Profile: Wild at Heart
Far from gangbangers' gunfire, beneath shooting stars, Juan Martinez thrives
By Vince Beiser
THE FIRST THING THAT STRUCK HIM was the stars. At home, smog and the light overflowing from the millions of buildings surrounding Juan Martinez's neighborhood in South Los Angeles made the night sky a blue-gray blur pricked here and there with faint points of light. At 15, he had never seen it any other way.
In his neighborhood, it wasn't a good idea to spend too much time outside after dark. But as he hauled his bags off the bus that had just delivered him into Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park, he was dazzled.
"I'd never seen anything like it," says Martinez, now a husky 23-year-old with glossy black hair and deep-set eyes. "To see the Milky Way and watch a shooting star for the first time--you can't describe it."
It was Martinez's first trip outside a city, and it launched him on a path away from the gangs and drugs that consumed many of his friends. It also helped turn him into an environmentalist. Since then, he's lobbied politicians, led campaigns against urban polluters, and introduced hundreds of low-income kids to the outdoors--while becoming the first in his family to finish high school, let alone start college.
Obsessed with Xboxes, text messages, and YouTube, many Americans seem to be losing interest in the outdoors. From 1996 to 2006, overnight camping stays in national parks dropped by almost 20 percent. And "minorities"--who now collectively make up a majority in California and several other states--get out into nature even less often than whites. Martinez is part of a growing effort to do something about that.
DANIEL AND ALICIA MARTINEZ CAME to Los Angeles from Mexico City when their son, Juan, was six. His two sisters were born soon after. The family lived amid the burgeoning Mexican immigrant community in an area once famous as the center of L.A.'s Depression-era black jazz scene. For the past dozen-odd years, the Martinez family has lived in a two-room apartment. Until Juan moved out last spring, he and his sisters slept on bunk beds in one room, and his parents slept in the combined living room, dining room, and kitchen.
Framed pictures of Juan at environmental conferences hang over his parents' bed, alongside others of their wedding and one daughter's high school graduation. A few feet away, a steel gate covers the front door, and another restricts access to their little apartment complex from the graffiti-splotched sidewalk. It's cramped, but it's still an improvement over one of their first U.S. residences: a toolshed behind a friend's house.
Growing up, Martinez and his sisters often helped their mother sell tamales, which were flavored with herbs grown in a garden she carved out of the debris-strewn patch of dirt outside their apartment. Strolling through the neighborhood in knee-length shorts, an oversize black T-shirt, and his trademark black L.A. Dodgers baseball cap, Martinez shows me the sidewalk spots where they once set up shop. The block hasn't changed much, he says.
It's still lined with low-slung industrial structures, gray paint peeling off their splintered wood facades. Inside, rows of workers sew pillowcases and children's clothing. His father worked for years in similar low-wage, long-hour jobs at garment factories. "I'd go visit him at the factory on weekends when I was a kid," says Martinez. "That was the only time I could see him because he worked so much." His parents never learned much English, but his father is now a certified electrician, and his mother cooks for catering companies.
Martinez became fluent in English on the fly in elementary school, even though he was often suspended. He'd "miscommunicate" with his teachers--or occasionally cuss them out when they made him mad--and got in plenty of playground fights. But drugs, which lured many others, didn't interest him. "I saw a junkie get stabbed once," he says. "Seeing that, seeing what drugs do to people, I decided to steer clear."
He kept away from gangs too. "I had my share of fights and running away from cops and stuff like that, but I never got jumped into a gang. There was one point when some kids gave me an ultimatum: join or don't. I said no and ran."
One of his best friends, however, didn't escape. When the two boys were about 13, Martinez was heading home after walking his friend to the boy's apartment. He heard a shot. "I ran back and just saw him lying there," says Martinez. He takes a deep breath, his broad shoulders settling. "It changed my perspective. It gave me the sense that I have to live life to the fullest today, because it could be over and done tomorrow."
At 15, Martinez was clearly bright but didn't put much effort into his studies at Dorsey High School. That's hardly unusual in a school where fewer than half of the students graduate. His science teacher, however, thought he had potential. So when Martinez failed a test, the teacher told him he could make up the grade by joining the school's Ecology Club. Nature didn't much interest Martinez. The closest green space to his house was a tiny, mostly cement park a few blocks away, where his family occasionally celebrated birthdays. Still, it sounded better than a failing grade.
GLENDA PEPIN, DIRECTOR OF DORSEY'S ECOLOGY CLUB, is a thickset white woman in her late 50s with bobbed blond hair and blunt fingers ending in unpolished fingernails. Before retiring this spring, she had been teaching at Dorsey for 23 years. She's wearing jeans and hiking sneakers when I meet her in her classroom, its walls adorned with national park posters and geologic maps.
Pepin grew up on a small family farm in Illinois. "I have a respect and a sense of awe about the land and wide-open spaces," she says. Her mission has been to impart some of that to her students, so she's taken as many of them as possible on hiking and camping trips. "So many of these kids have never even been to the beach, even though they live in Los Angeles," says Pepin. "To be able to take them where they can come face-to-face with themselves--for most, it's life altering, sometimes dramatically so. When they come back, they're different. It takes a while for the city to move back in and contaminate them."
The prize trip Pepin had to offer was a stint in the Wyoming mountains. Beginning in 1998, the Teton Science School provided money to take 16 kids each from Dorsey and nearby Crenshaw High School--academic rivals that are also home to various enemy gangs--to Grand Teton National Park for two weeks. "You'd think kids would jump at a chance like that," says Pepin. But in fact, it's a constant struggle to get students interested.
A National Park Service (NPS) survey released in 2003 found that only 27 percent of Latinos polled had visited a national park in the preceding two years. Among African Americans, the rate was 13 percent. Why do so relatively few people of color spend time in nature? For many young people, electronic diversions are part of the problem. But additional forces are at work.
Charles Thomas knows firsthand how powerful wilderness experiences can be for such kids--and why so many of them aren't interested. Half African American and half Japanese, Thomas ran with a Pasadena street gang in the 1960s until he was locked up in a California juvenile jail for two years. Before he was imprisoned, he was coaxed into joining a 14-day backpacking trip with Pasadena-based Outward Bound Adventures, an independent outfit that has specialized in getting low-income city kids into nature since the Watts riots of the '60s. "It didn't make me love the wilderness right away, but it did make me appreciate freedom," says Thomas. Today, with a graduate degree in environmental studies, he is executive director of Outward Bound Adventures.