As the face of America continues to evolve with greater diversity, many camp directors search for ways to reach communities that might not yet be familiar with the camp experience. While every child stands to benefit from a quality camp experience, the best recruitment approach might vary from community to community and family to family. ACA recently spoke with Lorena Garza Gonzalez, PhD, to get a better understanding of how to develop messaging for the ever-growing Latino community. In her position as Director of National Hispanic Initiatives at Urban Strategies, Gonzalez leads efforts to promote national initiatives that strengthen Hispanic communities. Born in California to immigrant workers, Gonzalez was raised and attended school in Texas. She is celebrating almost twenty-five years working in advocacy, program development, evaluation, and supporting communities in growing and sustaining themselves. Readers who attended the 2013 ACA National Conference in Dallas will remember her as an insightful keynote speaker.

Why is cultural diversity so important in general — in communities, the workplace, schools, and government?

I like to go beyond the term “diversity” because it can often mean just fulfilling a number or quota, such as ensuring that some entity has enough women, enough people of color, age, and so on. To me, that seems as though you’re checking off something. On the other hand, the term “inclusion” tends to seem more based on recognizing values and a company’s intent and commitment to those values. What we’ve learned is that an organization becomes stronger when they have diversity of thought. And diversity of thought is brought by people who bring different experiences.

I appreciate ACA’s intention to grow and build diverse inclusion in camps. This is important because the cultural landscape of America continues to evolve, and the reality is, specifically within the Latino community, it’s a large, ever-growing community. If you pretend it’s not there, it’s not going to go away. Also, there’s great value in bringing children to grow up with the values of so many others.

It seems that we’ve made such progress historically, and this new generation is bringing us to the next level. Young people, for the most part, come to this world free of bias and stereotype, and we can continue to build that in them. I see it in my own children, who are so open-minded and inclusive in their own relationships and in their own friendships, and because of that, I think they are greater human beings.

I work with a large, international, corporate firm that is very intentional and proactive of recruiting young Latinas because many of them embody the company’s values of creativity, resourcefulness, loyalty, and commitment to hard work. But as the young women grow in their executive program and move forward, they tend to give up some of those practices because they want to assimilate to the corporate and mainstream culture. They lose some of their original practices, which were precisely why they were hired.

I think in the past, diversity was often thought of as, “We’re going to have to give something up.” But it’s the contrary. It’s adding to what’s already great about American culture. My parents came to this country with no more than a third- and sixth-grade education. And yet one generation later, they have children who are all college graduates and have grandchildren who are all college graduates with advanced degrees. We learned values from our family such as hard work, determination, and responsibility. Often, people say to me, “It seems like your family achieved the American dream.” And with all due respect, I say, “Somewhat. I believe we reached the Mexican-American dream.” Because it was with Mexican values added to American values that I think our family was successful.

Understanding Important Terminology

Is it more appropriate to use “Hispanic” or “Latino”?

Historically speaking, the term Hispanic was developed by the U.S. Census Bureau when they realized the emergence of our growing population. They didn’t know how to categorize us, so they used the term Hispanic. It was a very European term that related to being Spanish speaking. For many of us, however, it’s not an appropriate term; no one asked us what we’d like to be called — the government and the Census just created it without involving us. With that being said, Hispanic is probably the most marketable term that many advertisers have used over time.

Latino is more of a self-defined term. In academic and other circles, it’s looked at as a term that at least we’ve created to identify ourselves. But we’re not a stagnant group of people. Within the terms of Hispanic or Latino, there are Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Central and South Americans, and so forth; we’re very diverse in things like origin, value systems, and language.

What I would recommend is getting to know the group in your community. For example, in California, you’re more likely to have communities that are Mexican. It might be more appropriate to refer to them as families from Mexico or Mexican-American, or at least let the community know you are aware that they are of Mexican descent. In New York, you’re more likely to have Puerto Rican and Central and South Americans, and you have to be very mindful to recognize some unique elements of that culture.

Rather than calling everybody Hispanic, which might offend some, or Latino, which is a little more appropriate but still doesn’t define each group, it would help that you understand the nuances of your community. If I’m in a Mexican community, I might want to bring and serve food that is most appropriate for that community. I do a lot of work in Puerto Rico. When I’m there, I change my accent a little bit; I have more of a twang to my voice. I use references that are more appropriate in the Caribbean community. I eat Puerto Rican food and bring that to the table.

These steps show the community that you appreciate them enough to know who they are and what their value systems are. Imagine if you were visiting with people in Texas. You might want to consider celebrating the Texas background and what that entails. When I was working in Mississippi, you bet I knew what the South was about: their food; their way of worship; and their challenges, struggles, and triumphs. When I was working in Portland, I understood the inclusion in their region and their challenges. Show communities that you care enough to know about their history and culture.

Would you say that camp experiences — where a lot of the focus is on emotional-skill and relationship building — are huge value shares, where kids can learn from other campers and staff who might have different backgrounds?

That’s a very important point. Not only is it sharing, but when children are this young in their formative years, it can actually become part of their life and their vernacular. Differences are not oddities; they’re just the way it is. That really helps us as Americans set the stage for this next generation of global and international leaders. I think that camp experiences are an opportunity to learn and respect that which is unique.

I had one camp leader describe an experience that helped him understand the values of Latino campers. Recently, he’d recruited five little Latino children to come for a week in camp, which he had been working toward for a while. When one of them got sick, he was surprised to see all of them leave together. But after I had a discussion with the director about the Latino community being a collective culture and how we do everything for each other and together, he said the story now made sense. The campers had come together as a family, and they weren’t going to let one member of their group go home alone.

I often joke that when we’re all together in my house, somebody will ask, “Can you just run to the corner store and pick something up?” and fifteen people have to go because no one goes alone. We have to do it collectively. We pack up the car just to buy a gallon of milk. And that’s the practice of being collective.

The critical second point here is the reality that it’s a growing population, and if we are true servant-leaders in our community, then we are all part of our community. It’s important for us to understand the culture and the nuances so we can best engage the community and not offend or exclude them; but once again, include them.

Camp professionals should understand the nuances of their specific local communities, but are there any things in general that they would need to know about these communities?

Be Mindful of the Culture

We are a collective culture. As a family, we do things as family; we make decisions as family. At ACA’s national conference, I talked about my memory of someone coming to speak to my mom and sign me up for camp.

It was evident that she knew nothing about who we were from the very beginning. She did not want to enter our home, and in my culture, refusing to come into my house was not respectful. Needless to say, she did not make a great first impression. We had very little, but what we had was a home — it was important that she enter our home and let us greet her.

She also didn’t understand the language, and she used me as a translator. That was another sign of disrespect. If you don’t speak the language, find someone who you’ve already built a relationship with who can be your ally to speak the language.

The recruiter didn’t understand our decision-making style, and she was only focused on her task at hand. She wanted to sign me up there and then, and she was perturbed that my mother needed to talk to my father and my grandmother before making a decision. But as I said, in our culture, it is very important that families make decisions together.

Be Mindful of the Messaging

Messaging must also be mindful of the culture. The representative kept talking about “taking me away” for a weekend camping trip. This was an ineffective approach because in our culture, we don’t take children away from their families. It’s hard for us to think about camping removed from the family situation. We love camping, but we have to do it as a family.

Camp professionals would be well served to think about how they will engage a child knowing that the whole family needs to be a part of that. Maybe it’s hosting a “getting to know us” family camp experience. That’s a first step. And once parents recognize what an awesome opportunity camp is, it might be easier to sign kids up.

Also, the representative did not understand that my dad worked so hard to have a house for us so that we wouldn’t have to sleep anywhere uncomfortable. So when she told my mother that I was “going to get to sleep outside on the dirt,” it didn’t resonate well with my family when my father was working so hard to keep us in a house.

When the representative spoke about the benefits of camp, she highlighted individualistic cultural values, like independence. But again, we value the collective. And that’s not to say we don’t value individualism, but that’s not the initial recruitment tool.

I so wanted to go to camp, but the way I was recruited did not reflect my family’s values and culture. So I didn’t get that experience. And it wasn’t that my mother wouldn’t have allowed it — it was just the approach that ended the possibility.

We have to be mindful of how we approach and provide camp experiences to newly immigrant families and even first-generation families. Two of my children are involved in camp. Even as someone who was acculturated, assimilated, and educated here, I feel that I need to be present in my children’s camp experiences. So my husband is involved with my son and I am involved with my daughter. If parents seem hesitant to let their children go, engage the parents until they feel secure and confident in their child attending a camp experience on his or her own.

When the approach is so important, what might be the benefits camp directors lead with when speaking with families? Making new friends; connecting with nature?

Many of us grew up with a big family. I had sixty-two first cousins; I didn’t need any more friends! Any given Sunday, we had a household full of cousins, and they were my friends. The U.S. Census has clearly shown that our families are ever-growing; they are the youngest and we have the most babies. So we have built-in friends.

We’ve got to think about the value that would best suit a family. The encouragement would be, “I want to help you add value to the great work you’re doing as a parent. Here’s another opportunity . . . .” It’s not about them doing something wrong and trying to help them. It’s about being a partner with parents in raising their children.

I work with a lot of organizations that are trying to recruit the Latino community and find the messaging around that. For the Latino community and beyond, often, the messaging is, “Do you want the very best for your children?” And no parent is going to say “no” to that. Showcase the camp experience as an added bonus to what the parent is already doing. That way, you don’t diminish the parent’s role and what he or she is doing already. I’ve often heard people say, “We’re going to help you.” That sets up the parent to think, “I don’t need your help.” This is relevant for all parents. You want the parent to know that the camp experience is another added opportunity. You want parents to know that they are doing a good job, and that you are offering an extra piece.

After you’ve done your research and created your messaging for the community you are trying to reach, what is step number one in building relationships? Going door to door, making flyers, holding meetings, etc.?

The one thing that I would recommend is finding a trusted ally in the community that can serve as your connector. For example, if there’s already a Latino family who has been involved in your program, have them be your connector. Having a “bridge builder” is critical.

When the camp representative came to my door to recruit me as a child, it was because I’d initially told a friend at school that I wanted to be a part of camp. I think door-to-door recruitment is fine, but often it feels a little bit uncomfortable. I think the point is to make the recruitment process feel as comfortable as possible. Consider building a relationship with a local and active pastor, preacher, rabbi, or church leader. That person is usually a very trusted entity. Church camps have great success because they are trusted, and potential camper families feel comfortable with the people from the church.

If you operate your program from a school, invite a handful of parents to come to the school via the invitation of a mutual friend. Serve them the food of their culture — make sure that you are aware of that — and bring them together to have a discussion with your bridge builder.

Passing out flyers and those kinds of things is not the best. It can certainly reinforce other recruiting efforts, but from my experience, it’s hard to get a Latino family to respond. The Latino community — and this is really important to note — often makes decisions based on relationships. You’ve got to build those relationships of trust, especially when it means their children are going to be away from them.

Thinking back on the past and toward the future, do you see a change in the way camp is accepted by the Latino community?

Two things come to mind: First, although we still have a lot of immigrants or first-generation Latinos, there are next generations here now who have acculturated a little bit and are therefore much more open to camp experiences. I am an example of that. I knew that camps and clubs were a great opportunity for my children, so I sought those out, and I made sure I was a part of the process.

Second, the mere fact that ACA invited me to take on this subject speaks volumes to how proactive they are. In discussing my keynote address, ACA leaders said they wanted me to be honest and really explain what the camp community is doing well and what can be improved. To me, that shows great, positive movement over the last ten or fifteen years.

Twenty-five or thirty years ago, the camp representative who came to my door clearly had no background of how to visit with my mother. And now, we have members of the camp community saying, “Tell us how we can best engage the Latino community.” That says to me there’s great progress and opportunities. I’m extremely excited and hopeful that it will continue to grow.

Learn more about Lorena Gonzalez, PhD, at

Originally published in the 2013 November/December Camping Magazine