Mariela Fernandez

In Featured Scholar




‘Let’s build a park’ may sound like an add-on. But clean, green spaces all tie back to positive health outcomes, especially for Latino communities.

Mariela Fernandez is proud of where she came from. Nicknamed “the Valley,” four hours south of San Antonio, TX, Harlingen is many things at once. Harlingen residents navigate two worlds at the same time, constantly switching between English and Spanish. Although sizable, Harlingen has the type of small-town sentiment that produces lifelong residents. Mariela was one of the few who eventually did leave, but she has never strayed far from the path that all started at a Texas Visitor’s Center.

The Other Side of Leisure

For Mariela, working at a Visitor’s Center after high school proved formative. She learned that she liked interacting with people on vacation and directing them to resources in a community.

This passion led her to pursue a   Recreation, Parks and Tourism major at Texas A&M University. It was then that Mariela discovered “the other side of leisure.” That is, those who do not have access to parks and recreation resources.

Progressing to a master’s degree in youth development, Mariela studied the impact of race and ethnicity on use of recreation services. She was particularly interested in why Latino families were less likely than others to enroll their children in public recreation programs.

“There are a lot of factors — tension with other racial groups, language barriers, children being bullied, lack of outreach to Latinos about facilities and programs,” Mariela explains. “It’s unfortunate, because community centers have so much potential to engage with their residents in a non-threatening way.”

Where the Children Play

Pursuing her PhD at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Mariela focused her dissertation on a Mexican enclave in Chicago known as Little Village.

“It’s the Mexican capital of the Midwest, so it felt like home,” Mariela recalls.

In her dissertation, which won the 2016 American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration Best Dissertation Award, Mariela explored how a nonprofit called the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization mobilized the community.

Pollution, crime, and gang violence had proved a dangerous combination for Little Village, and had prevented children from playing outside.

“You couldn’t go from the East side to the park and community center on the West side without being harassed,” Mariela explains. “The children had two choices: join a gang or stay inside. There was no safe option for kids who just wanted to play out in the street.”

The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization — along with community residents — engaged private business, federal, and municipal government entities to clean up the polluted site and build a park on the East side.

Now, Mariela’s Chicago studies are informing her work at Clemson University in South Carolina, where she has noticed an influx of Latinos. In a very different setting, she is considering how some of the same issues of accessibility affecting urban spaces translate to rural spaces.

Creating and Finding Safe Spaces through New Connections

In applying for a New Connections grant in 2016, Mariela wanted to research anything and everything she could about Latino access to the built environment, including park and recreation resources. So far, this has ranged from examining the experiences of rural Latina mothers accessing needed resources to establishing community collaborative teams and a mentorship program to improve Latino youth’s access to STEM education in informal settings.

Mariela already has established principles for herself that filter down into every step of her research.

“I always want research participants to feel empowered, and not like I’m doing the work for them,” she explains. “I learned through the Little Village study just how important it is for people to advocate for themselves and be their own agents.”

Mariela passes everything through her research participants to make sure she is representing the community accurately, and not over-emphasizing negative beliefs. She wants her work to “disrupt” the way Latinos are discussed in research.

In addition to allowing her to research the health and well-being of Latinos in rural communities, the New Connections grant has put Mariela in close contact with other scholars in her cohort. She and three other grantees chat over Skype every few weeks to keep each other accountable and discuss any issues that come up. They support each other, both academically and emotionally.

“It’s been invaluable to have a home base of other scholars who understand the Culture of Health, and the issues that underrepresented groups go through,” Mariela says.

The Details

Title: Assistant Professor; Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management Department; College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences; Clemson University

New Connections Year: 2016

New Connections Status: Current Grantee

Recent Publications:

  • Gutierrez, V., Larson, R. W., Raffaelli, M., Fernandez, M., & Guzman, S. (2017). How staff of youth programs respond to cultural incidents: Non-engagement vs. ‘full-right in.’ Journal of Adolescent Research, Special Issue, 32(1), 64–93.
  • Fernandez, M., Shinew, K. J., & Stodolska, M. (2015). The effects of acculturation and access on recreation participation among Latinos. Leisure Sciences, 37(3), 210–231.
  • Fernandez, M., & Witt, P. A. (2013). Attracting Hispanics to an African American recreation center: Examining attitudes and historical factors. Journal of Leisure Research, 45(4), 423–444.

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