Columbia Riverkeeper's Ubaldo Hernandez builds leadership in the Gorge with Hood River's Latino community
By Dez Ramirez
Ubaldo Hernandez is one of those people that invokes a sense of hope in you when you’re done talking with him. You feel hope that we as a society can persevere through hard times, that we as people can make a difference in the world, and that people do care about environmental conservation.
Optimistic? Maybe. But being a social activist since the age of 16, Ubaldo might just be confident in change because he’s been working toward it for so long. He’s currently the community organizer at Columbia Riverkeeper, plus he produces Conoces Tu Columbia (Know Your Columbia), a weekly Spanish-language podcast that discusses local environmental and social justice issues. The show broadcasts on Radio Tierra, a station that reaches areas along the Columbia Gorge and near Mount Hood, including Stevenson, Carson, Parkdale, Hood River, and The Dalles.
I met up with Ubaldo at Columbia Riverkeeper’s new digs on Hood River’s waterfront, and we chatted about mountain biking, environmental leadership, his work as a community organizer, and the Columbia Gorge’s resilient Latino community.
What brought you to Columbia Riverkeeper?
I came to Columbia Riverkeeper in March 2017. They were looking for somebody to develop outreach with Hood River’s Latino community. I’ve been in the Gorge for 24 years and been a social activist all my life, focused on social justice. Environmental issues go hand in hand with this. When I talk to people, I tell them environmental injustice is also a social injustice.
How did you end up in this part of Oregon?
I came to this area in 1994. One of my brothers was living here, so I came straight to White Salmon, Washington, fell in love with the outdoors and decided to stay.
What was your first outdoor experience like?
My first outdoor experience was in the Gorge, mountain biking. A few years after I moved here, I made a friend who was a mountain biker, and was also from Mexico. He invited me to go out with him, so I bought my first mountain bike from Walmart. It was super heavy—I didn’t know much about it—but I wasn’t sure if I was going to like mountain biking and didn’t want to spend $800 on a bike right away. We went to syncline on the Washington side. It was hard, my first time, but I really liked it and started mountain biking more. I liked the feeling of being out, enjoying the views, exercising, and being rewarded with the descent.
What are some ways you’re approaching your work as a community organizer?
I meet people, have a coffee with them, talk about our community and about ourselves. I build a relationship with them. Every single Latino I have met in this area is aware of climate change; they are aware of the necessity of protecting natural resources. I approach this work by, first, showing respect to the community. In order to build trust with our [Latino] community, we need to respect it. A lot of Latinos who grew up here want to be accepted and seen as members of the community. Part of the outreach means seeing that and valuing that. When we try to talk to Latinos about environmental issues, we need to realize there is a lot more going on in their lives. Racial profiling, immigration, health care, education—all of these problems are a priority. Environmental issues are not when we have those other things to deal with every day. If environmental groups at least acknowledge and accept these issues and show support, then that’s enough for the [Latino] community to say, “Okay, you care about us…we’ll listen.”
What’s a goal you have with your work?
Develop a Latino environmental leadership program, which we’ve already started. Figure out what the [Latino] community wants and needs, and develop an awareness on protecting natural resources. Get a variety of Latino voices [at] the table, and see how we can find a common ground and an action plan.
Tell me about your podcast, Conoce Tu Columbia.
Conoce Tu Columbia is a podcast where we talk about environmental issues, social justice, and culture. We provide information to the [Latino] community so they can make informed decisions. I recently had Rodrigo Juarez, an immigration lawyer, on the show, who talked about the family separations happening in the U.S. We also had the founder of youth-based environmental action group Earth Guardians, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, on the show. A goal is to explore video work once we have more resources and equipment. I would like to have a show where members of the Latino community are sitting, talking about environmental issues, and being filmed.
What keeps you inspired?
Successes, like seeing Latinos involved and participating in environmental work. Seeing more Latinos in environmental jobs. What keeps me inspired is knowing people care. I know people will step forward. We just need to provide people with information so they can take action.