Community members gather to celebrate Latinx culture and environmental justice efforts
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More than 400 community members gathered in the Roaring Fork and Colorado river valleys on July 23, the final day of Latino Conservation Week.
The nationwide initiative celebrates Latinx heritage and aims to make outdoor recreation and environmental decision-making more accessible.
Wilderness Workshop’s Latinx-led environmental advocacy program Defiende Nuestra Tierra — which translates to “Defend Our Land” — partnered with the Aspen Institute and the White River National Forest to organize the day’s events.
“This is a special week to connect the Latino community with our public lands and waters, and it’s the first time ever that these three organizations partnered together to bring this huge event for the Latino community in the Roaring Fork and Colorado river valleys,” said Omar Sarabia, director of Defiende Nuestra Tierra.
Organizers worked with a host of local groups and businesses to offer free, bilingual hikes in the Grizzly Creek Fire burn area in Glenwood Canyon, fishing classes at Rifle Falls and whitewater rafting trips on the Colorado River.
Afterward, community members came together at Two Rivers Park for a fiesta with environmental activities, food and live music.
About 100 participants signed up to raft a section of the Colorado River from the Shoshone put-in in Glenwood Canyon to Two Rivers Park on July 23 — and about 90% of them had never been rafting before.
That morning, families, friends and community members met in Glenwood Springs for the rafting trip.
“I’m really nervous,” Brizai Gómez said. “I keep trying to make excuses in my head to get back in the car, not go down the river.”
Gómez and her partner, Victor Galván, traveled from Englewood on the Front Range to go rafting for the first time and help out with the day’s events.
“So we've been getting folks to do events throughout the state,” Galván said. “We were in Leadville yesterday making wildflower seed bombs and we're actually doing that today too.”
Galván works with Conservation Colorado’s program Protégete, which means “Protect yourself.”
The program advocates for equitable access to a healthy environment, and its mission is closely aligned with Latino Conservation Week.
“For me, these events are about getting Latinos, who are a growing population here in Colorado, to fall in love with nature,” Galván said. “And bringing awareness that these places need to be protected because they may not be there forever.”
Most of the day’s activities were free for participants — and event organizers worked with several local rafting companies to offer river trips for $5 per person.
“I think too often we don't have access to sporting events like these, especially water sports,” Galván said. “It's just refreshing to see that businesses and local organizations are working to change that.”
At the park entrance, the raft guides handed out life jackets and helmets and began their safety demonstrations in both Spanish and English.
Organizers also explained that each boat would have a bilingual raft guide or a designated interpreter.
Glenwood Springs resident Elizabeth Velasco, who runs her own language-services company in the valley, was one of the interpreters helping out for the day. (Her company, for the record, provides translation and interpretation services to Aspen Public Radio.)
“It's very important because we have a diverse community and we want to make sure everyone is safe when they go rafting,” she said. “So this is all about serving the community and making sure that we are stewards of the land.”
After a quick paddle lesson, participants loaded into the shuttles and headed to the river.
At the Shoshone put-in, participants helped carry the rafts down to the river and climbed into the boats.
Within minutes, the boats came to a series of Class III rapids and the guides gave instructions to start paddling.
The last rapid was “Maneater” — and crew members laughed and screamed as an unexpected wave crashed overhead and soaked everyone.
Ana, a Carbondale resident who wanted to be identified only by her first name, and her three children were in one of the last rafts.
When their boat finally emerged into a calm section on the other side, the entire family smiled despite their drenched clothes.
“It’s my first time,” Ana said. “It’s an amazing experience. I recommend it for all the families.”
About halfway through the roughly three-hour excursion, raft guides offered participants the opportunity to swim next to the boats.
Ana’s son, Mario, didn’t miss a beat.
“Can I just hold onto the boat like this and jump?” he asked, already halfway in the water.
As we slowly wound our way through the canyon, we spotted a group of bighorn sheep on the ridge and made one last stop at a natural hot springs along the far bank.
Around lunchtime, we pulled into Two Rivers Park, where the afternoon celebrations were already underway.
Several kids were running around flying butterfly kites while Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s Folklórico dancers performed on a large outdoor stage to songs from iconic Mexican artist José Alfredo Jiménez.
When the students finished their performance, 13-year-old dancer Lizabeth Horta-Landa of Glenwood Springs came out into the crowd.
“It was amazing being able to participate in something like this, she said. “It makes me glad to be here, being able to spend time outside.”
Surrounding the stage were food trucks, arts-and-crafts stations and local organizations. They provided passersby with information about their environmental programs.
“We have people from Denver, Summit County, Rifle, you know, people from Basalt, all the way to Parachute,” said Sarabia, of Defiende Nuestra Tierra.
Sarabia stood near the stage getting ready to announce the winners of the outdoor gear raffle before the next performance.
“We’re just waiting now for Puro Norte, that's the next band upcoming,” he said. “Puro Norte is a traditional norteño band. We hired that band because there are a lot of people from Chihuahua in the valley, so they can identify with that music.”
In addition to Puro Norte, event organizers booked several other well-known bands, including La Sonora Dinamita, Puro Norte, Samuel Fausto Y Carmen Corona La Patrona.
"We're going to close with La Sonora Dinamita, which is one of the most iconic cumbia bands from Columbia," Sarabia said. "I remember that I used to listen to that band since I was a kid in weddings, quinceañeras and parties, so this is the first time that I'm gonna watch it live and I'm so excited."
Over at the Conservation Colorado booth, Victor Galván taught kids how to make seed bombs, which can be used to plant native wildflowers that attract pollinators.
“It’s a little ball the size of your thumb that essentially has clay and compost in it, and seeds,” he said.
On the other side of the booth, Protégete program director Beatriz Soto gave out information about new leadership initiatives at the organization.
“We are just launching new programming on an environmental leadership academy and a board and commission fellowship,” she said. “We’re looking to diversify who is in positions of power, especially around natural resources, our environment, clean air, clean water.”
Soto said the large number of Latinx community members who want to conserve public lands and take action on climate change is not reflected in environmental policymaking spaces.
“We're lacking representation in the decision-making bodies that dictate the future of our natural resources and protections to these resources as well,” she said. “So we're on a mission to help develop our community so they can be on these boards and commissions, so they feel confident representing their community and their values.”
At the main stage, a crowd was gathering for the next band.
Cecilia Torres of Jalisco, Mexico, joined the day’s celebrations with her family, whom she is visiting.
“I'm very excited to be here, and I love the Folklorico performance, and it is very similar to some dancing in Jalisco,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter.
Just a few feet away, local residents Bryan Álvarez-Terrazas and Zabdi Fuentes were also enjoying the good vibes.
“We got a banda playing, I got two mangos in my hand, agua de jamaica, a little bit of everything,” Álvarez-Terrazas said. “And I think that the whole topic around conservation and the impacts we’ll be facing, you know, within the Latino, Latinx community is something that we should all be talking more about.”
For Álvarez-Terrazas, the day’s celebration of Latinx culture was just as big of a draw as its goal to spread awareness about environmental equity.
“I know that they wanted it to be, specifically, para la comunidad Latina,” he said. “Entonces, that was a big reason why I wanted to come. And, you know, I've seen a lot of friendly faces out here, so it's really nice to be out here in community.”
This year’s Latino Conservation Week took place from July 16-23.