Profile: Wild at Heart
Far from gangbangers' gunfire, beneath shooting stars, Juan Martinez thrives
By Vince Beiser
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"A lot of the problem is lack of resources," Thomas says. The NPS survey found significantly more Latinos and African Americans were put off by the cost of a trip to a national park than whites were. Near Los Angeles, the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains offer campgrounds, swimming holes, trout-filled streams, and thousands of miles of trails within an hour's drive of most locals. But many poor kids don't know that.
"A lot of them don't have cars. They don't have maps," says Thomas. "You go to half of these kids' homes and you don't even see a book. They don't know how to get to the backcountry or what to do when they get there." Many, he adds, think camping requires a lot of fancy gear they can't afford.
The fact that there are fewer black and brown faces in the parks makes some folks skittish as well. The NPS survey found that Latinos were two times and African Americans more than three times as likely as whites to say that parks were uncomfortable places for people like themselves. "They think camping is just a white people's thing," says Andrew Anderson, a 24-year-old African American who became best friends with Martinez in the Tetons and now leads trips with Outward Bound Adventures.
Fear of the outdoors is another impediment--even for teenagers who live in genuinely dangerous neighborhoods. The Ecology Club's Pepin takes a group of kids to Mono Lake every year and makes them do solo night hikes. "They're shaking," she says. "Some of them are crying. They're thinking 'Jason' or wild animals are going to get them. But when they get back, they're so proud."
Research suggests that such outdoor experiences can have a powerful impact on urban kids like these. The Sierra Club funded a 2005 study for the California Department of Education of three outdoor science schools serving at-risk youths. The study found that kids who attended the programs raised their science scores by 27 percent and developed better conflict-resolution skills and more motivation to learn.
It sure seems to have worked that way for Martinez. "Out in nature, all that front you put up in the city disintegrates," he says. "When you take kids out to a place like that, even kids straight from juvie, they can actually be kids for once. That's what happened to me. I finally got to really open myself up and explore who I was."
Experiencing firsthand things like streambed erosion and avian reproduction, Martinez suddenly found his science classes a lot more relevant. "I started to be a student and take pride in being educated," he says. He stayed active with the Ecology Club, joined the football team, and even signed up for a robotics club. When Martinez wasn't studying, he was camping or advocating for the environment. "Once he connected with the earth, it touched a spot in his soul he didn't know was there," says Pepin. "And he's stayed connected."
Pepin helped solidify that link by showing Martinez that environmentalism meant more than protecting whales--it could mean helping his community. With her support, Martinez dove into an ultimately successful campaign to keep a power plant from being built near a local elementary school. He spoke at planning board meetings and protested in the street. "To feel that somebody actually saw me as a leader was like getting thrown a little self-esteem," he says.
Pepin also introduced him to Outward Bound Adventures' Thomas, who quickly recruited Martinez to lead youth camping trips, something he's been doing ever since. Sitting at the tiny kitchen table in his family's apartment, Martinez shows off two photo albums' worth of his outdoor adventures: hiking in the Southern California mountains, camping in Death Valley and Yellowstone National Parks, kayaking off Catalina Island, white-water rafting in Colorado, rappelling in Washington, and playing in snow for the first time in New Mexico.
He got his 20-year-old sister, Jessica, hooked too. "Juan took me backpacking, and I loved it," she says. "Before, I was like, 'Gimme my Cheetos and Coca-Cola!'" Now she also leads Outward Bound Adventures trips. The whole family has even gone camping a few times.
Martinez also got involved with the Sierra Club's Building Bridges to the Outdoors initiative, a network of 65 programs nationwide dedicated to getting urban kids into the wild. Until last year he was the youth volunteer coordinator for Building Bridges. He also joined the Sierra Student Coalition's executive committee and helped set the organization's policy. He testified before the California state senate in support of a bill to boost nature program funding. In 2005, he won an award from the Sierra Club and pro-environment representative Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) for "outstanding leadership in outdoor education."
Martinez hasn't always felt at home, though, amid the Club's predominantly white, middle-class membership. "When I started, I felt really out of place and isolated," he says. Some activists struck him as feckless trust-fund kids. "It's a weird dynamic. You've got something in common, and you want to build on that, but sometimes people just say things that bug me. I've heard them say poor people don't care about the environment," he says. "I have to tell them that's because you're some strange white person knocking on their door, and if you come around showing them pictures of glaciers, that doesn't matter to a family that's trying to feed their kids."
That's changing, though, Martinez says. The Club is putting more emphasis on environmental-justice issues that affect urban communities, such as toxic polluters in Detroit and a proposed liquefied-natural-gas plant in Hyattsville, Maryland. As a result, "there's definitely more people like me around the table now," he says.
These days Martinez doesn't have much time to get into the backcountry. He's studying history at California State University, Los Angeles, and holding down a full-time job as a tenants' rights and fair-housing advocate at the local branch of the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now (ACORN). Like his environmental activism, Martinez's involvement with ACORN grew out of personal experience. About three years ago, his family was threatened with eviction. Martinez asked ACORN for information about tenants' rights, got it, and successfully fought the eviction. Impressed with the group, he applied to work there. Long-term, he aims to be an environmental lawyer. Meanwhile, his little spare time is eaten up giving lectures, trainings, and press conferences as a representative of Building Bridges.
In May, at L.A.'s palatial Biltmore Hotel, tuxedoed waiters circulated with trays of canapes among well-dressed educational and environmental professionals. The draw was a panel discussion on children and the environment featuring the director of California's state park system, a state senator, the president of REI, and the head of the Sierra Club. Introducing the event, resplendent in a black suit, hair neatly slicked down, was Martinez.
His parents and sisters sat proudly in the audience. "Everything I do now stems from that one moment in my life, that trip I took to Wyoming when I was 15," Martinez told the crowd. "Being way out there, able to take the world in--that gave me the sense that I can do anything."
Vince Beiser is a Los Angeles-based journalist specializing in social issues. His work has appeared in Harper's, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone.