Public Lands Hero: Maite Arce

Photo: Hispanic Access Foundation

Meet the leader mobilizing Latino communities in the fight for conservation.

Where Maite Arce grew up, connection to the land was pretty much a given. That was in Ensenada, Mexico, a Baja port town that curls up right against the sea. But when she was 8 years old, Arce’s parents made the bold decision to move to California in hopes of a better economic future. Arce soon saw the wild beaches of her childhood traded for asphalt—and a spark for outdoor access advocacy was born.  

Driven to help improve the lives of those in her communities, Arce followed a career into the public sector, spending 20 years working for institutions like the Self Reliance Foundation and the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options.   

Then, in 2010, Arce found a home for that spark she discovered amid the California asphalt when she established the Hispanic Access Foundation  (HAF), the Washington, D.C- based nonprofit. Among other things, HAF works to connect Latino communities with public lands and outdoor recreation. After all, a deep connection to nature is central to many Latino cultures—and was a part of them long before modern environmental movements ever began.

Over the years, HAF’s efforts to rekindle and celebrate the Latino connection to nature have taken many forms, from supporting youth outdoor trips to sponsoring Virginia’s RioPalooza, a free, bilingual river festival that takes place on the Shenandoah River and its tributaries. 

Arce (she/her) sat down with us to explain why these events matter—and why Latinos are poised to become America’s greatest force for conservation advocacy.  

Your family moved from Mexico to California when you were young. How did that impact you? 

We went from this little coastal community that was about living off the land and the ocean, and moved to a very urban area: Santa Ana, south of Los Angeles. There, our playgrounds were urban blacktops and railroad tracks. Seeing the difference in outdoor access between these places—especially for immigrant communities—was really eye opening.  

Why has the Latino community traditionally been left out of the conservation movement?

The Latino community has contributed to the flourishing of this nation in ways big and small. And yet we’ve continually been marginalized and minimized within the American experience. 

As the Hispanic Access Foundation has grown and sponsored more outdoor trips and recreation events across the country, members of the conservation movement, media, and even government officials have asked us: Why are Latinos suddenly interested in the outdoors? We keep encountering this deficit mindset. But nature has always been a part of our culture.  

We’ve looked into this, and discovered that there’s a lack of research and publishing of data regarding Latinos and their participation in the outdoors. 

A portrait of Maite Arce Photo: Maite Arce

Outdoor recreation has historically been a bit elitist in America. Is that an issue, as well?  

Exactly. Recreation is different for each community. For some, engaging with the outdoors means bringing family or recreating in a group, or with music and food. For others, it doesn’t.

We also have to be careful in terms of access. Right now, many trails are accessible only for one type of use or one type of user group. We really need to think differently, because access to nature should be equal to all of us. How we experience it is going to be different, and we have to avoid that mindset that there’s one correct experience. 

How does limited outdoor access impact communities?

Here’s one example. On the east coast of the Chesapeake Bay, Latino communities are growing, and access to water and the beaches is important to them. But with so much privately owned water access, there are challenges with overcrowding. Recently there’s been an area of public land next to Sandy Point State Park where many Latinos go, but the caretaker of this land, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, wants to limit access to schools, teachers, and their staff. 

That’s an example of land managers not thinking about who the future stewards of these public lands and waterways are. The more we can connect all people to the beauty of these places, the more successful we’ll be in conserving them in the future. 

What’s Latino Conservation Week?  

We started Latino Conservation Week nine years ago. This last summer, we had over 200 outdoor education and stewardship events throughout the country. Every year it’s growing, and it both uplifts Latino advocacy work and creates a really supportive community that helps people own their way of connecting with the outdoors. [The 2022 event is scheduled for July 16 to 24.] 

How does RioPalooza—the bilingual river festival in Virginia—fit into all this? 

RioPalooza started several years ago. It’s led by a group of partners that includes the U.S. Forest Service, and we were invited to participate in the event. It’s really about celebrating the river and public lands in western Virginia. Our part is to support the Latino communities that participate. [RioPalooza will be held on September 17 this year at Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area.] 

What’s it like being on the Shenandoah River during that event?  

The river is accessible through a state park, and communities tend to arrive for the day and set up their space. It includes hammocks and cooking outdoors, picnicking and recreation activities like swimming, tubing and kayaking. Then of course there’s the environmental education component which is really important. There’s so much to enjoy at RioPalooza. 

What makes Latinos so critical to the success of the American environmental movement?

Latinos are driving growth in our nation. Latino economic output is over $2 trillion and one in four new businesses is Latinio owned, and 18 percent of the workforce in the U.S. is Latino. We have not only strength in numbers, but growth in all areas. 

The issues of protecting public lands, closing the nature gap, and really addressing the climate crisis are critical to the Latino community. We tend to be the ones impacted first when it comes to the challenges of climate change, whether it’s wildfires or other natural disasters. We also deal with other impacts, such as our health and chronic disease. So the outdoors is an important solution that we know can be part of our future. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.