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What The Gila River Means To A Latino Calling For Federal Protection


This summer, we've been exploring some Latino heritage sites around the nation that are seeking federal protection. Today we're heading to New Mexico for a dip into the Gila River, a place that Ray Trejo of the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project calls his own personal Disneyland.

RAY TREJO: I caught my first Gila trout when I was 8 years old, I think. Most families at the time were headed to California to visit Disneyland. My parents were blue-collar folks. So when we had the opportunity to go anywhere, it was to go camping. And the Gila River was the spot.

MARTIN: That's where he says he learned to fish and hunt and to think about conservation.

TREJO: I was taught by one of my uncles how to look for bait under the rocks. They were called hellgramites. I remember my uncle telling me, OK, so if you pull over one of those rocks to look for a hellgramite, might make sure you place that rock exactly where it was, because there's other bugs that are hatching and so forth. So that was really one of the biggest introductions to conservation. It wasn't just like flip rocks and leave them.

MARTIN: What Trejo didn't know at the time was that this bug paradise was also the first protected wilderness in the country. Aldo Leopold, a forester and author of "Sand County Almanac," is often credited with saving this land. But Trejo's colleague Angel Penya wants us to know that Leopold was not acting alone.

ANGEL PENA: Born and raised here on the frontera, I can tell you anything worth doing has been rooted in community. Strong to say that it was not only Aldo Leopold, but absolutely the Comanche, the Chiricahua, the Mescalero Apache, the Hispano traditions and communities that really elevate and amplified their voice to push forward in the right direction. And that's where the Gila Wilderness was born.

MARTIN: And now those communities are stepping up again to close a huge loophole, because while the Gila Wilderness is protected, the river that nurtures that ecosystem is not, meaning unless the federal government officially labels it a wild and scenic river, it could still be diverted or dammed. Pena worries that altering the river would also change the flow of time for local residents.

PENA: The communities that call that place home are overwhelmingly Hispano, Latino, Indio-Hispano, Indigenous communities and largely disproportionately lack access to not only decent and appropriate health care, but recreational opportunities or the ability to continue to fish the river as their grandparents and grandparents did before them. And that interaction, that time travel, almost when you're stepping through the river and just knowing that someone else hundreds years ago was probably stepping through the same part of the river to do what? To go hunt, to go provide for their family, ensuring that we have that ability to carry that tradition on. And that's what a Gila wild and scenic river means.

MARTIN: Norma Hartell agrees. She is the co-author of a recent Latino Heritage Scholars study calling for federal protection for the Gila River.

NORMA HARTELL: We learn about our values and our collective history through these places, so that in itself is important. And it's, you know, a place - a natural place where the community gathers, where a lot of people who don't have the resources that a lot of people do go to hike or fish.

MARTIN: Despite not being protected, the Gila is still flowing free, though. You can still jump in and let the river transport you.

PENA: I can tell you that my daughter, she's 13. And she's first to jump in the river. I am still a little warm-blooded, so it takes me time. And I always just envision my daughter on the other side of the river telling me, let's go. The turkeys are going to get away, or if it's the deer or if it's the - you know. So I think that's what the river is all about for me is family and good memories.

MARTIN: That was Angel Pena with the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project. He's one of many calling for the federal government to officially protect the Gila River in New Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.