Juan is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. He works to provide opportunities for students, especially students from urban and at-risk communities, to experience nature and the natural environment.

EARLY WORK


Juan’s parents grew up on farms in rural Mexico, migrated to Mexico City,  then immigrated to Los Angeles, California, in search of a better life for themselves and their family. Although they lived in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the United States, Juan’s family always had a strong connection to nature and the outdoors.

Juan remembers enjoying carne asada in Elysian Park, the second-largest park in Los Angeles. (Only nearby Griffith Park is larger.) Elysian Park affords views not only of Dodger Stadium—Juan is a passionate baseball fan—but acres of wooded hills and Griffith Observatory.

Juan also remembers his mother breaking the concrete sidewalk outside their tiny home so she could grow jalapeño peppers. This commitment to the Earth made a strong impression on Juan growing up.

Still, it took a little nudge for Juan to realize his own connection to the Earth. After almost failing a high school science class, he was given a choice: join the school’s Eco Club or fail the class. “The choice was not as easy as it seems!” Juan says.

Juan ultimately joined the club, planted his own jalapeños, and soon was offered the opportunity for an outdoor education experience in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. “For a kid who always considered anything outside the city to be some made-up fantasy, like TV or Hollywood,” it was a life-changing experience, he says.

“For the first time in my life, I saw more stars than I could count. I saw free-flowing rivers. For the first time in my life, I had a good night’s rest—there were no sirens, no cars.”

Juan was determined to allow other city kids the chance to experience the natural environment, either in local parks or through outdoor education programs. He pursued his interest through high school and college. In 2011, Juan became the first person in his family to graduate from college when he earned a degree in history from California State University at Los Angeles.

Today, he helps youth get outdoors as the Director of Leadership and Development for the Children & Nature Network.

MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

“Doing something I never thought I could do, supporting young people, developing their leadership skills, changing society. . .”

MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK


Taking more responsibility for administering educational programs means Juan spends more time indoors. “I regret being out of the field. . . . I’ve put on 20 pounds!” he laughs.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

“A sense of place, and it all starts with finding it on a map.”

Before he takes students into the field, Juan does a simple exercise with them in the classroom. “Find out where they’re going, and how to get there. There are students who have lived in Los Angeles their whole lives, and who have never been to the beach. It’s a 40-minute bus ride, but they didn’t know they had the opportunity. Knowing how to read a map, a bus route, can change a life. Geography is learning where you are, where you’re going, and how to get there.”

GEO-CONNECTION


Juan understands the importance of experiencing the natural environment, and learning from it. He recalls taking a group of urban students with developmental disabilities to a park in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range.

“Here were these kids, a lot of whom were medicated 24 hours a day. Most of them had never been outside the city. This one girl, she never smiled or even talked, all the way there. Her teachers said she was really withdrawn. When she was outside, near the mountains and the trees, she laughed. Just seeing her laugh . . . that’s what’s important.”

Juan also understands the importance of exposing urban and at-risk kids to the outdoors, not just for their sake, but for the sake of the environment. “If you preach to the choir [of environmentalists], you only get so far.” If you appeal to a different audience, Juan says, “you can get real, drastic change.”

“We’re in this fight together,” he says. “Somebody who understands Alaska is much more likely to care about caribou, oil pollution, whales, that sort of thing.”

Ultimately, Juan says, getting outdoors levels the playing field between urban and rural, rich and poor, older and younger.

“A tree doesn’t care where you’re coming from,” he says. “And neither do mosquitoes!”

SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . ENVIRONMENTALIST


“Get outside! There are parks in almost every city.”

GET INVOLVED


Juan encourages families and students to explore the world beyond their backyard through outdoor education programs.

Environmentalist and Educator: Juan Martinez
Juan Martinez is an environmentalist and educator.
at-risk
Adjective

threatened or in danger.

audience
Noun

observers or listeners of an event or production.

beach
Verb

to force a ship or boat onto a beach.

caribou
Noun

large deer native to North America.

carne asada
Noun

Mexican dish with thin strips of beef.

city
Noun

large settlement with a high population density.

college
Noun

institution of higher learning, attended after high school in the United States.

community
Noun

group of organisms or a social group interacting in a specific region under similar environmental conditions.

concrete
Noun

hard building material made from mixing cement with rock and water.

densely
Adverb

heavily or crowded.

drastic
Adjective

severe or extreme.

Noun

our planet, the third from the Sun. The Earth is the only place in the known universe that supports life.

Emerging Explorer
Noun

an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.

environment
Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

environmentalist
Noun

person who studies or works to protect the Earth's ecosystems.

farm
Noun

land cultivated for crops, livestock, or both.

foothill
Noun

hill at the base of a mountain.

Noun

study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

graduate
Verb

to receive a degree or diploma from an educational institution.

Griffith Observatory
Noun

astronomical observatory and science center in Los Angeles, California.

Griffith Park
Noun

(4,218 acres) largest park in Los Angeles, California.

Noun

land that rises above its surroundings and has a rounded summit, usually less than 300 meters (1,000 feet).

history
Noun

study of the past.

immigrate
Verb

to move to a new place.

jalapeno
Noun

medium-sized, hot chili pepper that is usually green.

Noun

symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface.

medicate
Verb

to treat a disease or illness with drugs.

migrate
Verb

to move from one place or activity to another.

mountain
Noun

landmass that forms as tectonic plates interact with each other.

mountain range
Noun

series or chain of mountains that are close together.

oil
Noun

fossil fuel formed from the remains of marine plants and animals. Also known as petroleum or crude oil.

opportunity
Noun

chance.

outdoor education
Noun

structured or organized learning that takes place in the natural environment, outside a classroom.

park
Noun

area of land set aside for recreational use.

Noun

introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

preach to the choir
verb phrase

to argue or make a point to people who already support that point of view.

Noun

large stream of flowing fresh water.

route
Noun

path or way.

rural
Adjective

having to do with country life, or areas with few residents.

siren
Noun

loud noise alerting a person or group of people to an emergency or other dangerous situation.

star
Noun

large ball of gas and plasma that radiates energy through nuclear fusion, such as the sun.

urban
Adjective

having to do with city life.

Noun

developed, densely populated area where most inhabitants have nonagricultural jobs.

whale
Noun

largest marine mammal species.