Guest blog: Bringing the mountains home

Connecting her Latino community with the nearby San Gabriel Mountains is a personal mission for Bonnie Rodriguez. (San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, California)

Mason Cummings/TWS

Everyone deserves access to the outdoors, especially Latino communities that live so close the mountains.

Bonnie Rodriguez (right) is a Los Angeles native, a graduate of UC Santa Barbara, with a teaching credential from CSU Los Angeles. She is currently an Education Technician at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. She also worked as a park guide at Channel Islands National Park, a park ranger at Yellowstone National Park and volunteered at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Last year, Bonnie’s love of the outdoors drew her to the San Gabriel Mountains Forever Leadership Academya program that works to permanently protect and enhance local mountains, rivers, and parks with access for all. Academy graduates agree to complete a project benefiting both the forest and their local community.

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” 

Nearly 150 years after the naturalist John Muir uttered those words, they still resonate deeply with me. In fact, back in December of 2015, I applied to the San Gabriel Mountains Forever Leadership Academy. I had been searching for a way to stand up for my community of El Sereno, a densely populated, heavily Latino neighborhood of Los Angeles that is wedged between the Interstate 10, 110 and 5 freeways.

The Leadership Academy offers workshops in community advocacy and project management, while fostering a connection between local communities and the beauty of nature in nearby public lands. I already knew it was possible to look beyond the concrete, and get to those beautiful mountains just a few miles away. But so many in my neighborhood had never set foot on a forest trail or heard that magical sound of a free-flowing stream. The leadership academy offered me a chance to learn more about the mountains that were the backdrop of my childhood, always there, but somehow far from reach.

Rodriguez organized volunteers and community members to attend the El Sereno impact project

Inspired by personal tragedy 

Now as an adult, I wanted to take a more active role improving my community and protecting the environment. My greatest inspiration came from my sister, Candace. She was diagnosed with leukemia six years ago. Even in a neighborhood surrounded by freeways, just minutes from downtown, Candace loved being outdoors, riding her scooter and skate boarding. During treatment, she lost that freedom and was forced indoors, confined to her hospital room. When she passed away, just one week shy of her 16th birthday, my world shattered. But out of that terrible pain, I found purpose. I began to realize the importance of the outdoors to our physical and mental well-being, that I had been taking nature for granted. The mountains were indeed calling. 

In memory of my sister, I wanted to connect with my local mountains and help others do the same. 

Nine additional academy members heard the call of the mountains as well. Each one contributed to the academy, sharing their thoughts and skills. Together, we learned about community organizing and how to become better public speakers. We hiked together, learning about the flora and fauna of Eaton and Azusa Canyons. Academy alumni spoke to us about their community projects and offered advice. As we bravely presented our project proposals to academy leaders and guests, everyone cheered us on. A new generation of environmental stewards was starting to emerge.

Front row, right- Duyen Tran, coordinator, San Gabriel Mountains Forever Leadership Academy with Bonnie Rodrieguez and El Sereno Impact volunteers.

Becoming an agent of change for the Latino community

Prepared to reach out to our communities, we realized we had the power to become agents of change. For me, that meant taking on the challenge of connecting my urban, park-poor community of El Sereno to the San Gabriel Mountains. Inspired by my sister’s spirit and many others who are working to make El Sereno a better place to live, I had a vision of neighbors spending time together in the mountains. 

We all have the potential to become environmental stewards and make an impact in caring for our public lands.

And so we gathered. My project, El Sereno Impact, brought volunteers to Chantry Flat in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument for a restoration project. Together, we removed litter and invasive plants. For some of my volunteers, it was their first time visiting the mountains. Everyone deserves access to green space, to clean air and water and opportunities to enjoy the outdoors with their loved ones… to find solitude from hectic urban lives. Given the opportunity, others will hear the call of the mountains and maybe some will join the effort to protect precious natural resources and conserve the beauty that belongs to all of us in LA’s backyard national monument.