Q&A with Latino Outdoors’ Alicia Cruz
Alicia Cruz believes that the act of walking can be a grounding tool to help people feel more present and mindful. But not just walking anywhere – walking outdoors. By listening to the sounds of nature, Alicia says people can feel more connected to their spirit, mind, and body.
We recently sat down with Alicia to hear about the Wellness Walks she leads, how she finds her park, and how she feels about sharing park experiences with her community.
How do you find your park?
To me, “Finding Your Park” is a matter of the heart. Finding your park is finding one’s self and connecting with that part that is often ignored.
My first experience in a national park was at Crater Lake in 2013. It changed my life!
Standing at the edge of a giant suspended rock overlooking the immense blue lake, my life in the outdoors was never the same.
I felt a sort of magical energy take over me, embracing and welcoming me. I stood there feeling the wind on my face and body, offering a sense of freedom and power.
My friend, who watched from a distance, was shocked to see me step from one rock to another, saying “be careful, be careful!” Nothing mattered to me at that moment. Imagination overtook me, and the idea of flying to the other side of the lake was suddenly possible in my mind. I was fearless and my heart was free.
What’s a unique way that you express yourself in a park/connect with parks?
I’ve always found myself wondering about the mysteries of life and how we are all connected.
As a child, I used to be very aware of everything around me. Growing up in a big city, there were no spaces to escape the fast life, pollution, and violence. I used my imagination and often daydreamed about being elsewhere, like El Bosque de Chapultepec in Mexico City or Monte Alban in Oaxaca. It seemed that life around me was full of distractions and disconnections from my family. My parents looked for ways to provide a better future for my siblings and I by migrating to different parts of Mexico. When we found ourselves in La Paz Baja California, it was a new place to be and yet very familiar at the same time. Seeing the ocean and sand beach for the first time was the introduction to a space of joy, connection, and healing.
As an adult now, that space has guided me to be of service to others, and to meet people with the same intention to heal and reconnect with the heart. I believe most people want a space of safety, a space where they matter and belong. And after years of self-discovery and connection with my heart, I clearly saw that my purpose is to help others connect with their heart and be of service to my community.
What better way to do that than in nature?
Ever since I visited Crater Lake, Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, Zion, Yosemite, Muir Woods, Lake Mead and Golden Gate National Recreation Area, my calling became clear. I want others to experience the same sense of connection and presence in the outdoors. The greatness of these parklands is here for all of us and I want to be a bridge to guide others into their magic. To share grounding techniques that I myself use to be in the present moment, and quiet the mind to experience peace and stillness.
That is the unique way I express myself and connect in a park.
What is your favorite part about working with Latino Outdoors?
My favorite part about working with Latino Outdoors is the opportunity to grow and learn about the outdoors. Before my road trip to Oregon and Utah, I was not an outdoorsy female. I had no interest in camping and had no idea what hiking was or that it was something people did. My amazing sister, mother of three, always invited me to go camping – I simply did not understand why someone would travel miles to go sleep on the ground inside a piece of fabric tent without protection.
“What if something heavy falls on it? It won’t protect me!”
“What if someone or something creeps inside? I don’t feel safe in that thing! I am so much better off in my warm, cozy bed, thank you very much!”
So in order for her to make me go, she prepared everything as long as I just showed up and spent time with them. With only my toiletry bag, extra clothes, and a big blanket, my camping trips were not regular.
When I found Latino Outdoors, I only had Boy Scout training, a short road trip experience, and lots of enthusiasm to share the outdoors with others. After my first visit to the magical forest at Muir Woods National Monument and being inspired by another Latino Outdoors leader, I took the step to be one of them.
I contacted José González, Founder of Latino Outdoors and he listened to me as I explained my desire to do what the other volunteers did at Muir Woods.
He asked “What does that look like to you?”
My first reaction was, “Wait, what? I thought you would tell me that!”
And I thought, that’s a good question! It only took me a few seconds to lose the fear and tell him my idea of creating a program where people could expand their awareness, connect with nature, and be mindful of their spirit, mind, and body – a space where they could pay attention to their whole well-being. I decided to call it Wellness Walks.
After one year of organizing monthly hikes, with the support of José and the other amazing leaders, I have learned so much in an area that was completely new to me. I feel that Latino Outdoors welcomed my unique skills and provided a safe space to contribute my ideas and service to others.
How does it feel to have started the Wellness Walks program?
Starting the idea of Wellness Walks gives me a wonderful feeling of contribution, gratitude, fulfillment, and joy. To experience what it is like to let go of fear and insecurities and instead choose to focus on my intention of service is priceless!
When I see a group of people together along the trails, possibly for the first time, with their children, smiling and enjoying a day outside of their routine, that gives me peace.
Sharing a grounding tool to help them experience being present in nature, expanding their awareness using their senses and quieting the mind by listening to the sounds of nature, really makes my heart sing.
I love seeing the same families joining us every month, coming from different parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, or meeting new ones with a sense of openness and enthusiasm for participating on their first hike.
I smile watching the children play on the beach at the end of a hike as the parents relax and ask me about how they can return with their family.
I am grateful for the support, collaboration, and funding from the CA State Parks Foundation to provide free transportation and food to the families that may have limited resources to do this on their own. All of this has been a confirmation that what may have seemed like a small idea really wasn’t, it was bigger than I believed.
I can really feel that my story, contribution, and spirit also matters to nature.
If you had two sentences to entice somebody who’s never been to a national park to visit, what would you say?
I would first ask them, “What do you do to release the stress of the days and its external demands? When was the last time you experienced a sense of peace, connection, and clarity?”
I would then share the magnificent experience I’ve had in a national park and that it is an experience like no other – and it’s there for you, just like it was for me. Go Find Your Park and connect with nature with your heart and spirit.
Alicia Cruz is Latino Outdoors’ Regional Coordinator for San Francisco and Marin Counties. In that role, she coordinates Wellness Walks, and connects communities with various outings in the Bay Area, like hiking, camping and kayaking. Alicia also recruits local volunteers for those community events, making sure that these experiences are easily accessible to low-income and Spanish-speaking families.
Alicia was born in Mexico City and migrated to California with her parents and two siblings 27 years ago. The first introduction to the outdoors was near the ocean when she and her family moved to La Paz Baja when she was five years old. Her connection to the outdoors grew and became a life changing experience when she took her first road trip from Yosemite to Crater Lake and to all of the Canyons in the state of Utah. This is where she was reminded of her intention to be of service, leading to the great responsibility to care for our lands and to bring awareness for others to do the same.
Alicia currently works at the Department of Health & Human Services in San Rafael and for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy as Outreach Coordinator for CA State Parks summer programs.
Photo credits: Alicia Cruz