It’s a weekend morning at Leasburg Dam State Park and Gabe Vasquez is giving fishing safety tips along the bank of the Rio Grande to students from Las Cruces High School. Vasquez is founder of the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, a group helped launched by the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, along with Friends of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, and Latino Outdoors.
The organization over the last year has helped provide outdoor opportunities to get hundreds of area low-income Hispanic and underprivileged youth in New Mexico outdoors and into nature.
“Some of the poorest communities that we have in New Mexico are Hispanic, are Latino communities and so poverty and transportation are a big barrier to them getting out here and enjoying our public lands, enjoying experiences on the river so we try to break down those barriers with this program,” said Vasquez.
Nuestra Tierra provided this group of students from Las Cruces High School fishing licenses and supplies so they can fish. It’s an experience that student Jose Jaime will remember, this is his first time fishing, he says being patient has been the most challenging part.
“So far it’s fun, I’m happy to do it for the first time and actually experience something,” said Jamie.
Star Maestas, another student in the club says she likes to fish and explore the outdoors with her family. She says being outdoors has some benefits for students like them.
“It’s very therapeutic for them, it’s fun, it’s just really nice,” said Maestas.
Vasquez says that these belong to us and they are right in our backyard and they belong to us.
“Not only are they in our backyard, but they belong to our ancestors, and our grandfathers, and our parents, and that’s why this program is called the Nuestra Tierra Conservation project cause these youth should take ownership of these public lands they belong to them, just as much as the guy visiting from Washington State or anywhere else.”
Not only did the group fish, but they also took part in a ranger-led hike around the the area where they learned about history and culture of the region.
“I’d like to think that we are creating the next generation of conservation stewards, because we’re not just teaching, we’re not just having fun, but we are encouraging some of these youth to have careers working outdoors,” says Vasquez.
Employing a younger, more diverse group of public land managers may be welcomed.
According to data provided by the National Park Service, as of May 2018, just around 12 percent of employees are under 30, down from 19 percent in 2015. Also, just over 5 percent of NPS employees are Hispanic compared to 83 percent of employees who are white, and nearly 63 percent of NPS employees are male.
It was Vasquez’s own story form his childhood about public lands that has empowered him to help others enjoy the resources around them.
While living in Ciudad Juárez as a youth, Vasquez said his father decided to take a trip to New Mexico to explore the outdoors. They decided to fish and camp at Caballo Lake State Park.
During the trip, Vasquez says a Game and Fish ranger approached his Dad, who didn’t have a fishing license, and didn’t understand English, so the Game and Fish Ranger told his father he would call somebody to translate leading to a border patrol agent showing up.
“We didn’t know that we needed fishing license, this being our first time and us coming from Juárez and not understanding how the system works,” said Vasquez.
Vasquez says that border patrol detained his dad and took him to a station in Truth or Consequences.
“He sat in a back of a holding cell, you know I was crying, my brother was crying, it was family friend that had driven us up there, and I never wanted to go fishing again, heck I didn’t even want to come to the United States again because of the way my father was treated, like a criminal.”
Vasquez said the agents told them they had to verify his identity which he says took around 3 to 4 hours, once that was complete they released his dad with a citation for fishing without a permit.
“Devastated I thought we were headed back to Juárez, and my dad could have very easily said fishing is not for us, the outdoors is not for us, but instead he said we’re going back to that campsite, we’re going to get our fishing license, and we’re gonna fish. And that night we caught five or six catfish with our little Superman rods and a pack of hot dogs, and it was one of the happiest moments of my life.”
That resilience is what Gabe Vasquez says made him think about who belongs in not only the outdoors, but other spaces in society.
“It’s something that’s impacted me and when I think about these kids that are enjoying this for maybe the first time. I want them to feel like they belong to, because truly do,” said Vasquez.
Educating youth that public lands are a place where they everyone is equal is what Vasquez says he hopes to continue to do so this generation can pass that ownership on to the next one.