Park Ranger and SCA Alum Uses Life Story To Reach Out To Latinos

NPR
Monday, October 12, 2009

By Sasha Khokha

Yosemite National Park sits on the edge of California’s rural San Joaquin Valley, a farming region that’s nearly 50 percent Latino. Yet few of the region’s Latino residents ever visit the park.

That’s where Yosemite ranger Mauricio Escobar comes in, with an unusual job and a unique life story.

You might think a park ranger’s life is one of quiet contemplation in the woods. But Escobar spends a lot of his time outside of the forest.

At a recent celebration of Mexican culture in nearby Fresno, Escobar put on his wide-brimmed ranger hat and took his perch at a booth next to a taco stand. His offerings? Glossy photos of spectacular vistas, brochures in Spanish and free passes to Yosemite.

“Do you want a junior ranger badge?” Escobar asked passers-by. “You know, for Halloween, that’s an instant costume.”

Yosemite is one of a handful of national parks with enough resources to hire rangers to not only work the trails of the park itself, but to visit local communities to try and draw in more visitors - especially minorities.

“Hispanic families don’t recreate the way Anglo families do,” Escobar says. “Latinos tend to congregate in large families; we like the loud music; carne asada burning anywhere, everywhere; a soccer game spontaneously springs up.”

Escobar says Latino families may be intimidated by the rules and regulations of a national park - and the entrance fees. His job is to convince Latino parents it’s worth driving two hours on windy roads to bring their children to Yosemite.

“I then share my life and how, as an immigrant, I didn’t know anything about national parks,” Escobar says. “When I first saw Yosemite at 16, I was blown away. I didn’t think it was possible to have a place like this. It changed how I saw nature and my place in nature.”

A Story To Tell

Looking up at Yosemite’s soaring granite cliffs, Escobar explains that he grew up in wide-open spaces - running barefoot through his grandparents’ cornfields in rural El Salvador. But then his world started shrinking, becoming a lot more terrifying.

A bloody civil war pushed his parents north to the U.S. When he was 10, he crossed the border, too - sardined into a secret compartment underneath the trunk of a car with his aunt and uncle.

“You could hear the muffled metallic sounds of the border guards,” Escobar says. “At that point, I’m holding my breath; you could hear everyone’s heart. And you wait. You wait in this really fearful silence.”

In Los Angeles, he discovered things he’d never seen before: Telephones. Toilets. Tall buildings. Eight members of the family crammed into one bedroom.

He confronted other challenges in high school: gangs; drive-by shootings; clashes with a strict father. It was almost too much for the teenager struggling to fit in.

“This anger and violence that was in me, if not lashed out, was lashed inward,” Escobar says. “I thought about killing myself pretty much every day.”

But one day, a friend told him about an environmental club meeting on campus. He came for the free pizza and found a good excuse to get out of mowing lawns for his dad’s gardening business. As a member of the Student Conservation Association, he instead spent the summer building trails and visiting national parks like Yosemite. At first, there was some culture shock.

“I was mortified, terrified - I had never gone camping,” Escobar recalls. “It was something that white people did on TV. I did it!”

A ‘Completely Different’ Life

But hiking steep trails showed him there were possibilities beyond the urban grit of south-central Los Angeles.

“Coming to Yosemite is coming to a place where you’re taken outside of yourself,” Escobar says. “It’s staring into the ocean, this vast open ocean, and you feel really small. You see the grandeur, how big and powerful things can be.”

After high school, Escobar left L.A. for college at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He earned a master’s degree in history, learned French in Europe, wrote a novel, taught in Korea and, finally, returned as a ranger to the park that first inspired him.

Escobar, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2006, says his own story is sometimes the best pitch he can make to Latino families about why they should come to Yosemite - to make an investment in their children’s future.

“It’s moving to know this is among the places that helped me become strong,” he says. “My life is completely different than what I thought it would be, and yet, it’s so much better because of places like this.”