IDLEDALE, Colo. — “I have to come out here,” Colorado native Mekayla Cortez said while hiking along a trail at the Lair o’ the Bear Park in the mountains west of Morrison.
There’s something about being in nature that feels healing and empowering.
“I have never felt excluded, I've always felt like these things are available to me. But I see my friends and I see my other Latino community members who don't always have an opportunity to try,” Cortez said.
She joined the group HECHO – Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors – to help other Latinos to not only enjoy the outdoors, but to also protect those spaces.
“It means a lot to me that HECHO is here helping us have a voice in our community,” she said.
HECHO was first created by Latinos in Arizona ten years ago, and about a year and a half ago, the group expanded to Colorado.
Breanna Gonzalez runs HECHO’s advocacy work in Colorado, meeting with political and community leaders to conserve our natural spaces. Gonzalez also travels to Washington D.C. on advocacy trips with HECHO, most recently last month.
"There is a lot of power and a lot of agency in being able to say, ‘I see things as a recreationalist,’” Gonzalez said. “Recreation and conservation go hand in hand. When we talk about climate change and our drought that we're experiencing, that will directly affect multiple recreational activities.”
Gonzalez, who used to advocate around education and public health, sees conservation as an extension of those key issues.
“The state really wants to hear from the local community about what's to come for preserving our water,” and HECHO wants to mobilize Latinos to take a seat at the table, Gonzalez said.
While access to water and the ability to recreate outdoors affects all Coloradans, Gonzalez said the Hispanic community is especially well positioned to take a leading role in conservation.
"A core part of HECHO is this idea of querencia. Querencia is the idea of a very deep and profound love and connection to the land,” Gonzalez said. “Regardless of our family story, Latinos have that embedded in our culture: taking care of the land, our Mother Earth, Madre Tierra or Pachamama,” she said.
For Cortez, who grew up in Greeley going camping and fishing with her family, love for the land is also key to her wellbeing.
"For me, being able to come outdoors, just having an opportunity to be outside, is necessary. It is important for us as human beings to be able to heal, especially after the last three years of COVID,” she said.
Like lots of Coloradans, Cortez connects most with the environment when she heads out to the mountains.
"When I learned to snowboard, it was a game changer,” she said. “It makes you feel so powerful and strong and in control.”
In the winter, she works at the Loveland Ski Area. In recent years, she’s seen more and more Latinos and other people of color out skiing and snowboarding.
“It's really important for Colorado's economy to maintain that level of that level of spending and fun,” she said.
HECHO believes that conservation is the pathway to continue enjoying these activities for generations to come.
“My message for Coloradans would be to engage in that process and seek out opportunities to participate,” Cortez said. “I really hope that other Latinos aren't afraid to try.”
If you're interested in joining one of Colorado's groups supporting diversity in outdoor recreation, here are a few to get you started:
Big City Mountaineers
BIPOC Mountain Collective
Black Girls Hike
Brown Girls Climb
Colorado Canyons Association
The Cycle Effect
Denver Metro Young Life
Environmental Learning for Kids
Lincoln Hills Cares
Outdoor Afro Colorado
Vibe Tribe Adventures