• Real-World Geography: Juan Martinez
    Juan Martinez is an environmentalist and educator.

    Photograph by Conrad Anker

    By National Geographic Education

    Saturday, September 10, 2011

    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.


    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.


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


    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.


    “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.”


    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!”


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


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

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    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.

    Earth Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: Earth
    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.

    geography Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    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.

    hill Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: hill
    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.

    map Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: map
    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


    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.

    pollution Noun

    introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

    Encyclopedic Entry: pollution
    preach to the choir verb phrase

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

    river Noun

    large stream of flowing fresh water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: river
    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.

    urban area Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: urban area
    whale Noun

    largest marine mammal species.

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