The desert plants and animals that inhabit Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site taught Nicole Roque important lessons in adaptation.
Mesquite trees can sprout roots more than 100 feet deep in search of water. Texas horned lizards change color to blend in with their surroundings. Desert crustaceans lay eggs that can lie dormant for decades before hatching.
Roque, 32, is an interpretive guide at Hueco Tanks, a world-renowned destination for rock climbing and prehistoric pictographs 36 miles outside of El Paso. Her commute required a number of adjustments, which now inform how she welcomes guests to the park – particularly those who visit least often.
“I really try to help people feel more comfortable when they come to experience a place like this,” she said.
The rock formations at Hueco Tanks resemble giant knuckles on a clenched fist. Nestled within the park’s hardened surfaces is a fragile ecosystem of “living fossils” — tiny aquatic animals that date back to when dinosaurs roamed the earth. They live in shallow, water-filled depressions, the eponymous huecos, in the rocks. Hueco Tanks limits its visit to 70 people at a time to protect this ecosystem. Climbers, who typically come from more affluent backgrounds and know how to use the park’s permitting system, often fill the park’s capacity during the cooler months of November through March.
“We have a line at the gate to get into the park,” Roque said. “Often that prevents your average family from visiting them. But we try to educate people on how to do it. We keep talking to them, keep them busy. We show them pictures, give them brochures and … offer guided tours and that doesn’t count against the 70-person capacity.”
A city girl discovers her love for nature
Roque identifies with the average El Paso family.
She was raised by her single father who, with the help of a counselor, braided her hair and dressed her in sandals and socks. He worked at a car dealership down the street from the East El Paso apartments where they lived. Roque spent weekends in the shop playing with tools and gadgets she didn’t know the name of. To this day, the smell of oil and rubber comforts her.
Her love of the outdoors came from spending hours watching the Animal Planet channel on TV. But finding nature in the city proved a challenge. The drainage ditch behind her house became her playground. She and her friends would sometimes sneak onto a neighboring golf course and watch geese waddle in an artificial pond.
“There we found trees and grass, and there we saw lizards and heard frogs,” she said. “It was magical for us.”
Turning that awe into a career took Roque into uncharted territory. When she enrolled in New Mexico State University’s Wildlife Science Program, she found that most of her classmates were white and had been raised on ranches. When Roque went to the sporting goods store to buy camping gear for her first field trip in Arizona’s Pinaleño Mountains, she felt overwhelmed.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, and everyone will know I’m a scammer,'” she said. “But I definitely felt the support of my professors.”
One professor in particular recognized that Roque — an urban, working-class Mexican-American woman — was an underrepresented minority in the science field. The professor encouraged her to stay with the program.
Roque graduated in 2016 with a degree in Wildlife Science and Conservation Ecology. She began volunteering at Franklin Mountains State Park and transitioned to a paying position through AmeriCorps. When a position opened up at Hueco Tanks in 2019, she applied and was hired.
“I can empathize with people who are intimidated by nature,” she said. “A lot of times there’s this image of what people look like out in the open, you know, the guys with the gear and the hats and the glasses. It doesn’t have to be. I hope people see me and go, ‘Oh, she’s just a girl from El Paso. I can do that too.'”
Roque likes to emphasize that enjoying the great outdoors doesn’t require fancy gear, remote destinations or extreme sports.
“My love of nature is in a cave. It stops and looks at flowers, listens to the birds, feels the wind. It doesn’t require any special knowledge or skills,” she said.
Racial inequalities limit access to nature
A history of racial oppression in the United States has isolated many minorities and people of color from nature. Minorities are more likely to live in cities and low-income neighborhoods that lack public green space. Minorities are also more likely to work in jobs that don’t leave them enough free time or disposable income for outdoor recreation.
Roque has visited El Paso with schoolchildren who don’t know the name of the mountain range, the Franklins, that bisects the center of their hometown.
“People don’t know there are tracks out there. You can climb there, you can hike there,” she said.
Another barrier she faces is fear, which may be passed on unconsciously from a legacy of racial violence and discrimination. A century ago, blacks and people of Mexican descent were lynched in the open air in the South and Southwest. During segregation, they were denied full access to public lands, including national forests and parks. Thousands of immigrants from Mexico and Central America have died crossing the American desert this century.
There continue to be examples of racial tension and violence in the open air. In 2020, a white woman made national headlines when she called police with a false accusation about a black man who was bird-watching in New York’s Central Park. That year, three white men were sentenced to life in prison for killing Ahmaud Arbery, a black man jogging in suburban Georgia.
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Roque said her relatives were concerned that her work sometimes left her alone outside.
Fear manifests in a unique way in a southern frontier town like El Paso. In outreach to the community, Roque is keenly aware that some locals might mistake her park ranger attire for a border police uniform.
“I get asked a lot, ‘Has (Hueco Tanks) passed the border police checkpoint?'” she said. She tells them it’s not like that. “I strive to be a welcoming presence for people and hopefully allay some of those fears.”
Finding a welcoming presence in nature
Roque found a welcoming presence as she crawled between the stone crevices at Hueco Tanks: evidence of her ancestors embedded in the rocks. She identifies as Chicana, an American of Mexican descent who is proud of her indigenous heritage.
Indigenous groups, including the Kiowa, Mescalero Apache, and Tigua, consider Hueco Tanks a sacred site. An ancient people called the Jornada Mogollon settled in Hueco Tanks around 1150 AD and grew squash, corn and beans. In Mexican culture, this trio of useful plants is known as milpa. Scattered throughout the park are deep holes carved into smooth stone.
“Archaeologists call them rock mortars. We’ve always called them Molcajetes,” Roque said.
These remains revealed to Roque that she was no stranger to these lands.
“It helped me feel that sense of belonging that I didn’t know I needed so much,” she said. “We don’t often see ourselves as Chicanos or as Mexicans, especially us city dwellers, as connected to the environment, but we have been here and always have been.”
Mónica Ortiz Uribe can be reached at [email protected]