Juan is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. He works to provide opportunities for students, especially students from urban and at-risk communities, to experience nature and the natural environment.
Juan’s parents grew up on farms in rural Mexico, migrated to Mexico City, then immigrated to Los Angeles, California, in search of a better life for themselves and their family. Although they lived in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the United States, Juan’s family always had a strong connection to nature and the outdoors.
Juan remembers enjoying carne asada in Elysian Park, the second-largest park in Los Angeles. (Only nearby Griffith Park is larger.) Elysian Park affords views not only of Dodger Stadium—Juan is a passionate baseball fan—but acres of wooded hills and Griffith Observatory.
Juan also remembers his mother breaking the concrete sidewalk outside their tiny home so she could grow jalapeño peppers. This commitment to the Earth made a strong impression on Juan growing up.
Still, it took a little nudge for Juan to realize his own connection to the Earth. After almost failing a high school science class, he was given a choice: join the school’s Eco Club or fail the class. “The choice was not as easy as it seems!” Juan says.
Juan ultimately joined the club, planted his own jalapeños, and soon was offered the opportunity for an outdoor education experience in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. “For a kid who always considered anything outside the city to be some made-up fantasy, like TV or Hollywood,” it was a life-changing experience, he says.
“For the first time in my life, I saw more stars than I could count. I saw free-flowing rivers. For the first time in my life, I had a good night’s rest—there were no sirens, no cars.”
Juan was determined to allow other city kids the chance to experience the natural environment, either in local parks or through outdoor education programs. He pursued his interest through high school and college. In 2011, Juan became the first person in his family to graduate from college when he earned a degree in history from California State University at Los Angeles.
Today, he helps youth get outdoors as the Director of Leadership and Development for the Children & Nature Network.
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
“Doing something I never thought I could do, supporting young people, developing their leadership skills, changing society. . .”
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
Taking more responsibility for administering educational programs means Juan spends more time indoors. “I regret being out of the field. . . . I’ve put on 20 pounds!” he laughs.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
“A sense of place, and it all starts with finding it on a map.”
Before he takes students into the field, Juan does a simple exercise with them in the classroom. “Find out where they’re going, and how to get there. There are students who have lived in Los Angeles their whole lives, and who have never been to the beach. It’s a 40-minute bus ride, but they didn’t know they had the opportunity. Knowing how to read a map, a bus route, can change a life. Geography is learning where you are, where you’re going, and how to get there.”
Juan understands the importance of experiencing the natural environment, and learning from it. He recalls taking a group of urban students with developmental disabilities to a park in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range.
“Here were these kids, a lot of whom were medicated 24 hours a day. Most of them had never been outside the city. This one girl, she never smiled or even talked, all the way there. Her teachers said she was really withdrawn. When she was outside, near the mountains and the trees, she laughed. Just seeing her laugh . . . that’s what’s important.”
Juan also understands the importance of exposing urban and at-risk kids to the outdoors, not just for their sake, but for the sake of the environment. “If you preach to the choir [of environmentalists], you only get so far.” If you appeal to a different audience, Juan says, “you can get real, drastic change.”
“We’re in this fight together,” he says. “Somebody who understands Alaska is much more likely to care about caribou, oil pollution, whales, that sort of thing.”
Ultimately, Juan says, getting outdoors levels the playing field between urban and rural, rich and poor, older and younger.
“A tree doesn’t care where you’re coming from,” he says. “And neither do mosquitoes!”
SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . ENVIRONMENTALIST
“Get outside! There are parks in almost every city.”
Juan encourages families and students to explore the world beyond their backyard through outdoor education programs.