John Day ranger who found her calling in nature fights racial hate with love
As soon as high school ended, Sylvia Gentilcore set her sights on college. But her mother had something else in mind for her: helping run the family’s two Las Vegas nail shops.
“When I said no and that I was going to college, it broke her heart,” says Gentilcore. “She thought that I was always going to take over the family business.”
Gentilcore left for college anyway.
For her, the choice wasn’t about what others expected. It was about finding happiness.
That was, after all, the reason her parents had emigrated from Vietnam to the United States.
It's a quest that, last summer, landed Gentilcore at John Day Dam, on the Columbia River, where she now serves as a permanent park ranger. It's not what her mother had in mind for her—or, according to her, what some Asian parents view as a "normal" profession for an Asian woman.
But what is normal, anyway?
“I had to be authentic”
Gentilcore majored in political science and spent a few years canvassing for political campaigns across Las Vegas before she finally felt burned out.
Then, in 2010, a friend told her about Backcountry Trails, a partnership program between the California Conservation Corps and AmeriCorps. Gentilcore applied and got in.
The commitment was straightforward—live in the woods for six months and help restore hiking trails—but not for the faint of heart.
On the webpage for the program, the California Conservation Corps makes that clear up front in all caps: “THIS IS NOT A PAID VACATION.”
But there, in California’s Stanislaus National Forest, 20 miles from the nearest paved road and living with a pack of complete strangers, Gentilcore discovered her passion.
“It completely changed my life,” recalls Gentilcore, who started as a park ranger at John Day Dam last summer. “I wanted to work in conservation after that. And I knew I had to be outside.”
In return for finishing the program, AmeriCorps gave Gentilcore a scholarship. So she went back to school for environmental science and in 2012 landed her first park ranger gig—a seasonal position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Years later, while she was working as a ranger at Grand Canyon National Park, Asian American visitors took an interest in Gentilcore. They spoke to her in Vietnamese. They offered her food. They asked her how she got away.
“They were just like, ‘How did you get into this? How did you escape, you know, the normal jobs Asian parents want you to have?’” says Gentilcore. “I just told them I had to be authentic. I had to be true to myself.”
Sharing the love of the outdoors
Gentilcore drew from her parents’ own experiences to help them understand why she chased down her dream to become a park ranger.
Her father, Quyen Tran, who had served with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam—known in the context of the Vietnam War as the South Vietnamese Army—fled the country in 1975 after the Fall of Saigon.
“The Vietcong sent out an announcement to the United States saying ‘If you guys don’t pick up all of the southern military, we’re going to execute or exile them,’” Gentilcore says.
Quyen came to the United States through a foster program for refugees and was given two choices: Houston or Anaheim. He could only recall that “Anaheim” was associated with Disneyland, and before long, he was living in California with an American military family and working as a dishwasher at a KFC.
Her mother came six years later, in 1981.
“When my parents left Vietnam, they wanted to be happy,” she says. “And I try to reach back there and see what it was like for them when they were young, when they left a communist country, and then I try to remind them that this is why I’m doing this job.”
Quyen passed away nearly 10 years ago. Ever since, Gentilcore has brought her mother and her sister out to all the places she has worked—through nine seasonal park ranger positions with five separate agencies all across the country.
But for her mom, Binh Tran, who grew up in Saigon, the brush with nature was by no means a case of love at first sight.
“Her first experience with nature was when she was in a refugee camp in Malaysia, so she doesn’t have good memories of camping,” explains Gentilcore.
Binh is afraid of wildlife. And she gets nervous away from cities, where she has no cell phone service, because she has no way of contacting someone in the event of an emergency.
But over time, Gentilcore has tried to change Binh’s relationship with the outdoors. Binh doesn’t like excess sun exposure, so Gentilcore has recommended sunscreen and wearing a hat. She explains that wildlife attacks are rare, especially when people are talking loudly.
“She’s starting to find beauty in it,” says Gentilcore.
Issues of race and place
It wasn’t long before Binh, who lives in Las Vegas, started taking friends on regular trips to nearby Zion National Park.
The past year has been different, though.
Amid xenophobic mischaracterizations of the COVID-19 pandemic and surges in hate crimes against Asian Americans—most recently, the brutal killing of six Asian women at nail salons across the Atlanta area—Binh has started to withdraw.
“She’s afraid to go outside,” says Gentilcore, who once taught her mother to find peace in nature but is more recently helping her deal with her fear in her own home.
“They put security cameras around,” she says. “I bought them pepper spray. It’s a whole thing. We have to educate our family. My mom used to work in a nail salon. So it’s important for me for her to be more aware of her surroundings.”
Today, Binh, who is typically quick to make friends, spends her days mostly surrounded by Las Vegas’ Vietnamese community—but little else beyond.
“She’s not hanging out with her white friends anymore; she’s just going deeper inside because she’s scared,” says Gentilcore.
It’s a sudden change to how the family lives. But Gentilcore is quick to caution that nothing taking place in the U.S. lately is new.
“What’s new is the AAPI community reporting it,” she says, recalling the time her uncle was beaten up outside a Las Vegas bar because of his ethnicity but refused to report the incident.
Fighting hate with love
Nearly 800 miles away, at the Corps of Engineers’ John Day project site, Gentilcore feels insulated from the fear. The areas she patrols—day-use parks and primitive camping areas that sprawl miles beyond the Columbia River dam—seem cut off from civilization. She lives on 40 acres in Washington with no neighbors close by.
But she doesn’t have to look back very far to connect with the hate.
In elementary school, Gentilcore’s classmates—some of them her friends—would often break into song with a racist playground chant while physically mocking the shape of her eyes. Gentilcore didn’t get it. So she simply moved on.
“They would do the chant, and then we’d go play, and it would be over,” she says.
Years later, when she finally understood, she felt embarrassed and ashamed that she never stood up for herself. But not angry. According to Gentilcore, love and positivity are more productive.
She leans on advice from her mom, who has endured a life of hardship.
“She always says, ‘If you want love, you have to love first,’” says Gentilcore. “You have to be the one that tries first—to have the open hand. I like to have that personality toward people.
“I think when I have a chance to raise awareness, I should do it in a positive way. There’s a lot of misinformation, and it’s very easy to join the bandwagon on hate.”
Her coworker, park ranger Greg Volkman, recalls the time a contractor referred to Gentilcore as “Oriental”: “She didn’t correct the person and just let it pass.” And when someone stared her down, Volkman says, she just laughed.
“She said that as an Asian American it’s not an uncommon experience,” he says.
Occasionally, parkgoers will assume Gentilcore is Native American and berate her for having special treaty rights to fish at Corps parks, subjecting her to, as she puts it, “a whole different type of racism.”
But she listens. She stays calm. She maintains an open, welcoming body posture. And then she leans on advice from her dad, once a floor supervisor for table games at a casino.
“He taught me, ‘Make sure the customer always knows they’re right, even if they’re not. Because in the end, the house always wins. And they’re the customer regardless,’” she says. “The John Day project is the house, and we’re providing a service. And all the people who come in—I want them to feel comfortable, I want them to value it, and I want them to continue to conserve it.
“That’s my attitude when I talk to anyone.”