Latina Unifies Conservation, Culture And Community With Earrings And A Hashtag

by Kendra Milligan | Silver City Independent
July 2, 2020

This article originally appeared in the Silver City Independent.

During last Latino Conservation Week, Grecia Nuñez co-led a hike on the West Fork of the Gila River, which is when a stray compliment on her hoop earrings began a discussion on how jewelry can mean so much more than a fashion statement.

A NM Wild Public Lands Fellow based in Las Cruces, Grecia was kind enough to sit for an interview to discuss her career in conservation and the inspiration of her Instagram account and hashtag #hiking_in_hoopz.

What got you interested in hiking?

I grew up in Vado, which is one of 37 recognized Colonias in Doña Ana County. My first experience in conservation happened in high school when I got a job with Groundwork Doña Ana, an environmental nonprofit which connects minority youth with the outdoors through hands-on experiences. We built the first outdoor space in Vado, a walkway; it’s still the only walkway in the community. That experience introduced me to conservation efforts and the need of connecting minority youth to the outdoors. That next year, I went to the Groundwork USA Youth Summit in the Rocky Mountain National Park. I had never before seen such a landscape, the glacier lakes and the beautiful Rocky Mountains. I realized nobody in my family had had this experience!

Then and there, I committed myself to conservation and connecting minority youth and families to the outdoors.

How did that commitment to connect youth to the outdoors grow into hiking?

After that realization I searched for internships in National Parks. I got one at Yellowstone National Park as a Youth Conservation Corps recreation assistant, and from there I was able to work in Denali National Park for three months living out of a tent. My love of hiking grew through those experiences. We have National Parks and natural gems in our backyards here in New Mexico, which is a part of what got me into hiking and advocating for minority youth to reach the outdoors. People don’t explore their backyard gems enough, and a lot of people are afraid to do so. There’s a lot of myths about the outdoor experience. The first time I went back to Rocky Mountain National Park with my mother, she was terrified that a bear was going to attack. That’s all she was thinking about, and I want to deconstruct some of these myths as part of my job in conservation.

How do you intend to deconstruct these outdoor myths?

That first experience at the Rocky Mountain National Park was my foundation for everything going forward. I knew I wanted everyone, regardless of their background, to get to experience our public lands in the way I had. I didn’t want people not to hike because they thought, “I don’t have the right shoes” or “I don’t have the right backpack” or “I don’t fit the look.” So I’m trying to get people who may have not thought of recreating outdoors to consider, “Hey, I can hike, camp, fish, etc.,” but also part of my work has been to deconstruct the narrative that our minority communities haven’t been utilizing these places for ages in other contexts outside of recreation, because they have.

What was working in National Parks like for you?

I met some of the best people in National Parks; they sparked my love for hiking and the outdoors. Working at the National Parks was amazing, even though my supervisors and fellow rangers seldomly looked like me or any other minority group. They were people that understood the importance of our outdoor spaces being protected for everyone. I often say that I would like to one day be the superintendent of one of our National Park units, and it’s because the NPS gifted me many memories, mentors and friends.

You came back to New Mexico and closely working with conservation. How did that transform into #hiking_in_hoopz?

It was on a NM Wild hike I led to McKnight Canyon on the Mimbres River’s East Fork with my co-worker Simon Sotelo, and the group included Amanda McGinnis. I had just met Amanda that day. I always wear earrings when I’m hiking, specifically hoops, because I feel like I look very masculine when I’m hiking, and hoops add femininity to my look.

Hoops are such a big part of my Latina culture, though I was never conscious of it. Amanda said to Simon, “Oh Grecia’s so badass, because she’s wearing hoops and hiking. I’m going to wear my hoops now.” I thought, why are women not wearing hoops when hiking if it’s part of our culture? From then on, I was more conscious about wearing hoops, and proud that I was outdoors, doing something I didn’t think was different, but that was really different to some people. After that I started this Instagram account called @hiking_in_hoopz, with a “z” because it gives it a little bit more oomph. So now every time I go out hiking, I wear my hoops, and I make sure that I share my experiences with people through the Instagram account. It’s been a roller coaster, and I’m excited about it, because minority women don’t get highlighted outdoors as much as they should. Hiking is a different way to empower women to go outside knowing that we have a place, and we can be individuals out there by bringing part of our culture with us. It’s what an individual brings when they go outdoors because we are part of nature; for me, instead of flowers — it’s hoops! Everyone should show off their culture while outdoors, if they want!

Sometimes people aren’t recognizable on hikes with the sunglasses, hats, and protective gear and clothing. Do the hoops help you be recognizable?

I wear a lot of pink for that same reason, but wearing hoops gives me extra individuality. Wearing hoops came as second nature to me, because I wear them all the time, so when Amanda mentioned it was different, it gave me the push to make it a statement. All women should be able to wear hoops on hikes and feel empowered!

So back to the main question: Why hoops?

I grew up seeing Selena with hoops. My aunts always wear hoops, so I didn’t ask myself why. I just wear hoops. I’m in love with hoops. They can combine with everything: wearing work clothes, wearing street clothes, wearing a ball gown! They spice up your look. Hoops are very liberating. Situations and people can try to take away my voice, but they can never take away my hoops. Hoops help me make a statement, but hoops are also very comforting because, even in a room full of people in Las Cruces, Silver City, or out-ofstate, or when I’m sitting at the table or out on a trail, the hoops remind me of my fierce Latina heritage.

This article originally appeared in the Silver City Independent.

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