By Monica Ortiz Uribe
Every time the train rumbled past his grandparents’ home in Ciudad Juárez, Gabe Vasquez worried a coffee mug or picture frame might fall and shatter on the floor. The home was adjacent to a series of tracks south of downtown — a world away from the verdant farmland his grandfather left behind in central Mexico.
Vasquez, 37, a conservationist and candidate for New Mexico’s southernmost congressional seat, has spent most of his adulthood chasing the outdoor life his grandfather partly abandoned in search of economic prosperity. Along the way, Vasquez has paved a path for minority youth in the U.S. to develop long-lasting connections with the natural world.
“I’ve had a lot of life-changing experiences that really started in the outdoors,” Vasquez said. “Using the outdoors as therapy, for mental health and for physical health, gave me some of the tools that I needed to be a leader in my community.”
Nature disappeared under asphalt or concrete more than half a century ago as Juárez transformed itself into an industrial behemoth whose factories churn out the components for the stuff of everyday life—automobiles, washing machines, laptop computers.
Vasquez grew up in the Chaveña neighborhood, a straight shot down the tracks from an international rail crossing that acts like an artery pumping a stream of consumer goods to the American market.
Juárez is where Javier Bañuelos, Vasquez’s grandfather, hoped to find financial security. He and his wife had 10 mouths to feed. They came from an agricultural community whose Spanish name, El Remolino, means whirlpool. The town is in the state of Zacatecas, which hemorrhaged some of the largest numbers of northbound immigrants after the North American Free Trade Agreement wrought economic devastation upon small Mexican farmers.
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Bañuelos started out as a mailman in Juárez. After ending his route one day, he noticed an undeliverable piece of mail in his bag: a TV repair manual. Flipping through the manual gave Bañuelos an idea.
“He went around the neighborhood buying all the broken TVs which, at that time, was a very common occurrence,” Vasquez said. “The knob would come off or the screen would flicker. He learned to fix TVs and built a shop attached to my grandma’s house. ”
This shop was where Vasquez spent much of his childhood, accidentally stepping on nails and disassembling big magnets inside TV sets. In between repairs, his grandfather would yearn for the outdoors. Bañuelos’ nickname was “El Oso”—The Bear—for his 6-foot-plus stature and his hunting prowess. He honed his skills back in El Remolino and kept them sharp in the Sierra Madre of Chihuahua hunting deer, pronghorn and mountain lions.
Later, he took his grandchildren across the border to New Mexico.
“We fished under the bridge in Hatch and caught catfish,” Vasquez said. “We played with the box turtles and saw this blanket of stars just take over us at night—stars that I’d never seen before as a kid.”
Pursuing a career for love, not money
Vasquez was the first in his family to be born in the U.S. When the time came, he enrolled in New Mexico State University. Between classes, he found himself roaming the Organ Mountains, exploring the Lincoln National Forest and going back to the Rio Grande, where he and his grandfather fished.
He picked computer science as his major, then realized he spent too much time in the tutoring hall struggling with advanced math.
“Latinos, many of us, we’re here to get better jobs than our parents had,” he said. “We go to school to become accountants, doctors and engineers. The dream is to… live in the suburbs and work in air-conditioned buildings and get away from the fields, because that traditionally has been our way of making a living.”
Breaking from that mindset required what Vasquez describes as having an “epiphany.” He realized he wanted to pursue a career for love, not money. The ability to make this choice, he recognized, was also a privilege handed down to him thanks to the sacrifices made by his parents and grandparents.
Vasquez graduated NMSU in 2008 with degrees in English and journalism because he liked to write and tell stories. But his true passion was ecologic conservation.
“Not a lot of our families or our support systems say, ‘Hey, go be a wildlife biologist or go be a game and fish ranger or a soil scientist,’” he said. “I might have chosen differently if I knew I could have gone into these fields.”
Getting minority youth outdoors
Vasquez’s experience illustrates some of the reasons why Latinos and other minority groups are underrepresented in the outdoors, both professionally and recreationally. People of color are underrepresented in National Park visitation and among the staff of federal natural resource agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In 2017, Vasquez co-founded Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project in Las Cruces. The nonprofit works to make the outdoors more accessible to “Latinx/Latine/Hispanic” communities. Nuestra Tierra helped launch the Outdoor Equity Fund, a state-managed program that’s given roughly $532,000 in public and private grants to local organizations that get underrepresented youth into nature. Nuestra Tierra also helped translate the rulebook for New Mexico hunting and fishing licenses into Spanish and is a leading advocate for making Castner Range in El Paso a national monument.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) plans to introduce legislation this year called the Outdoor F.U.T.U.R.E. fund, which would give outdoor organizations grant money to work with minority youth on a national scale.
“It’s so important for our young people to have outdoor experiences and education that really resonate with them. To understand the way our ecosystems work, you have to love being outdoors,” Vasquez said. “The next leaders in making climate change decisions should be as diverse as the people in our country.”
The same year he helped start Nuestra Tierra, Vasquez was also sworn in as a representative on the Las Cruces City Council. He’s now the Democratic candidate challenging U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell for New Mexico’s District 2 congressional seat.
Vasquez wears a turquoise bracelet that a supporter gave him on a campaign visit to Albuquerque. Like Vasquez, the supporter grew up in Chihuahua and said he gave a similar bracelet to Deb Haaland when she was running for congress. Haaland is now U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the first Native American woman to serve in a cabinet position.
“This is my lucky bracelet,” Vasquez said.