Death. Re-creation. Renewal. This is what the Turkey Vulture symbolizes in Tania Romero’s Mexican culture. This is her favorite bird.
Right after Romero graduated university in 2016, she traveled to Mexico City to visit the family members she rarely got to see growing up in a mixed immigration status family in South Central Los Angeles. During the trip she also went to the Museo Nacional de Anthropología, a popular national museum with art and cultural artifacts, where she saw an exhibit dedicated to birds in ancient cultures. That visit changed everything about how she saw herself in relationship to her family and culture.
While Romero was at the museum, she saw exhibits about what birds meant to Indigenous communities in Mexico. Two stood out in particular: Double-crested Cormorants help spirits travel to the underworld, and the Turkey Vulture’s role is to rejuvenate and recreate life on Earth. The exhibit, with its explicit focus on birds and Indigenous culture, really helped connect Romero’s own growing interest in birds to the new facets she was discovering about her cultural heritage and her seldom-seen family in Mexico.
“I began to tell family members that I was into birds, and they said your ‘grandma was really into birds,’” says Romero. “My grandma had apparently 50 birds, a little mini aviary, and I didn't know. She took care of birds, she was in love with birds, and would talk to them. That really helped in the sense of feeling maybe I am part of this [conservation and bird] world.”
Romero last saw her grandmother at age 10; cross-border travel is difficult for families of mixed immigration status, and visits to Mexico were very infrequent for Romero and her family. She later got hooked on birds during a study abroad trip to Costa Rica as a university student, but her grandmother had already passed away. Romero says she wishes she could have bonded with her grandmother over their shared passion.
Romero pursued a degree in biology and double-minored in environmental studies and ethnic studies at University of California, San Diego, arriving in 2018 at Audubon Center at Debs Park in Los Angeles as a Fund 2 apprentice focusing on youth programming and restoration. Her career was a surprise to her parents, who like many immigrant parents had expected her to become a doctor or a lawyer.
“This work is really where my heart is,” says Romero, but at first it was difficult to explain to her parents, who associated outdoor work with hard labor in agricultural fields. Romero had to reframe it in conversations with them: “I like to be out there, not out of necessity, but because I’m intrigued by our natural world.”
Romero brings that same energy to her work at Debs Park, where she currently leads programs designed to engage underserved communities. When she thinks back to her post-university trip to Mexico and how it informs her work now, she realizes how much it affirmed her own identity as a woman of color working in the sciences and conservation. That realization drives her to emphasize to others that immigrants and children of immigrants, and Indigenous people and other people of color, do not need to shed their identities to be included in the outdoors and in higher education.
“It was a reclamation of identity and a reassurance that I deserve to be here, and I deserve to study this,” says Romero. “And, at the end of the day, I do belong here.”