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Latinos’ love for the land overlooked

In the Southwest, we have had our share of warm weather lately, and the geese and cranes have been moving northward in droves. Hiking trails are getting busy already and even my 86-year-old father told me he is going fishing this week, “before the water is all gone,” he added.

That is something I can’t ever remember my father saying, but he is aware of the drought in a very real way, in the way that he raised my brothers and I to know the land and to care about what is going on with it.

In my family, as in many Latino families throughout the West, concern about the health of the rivers and streams, wildlife and recreation is part of everyday life.

When I pay attention to the news, and portrayals of Latinos on TV and in the movies, however, our outdoor heritage never comes across nor does the fact that 43 percent of us (and more than half of all male Latinos) consider ourselves a hunter, angler or both, and enjoy public lands and outdoor recreation.

But a recent poll confirms that Latinos do care about conservation, about impacts of oil and gas development, about fishing, hunting and national parks and forests – and in a very big way.

Last week, Colorado College released its bipartisan Conservation in the West poll, revealing that Latinos are more likely than other ethnic groups to vote for candidates who favor conservation and to vote against those who don’t. That should be a wake-up call for politicians.

Nationwide, Latinos make up about 10 percent of the overall electorate and can make or break an election in swing states. For instance, in New Mexico, Latinos share of the electoral vote was about 37 percent. Legislators who vote to protect wildlife, clean air, healthy water, and well-funded parks and forests will fare better because all those things are highly important to the majority of Latinos. And Latinos are much less likely to vote for a politician that would sell off public lands.

In New Mexico, camping, hunting, fishing and hiking are part of a way of life for many Latinos.

Quite a few of us still practice traditions of herb-gathering and piñon-picking. Some of our artists still collect natural pigments for traditional art. Farming and ranching is part of our heritage and, like the Pueblos who precede us, we have come to hold a spiritual connection to these lands.

We appreciate what the land can give, but we also strongly believe in balancing oil and gas development and conservation. According to the poll, 71 percent of Latinos support an innovative new tool known as master leasing plans, which encourages responsible oil and gas development while strengthening protections for rivers, wildlife and recreation.

In reality, the fact that Latinos care for the land should not be news at all. In the past few weeks alone, Latino youths spoke at the Roundhouse to defend the Gila River and Latino leaders spoke out in Las Cruces to support the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.

In fact, 95 percent of Latinos enjoy public lands every year.

The land is part of our lives and we are part of the land. While a poll can be an important tool to send a message to leaders and decision-makers, it cannot quantify what the land really means to most of us.

For me, it’s knowing that my dad can still go fishing in places he has fished since the 1930s. It’s knowing that the herbs used by my great-grandmother, a curandera, still grow wild by a little stream where the ponderosas give way to piñon. It’s in the joy of watching my brother, who has more skill than I can muster, teaching kids to fish at camp in the mountains.

For most of us, it is centuries of falling in love with the West and we will vote to protect it.