Outdoor Adventures with Grandpa-Shaped Ecologist Gabe Vasquez

Every time the train passed his grandparents’ home in Ciudad Juárez, Gabe Vasquez worried that a coffee mug or picture frame would fall and smash on the floor. The house was adjacent to a series of tracks south of downtown – a world away from the verdant farmland his grandfather left behind in central Mexico.

Vasquez, 37, a conservationist and candidate for New Mexico’s southernmost congressional seat, has spent most of his adulthood pursuing the outdoor life his grandfather partly gave up. in search of economic prosperity. Along the way, Vasquez has paved the way for minority youth in the United States to develop lasting connections to the natural world.

“I had a lot of life-changing experiences that really started outdoors,” Vasquez said. “Using the outdoors for therapy, for mental health and for physical health, gave me some of the tools I needed to be a leader in my community.”

Nature disappeared under asphalt or concrete more than half a century ago when Juárez transformed itself into an industrial giant whose factories produce the components necessary for daily life: automobiles, washing machines, computers laptops.

Vasquez grew up in the neighborhood of Chaveña, a stone’s throw from an international crossing that acts as an artery pumping a flow of consumer goods to the American market.

Juárez is where Javier Bañuelos, Vasquez’s grandfather, hoped to find financial security. He and his wife had 10 mouths to feed. They came from a farming community whose Spanish name, El Remolino, means whirlpool. The city is in Zacatecas state, which has hemorrhaged the largest number of northbound immigrants after the North American Free Trade Agreement wreaked economic devastation on small Mexican farmers .

A farmer reinvents himself in the city

Bañuelos began as a postman in Juárez. One day, after completing his journey, he noticed undeliverable mail in his bag: a television repair manual. Flipping through the manual gave Bañuelos an idea.

“He went around the neighborhood buying all the broken televisions, which was very common at the time,” Vasquez said. “The button would come off or the screen would flicker. He learned how to fix TVs and built a shop attached to my grandmother’s house.”

It was in this shop that Vasquez spent much of his childhood, accidentally stepping on nails and dismantling large magnets inside televisions. Between repairs, his grandfather yearned for the outdoors. Bañuelos’ nickname was “El Oso” – the bear – for his stature of over 6 feet and his hunting prowess. He honed his skills in El Remolino and maintained them in the Sierra Madre de Chihuahua hunting deer, pronghorn and cougar.

Javier Bañuelos, the grandfather of New Mexico congressional candidate Gabe Vasquez, poses with a deer and a gun in a family photo.

Later, he took his grandchildren across the border to New Mexico.

“We fished under the bridge at Hatch and caught catfish,” Vasquez said. “We played with the box turtles and saw this blanket of stars come over us at night – stars I had never seen before when I was a kid.”

Pursue a career for love, not money

Vasquez was the first member of his family to be born in the United States. When the time came, he enrolled at New Mexico State University. Between classes, he found himself wandering the Organ Mountains, exploring the Lincoln National Forest, and returning to the Rio Grande, where he and his grandfather fished.

He chose computer science as his major, then realized he was spending too much time in the tutoring room struggling with advanced math.

“Latinos, a lot of us, we’re here to get better jobs than our parents had,” he said. “We go to school to become accountants, doctors and engineers. The dream is to… live in the suburbs and work in air-conditioned buildings and away from the fields, as this is traditionally the way we earn a living.

Gabe Vasquez, candidate for New Mexico's southernmost congressional seat, spends his Tuesday morning fishing with his friends at Caballo Lake State Park in New Mexico on July 5, 2022.

Breaking with that mindset required what Vasquez describes as an “epiphany.” He realized he wanted to pursue a career for love, not money. The ability to make that choice, he acknowledged, was also a privilege passed on to him through the sacrifices made by his parents and grandparents.

Vasquez graduated from NMSU in 2008 with degrees in English and journalism because he loved writing and telling stories. But his real passion was ecological conservation.

“Not many of our families or our support systems say, ‘Hey, go be a wildlife biologist or go be a game and fish warden or a soil scientist,'” he said. “I might have chosen differently had I known I could have gone into those areas.”

Bringing Minority Youth Outside

Vasquez’s experience illustrates some of the reasons why Latinos and other minority groups are underrepresented in outdoor activities, both professionally and recreationally. People of color are underrepresented on national park tours and on the staff of federal natural resource agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 2017, Vasquez co-founded Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project in Las Cruces. The non-profit organization strives to make the outdoors more accessible to “Latinx/Latin/Hispanic” communities. Nuestra Tierra participated in the launch of the Outdoor Equity Fund, a state-run program that awards approximately $532,000 in public and private grants to local organizations that bring nature to underrepresented youth. Nuestra Tierra also helped translate New Mexico’s hunting and fishing license regulations into Spanish and is a leading advocate for turning Castner Range in El Paso into a national monument.

Gabe Vasquez, a candidate for New Mexico's southernmost congressional seat, looks at the train tracks he was playing on through a window in a room in his grandparents' house in Juárez on Saturday, July 9, 2022.

U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (DN.M.) plans to introduce a bill this year called the FUTURE exterior fund, which would give outdoor organizations grants to work with minority youth nationwide.

“It’s so important for our young people to have outdoor experiences and an education that really means something to them. To understand how our ecosystems work, you have to love being outdoors,” Vasquez said. “The next leaders in climate change decision-making should be as diverse as the people of our country.”

The same year he helped start Nuestra Tierra, Vasquez was also sworn in as a representative on the Las Cruces City Council. He is now the Democratic nominee challenging U.S. Representative Yvette Herrell for New Mexico’s District 2 congressional seat.

Vasquez wears a turquoise bracelet given to him by a supporter during a campaign visit to Albuquerque. Like Vasquez, the fan grew up in Chihuahua and said he gave Deb Haaland a similar bracelet when she ran for convention. Haaland is now U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the first Native American woman to hold a cabinet post.

“It’s my lucky charm bracelet,” Vasquez said.

Gabe Vasquez, candidate for New Mexico's southernmost congressional seat, prepares to fish with his friends at Caballo Lake State Park in New Mexico on Tuesday, July 5, 2022.

Mónica Ortiz Uribe can be contacted at monica.ortiz@elpasotimes.com

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