José González is the founder of Latino Outdoors. Before taking part in a Zócalo/Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County panel discussion titled “Is Nature Only for White People?” at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, he spoke in the green room about working at an industrial laundromat, the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and running into his former students years later.
What’s one of the most memorable experiences you’ve ever had in nature?
I grew up in the Central Valley, in Turlock, so Yosemite is like two hours away, and everyone from all over the world is coming. I didn’t get to visit until I was in college. But I do remember, around sixth grade, going to see sequoias for the first time, at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, on a school trip. That stuck with me, because I’d never seen something so big and majestic. Nowadays I use the literary term “magical realism” to try to capture that sense. These things are real, and yet there’s a real magical quality to this environment.
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
I guess it’s not strange because it’s part of the lived experience of many immigrants, and especially Mexican immigrants, like working in the fields. But right after high school I worked at an industrial laundromat. So that means like all the bedsheets from hospitals and hotels and whatnot. So eight hours of working with a partner to feed a sheet into this giant machine, repetitively. So I lasted two weeks! Because right after that I was like, OK, I went in willingly, knowing what it was going to be. But I wanted that experience as a reminder.
Right after that I went into working for the police department in afterschool programs, which gave me an opportunity to work with kids to look at what supplementary services they could use if they were going to begin to change their lives.
These were at-risk kids?
They were a mix. But primarily they happened to be the Latino kids that needed to stay a few hours after school, because the parents couldn’t come and pick ’em up until a few hours after that. I did that for two years.
Do you still run into some of your kids?
I haven’t run into that group recently, but I did run into two of them. I was with them when they were in fourth grade, and I ran into them when they were in high school. And they remembered [me], and it took me a few seconds to remember like, ‘I know who you are.’ The second piece was when I was teaching middle school, and I ran into them when they were in college, and these were at-risk kids, and they told me, “Because of the work that you did, and you didn’t give up on me, I made it.”
What are you reading for pleasure?
One nonfiction book that I’m reading is by a professor at the University of Michigan, Other Ways of Knowing: Recharting Our Future with Ageless Wisdom. It’s a really great construction, but the basic idea is how do we complement Western science with a lot of indigenous practices and knowledge and ways of viewing the world? And then I’m reading a sort of short autobiography and film exploration of Hayao Miyazaki. A couple of his big movies are about that relationship between humans and nature, and connecting differences between the past and the future as kind of these allegories of like, ‘Hey, this is what can happen if we’re not careful about how we’re connecting to nature, or how we’re disconnected from nature.’ For example, in movies like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and of course My Neighbor Totoro.
What do you do to unwind?
A mix of things. The creative piece is something I’ve been trying to nurture a lot. I like to draw, I’m an illustrator, I like to write. The second is to get outdoors, out in nature. So I’ve been blessed to be able to combine it this year with work. I was just out in Montana, I was out in Vermont, I’m going to be out in Yosemite, I’m going to be out in Jackson, Wyoming, next week. And then just take some of that time and sit with it. And then when I don’t want to do anything, so to speak, I’m a sucker for a good story. So I’ll pick up a book or go online for Netflix or find a good movie and tune to that while I fall asleep.