Esperanza Mendez

When she was a kid growing up in California's eastern Coachella Valley, Clara Nieblas avoided the outdoors. With desert temperatures soaring as high as 120 degrees and shaded areas hard to come by, it was just too hot to go outside, let alone do anything resembling exercise.

Or so she thought.

Three years a go, Nieblas, then a high school junior, was interested in Coachella’s art scene—so she got involved at Raices Cultura, a local cultural center, and immediately clicked with some of the other young women there. All Chicanas from the east side of the valley, the group bonded so much that they soon formed their own, informal club.

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They had a lot of ideas for the group—art, poetry, mental health, and wellness workshops were a few—but when the subject of nature came up, it stuck.

“One day [we] were talking about how so many of us had never been hiking before, even though we are surrounded by bomb hiking places,” said Nieblas, now a 20-year-old student at Humboldt State University. “So we decided to go on an adventure together.”

Now, for those of us (including this reporter) who grew up in the Coachella Valley, it’s pretty well known that poor and working-class Latinos from the East Valley don’t use the regional parks and hiking trails much. This is true despite the fact that we make up 74% of the entire valley’s population, the most concentrated in the rural, eastern part of the valley that stretches from Indio to the Salton Sea, and includes the city of Coachella.

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The racial imbalance we see in our own parklands mirrors a national trend: Latinos accounted for just 9 percent of all visitors to national parks in 2015, compared to 78 percent of visitors who were white, according to a recent NPR report. By comparison, Latinos make up roughly 18 percent of the U.S. population, and whites 77 percent.

"I always hear the phrase, 'Oh, that's white people shit,' when it comes to outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking, zip lining, and other cool, fun, scary stuff like that," said Nieblas. "It's easy to generalize what types of people do certain activities, [but] white people aren't the only ones that chill outside. We are changing that [perception]."

Clara Nieblas, a student at Humboldt State University, has been with Nepantleras for the last 3 years.
Esperanza Mendez

The friends decided to form an official group at the cultural center, calling themselves the “Nepantleras”—a name derived from the Nahuatl word nepantla, which translates loosely to “space in-between.” For the young women, the word doubles as an expression of their Chicana identities, occupying a space in-between the dominant western culture and their indigenous roots.

Member Jocelyn Vargas said she grew up feeling insecure and lacked a sense of belonging in certain parts of the valley (the west side, encompassing Palm Springs, is much more affluent and white) because of her brown skin, language, and biculturalism.

“I, like so many of the [Nepantleras members], continue to encounter people and spaces that tell us we are not meant to be here,” Vargas said.

Learning from group members about the connection between the land and her own indigenous roots, however, has been meaningful for Vargas, who now mentors younger members.

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“Knowing that I am physically connected and rooted to this land empowers me to challenge these ideas of exclusion,” said Vargas, “to get out and explore our land and surroundings.”

The beautiful desert landscapes of nearby Joshua Tree National Park and the Coachella Valley Preserve offer ample opportunity for adventure, but for their first hike the friends chose Thousand Palms’ Oasis Preserve, a popular spot for nature-goers from the west side.

On the day of the first hike, the girls set off down the trail and soon found themselves surrounded—and quickly enchanted—by lush fan palms and native wildflowers. It was a magical, transformative moment, said Nieblas, and the group has been meeting there for hikes ever since.

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Three years after their first excursion, Nepantleras has become much more than a hiking club for the core group of local women who participate.

“The Nepantleras are more than my friends, they are my sisters. Getting together feels like therapy,” said 22-year old  member Erika Castellanos, a youth worker and the primary breadwinner for her 3-year-old and siblings. Castellanos credits the group for having helped her deal with bouts of mild depression, and stress.

At least 10 women, young and old, regularly attend the monthly hikes and workshops, where well-respected women from the community are invited to share and speak with the group.

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“We invite other women to have some dialogue about how nature isn’t accessible to everyone, especially low-income people of color, which most of us are,” said Nieblas. “My friends and I continue to struggle with reliable transportation to go to these hiking places. Plus, our parents work too much to even want to take us to do outdoor activities.”

For now, they plan to continue to grow the group and provide spaces for women to reflect and challenge their identity through exploring the outdoors.

“When [we] go hiking it’s an opportunity to get lost for a little while, to forget our problems and the drama in our families,” she explained. “We come out of those mountains with a better sense of ourselves.”

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For more information about Nepantleras or Raices Cultura, visit www.raicesdelvalle.org.

This content was made possible by a grant from The California Endowment and produced independently by Fusion’s Rise Up: Be Heard Journalism Fellowship.

Esperanza Mendez is a blogger and community advocate in Coachella, CA.