health asset for communities.

As Sánchez-Tello shared with me recently, “We know Raza youth have a disproportionate lack of access to open spaces at a time when they also have disproportionate rates of asthma, diabetes, and obesity. These are long-term chronic illnesses. And just as health has multifaceted challenges, there are a variety of approaches to addressing them.  Getting kids out in the wilderness is a good one. Like education, physical and mental health are also key for community success, for civic and cultural engagement.”

But in order for connections to the outdoors to provide health benefits to urban youth and families, we need to have accessible and healthy open spaces, and robust programs to get people out there. If we want to have these places for health, we need to have them available and protected, especially since they are such a natural resource to communities that lack these opportunities.

Sánchez-Tello continues:

“The San Gabriel Mountains are 70 percent of the open space in L.A. but for so many Angelinos it’s just a backdrop. The San Gabriel Mountains are 20 minutes from downtown L.A. Providing protection for them is a first step, but then it’s important to provide equitable access and to incorporate them into our daily lives. Wilderness, the outdoors, open space, is key to our survival in L.A and it’s in our history too. We need to rediscover this in our own way.”

There are various programs and efforts that recognize this need and value in connecting and reconnecting Latino youth and families with the outdoors. This includes partnership outings like the Hispanic Access Foundation and Environmental Learning for Kids teaming up to take Latino youth rafting in Browns Canyon, Colorado, home state of the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act sponsor Sen. Udall.  It includes regional and national collaborative efforts like Healthy Parks Healthy People partnering with LULAC. This is also reflected in my own work with health in the Central Valley of California, where mothers are eager for “nature health walks”—vamos a disfrutar del aire libre

So there are already good things happening. A push at the national level, especially via Congress, helps support this, and it is needed. The Healthy Kids Outdoors Act, in simplicity, seeks to “authorize the Secretary of the Interior to carry out programs and activities that connect Americans, especially children, youth, and families, with the outdoors.” It calls for a variety of strategies in partnership at the local, state, and federal level. But more importantly, it elevates to the national agenda the notion that to have healthy communities requires access to and opportunities with the outdoors. That means all communities, and it includes looking at how cultura plays a role in getting more of us out into nature — recognizing and respecting how cultura promotes health in connecting us to the outdoors. El Outdoors es Para Nuestra Salud, Vamos Afuera! 

Jose Gonzalez is the founder/director of Latino Outdoors.  He lives in Modesto, California.