3 ways the federal government can honor Hispanic Heritage Month by including irreplaceable cultural sites in the National Park System
From the earliest Spanish explorers to contemporary leaders in civics, the arts and industry, Hispanic heritage is an essential part of the American story. But currently, only a few units in the National Park System specifically preserve and interpret Hispanic history and culture.
In Southern California alone, however, numerous sites of significance to Hispanic heritage exist, and I have been working with colleagues at NPCA to include these parts of our history in our National Park System. NPCA believes our national parks must reflect our country’s diverse people and shared history — and inclusion of these sites is one step toward building a system that reflects the heritage of all Americans.
As we kick off Hispanic Heritage Month, which begins today and runs through October 15, I want to highlight some of these important places that deserve federal protection.
1. The Founding of Los Angeles and the Rim of the Valley
In 1769, Spanish nobleman Gaspar de Portola led the first-recorded European land expedition from Mexico to explore California. Along the way, his expedition camped on the bank of what is now the Los Angeles River, encountered Native American villages in present-day San Fernando Valley and, most importantly, identified the area from which the city of Los Angeles would take root. Several years later, in 1781, an expedition of 11 families would travel from Sonora and Sinaloa, Mexico, to establish El Pueblo de Los Angeles, a 44-acre district which is now preserved as a state historic monument and recognized as the birthplace of the city. The monument preserves such structures as the Avila Adobe, the city’s oldest surviving residence, and the Pico House, one of its earliest hotels.
These sites are all located in the geographic region known as the Rim of the Valley, a 193,000-acre corridor with some of the last wild natural spaces and historic sites in need of protection in the greater Los Angeles region. The National Park Service released a study in 2016 recommending expanding the nearby Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area to include these sites. The agency already operates a district office at El Pueblo de Los Angeles, and could expand outreach, education and engagement programs that reach deep into LA’s urban, underserved and ethnic communities, including Latinos and others not traditionally connected to our national parks. This, in turn, could help diversify park visitation and build a new, diverse generation of park enthusiasts. NPCA strongly supports this expansion.
2. The Legacy of César Chávez and the Farm Worker Movement
In 2012, President Obama designated the César E. Chávez National Monument in Keene, California, as the first national park site to honor a contemporary Latino American. The monument preserves the labor leader’s home and office on a campus (known as Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz) that now serves as the headquarters for the union he helped establish, the United Farm Workers (UFW). It also interprets the history of immigrant farm workers and their struggle for decent pay, safe working conditions and other basic human rights — a struggle which continues today.
The National Park Service has since examined multiple sites across California and Arizona to capture a more comprehensive history of the farm worker movement in the Southwest. Earlier this year, Congressman Raul Ruiz introduced the César Chávez National Historical Park Act (H.R.4882), which would incorporate several of these sites, along with the current national monument, into a new, expanded park. These sites include:
The Forty Acres National Historic Landmark, Delano, California: The Forty Acres was the first headquarters for the UFW, and the site of Agbayani Village, a retirement complex for Filipino American farm workers, many of whom were instrumental in forming the UFW. The site continues to serve as UFW field office and provides retirement housing for former farm workers.
Filipino Community Hall, Delano, California: A center for farm worker organizing in the Filipino American community, workers went on strike here in 1965, setting off a series of events that led to the forming of the UFW.
McDonnell Hall, San Jose, California: Chávez first developed into a labor leader and civil rights advocate here under the mentorship of two individuals who would have a profound impact on his life, religious leader Father Donald McDonnell and community organizer Fred Ross.
The Santa Rita Center, Phoenix, Arizona: In 1972, Chávez’s 24-day fast at this small brick building galvanized the farm worker movement and brought national attention to its struggle for better wages and working conditions and the right to organize.
Establishing the national historical park will ensure that the story of the farm worker movement continues to inspire future generations. NPCA is working with a wide range of partners to promote the proposed park, including various segments of the Latino community, historic preservationists, labor organizations, conservation groups and others. To learn more about the proposed sites, visit www.nps.gov/pwro/chavez.
Update, September 2017: H.R. 4882 did not pass Congress during the 2016 session, but NPCA is hopeful that the bill will be reintroduced in 2017.
3. Other Sites and Stories in Southern California
The Rim of the Valley and the legacy of César Chávez are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Hispanic heritage in Southern California and beyond. Los Angeles is home to historic neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights. This community is credited with the rise of Latino cultural and political influence and was the home of LA’s first Latino city council member, Edward Roybal. The neighborhood contains numerous historic buildings, shrines and plazas and continues to be a center for Latino cultural life in Los Angeles. Nearby East Los Angeles was the site of key events in Chicano and Mexican American history, particularly during the civil rights and Vietnam War eras. In San Diego, Chicano Park preserves the country’s largest collection of outdoor murals, as well as various sculptures, earthworks and architectural pieces dedicated to the cultural heritage of the community.
The Park Service has been studying the contributions of Latinos in all aspects of American life, from business and labor to media, education and science. A recent theme study by the agency sets the stage for a concerted effort to recognize Hispanic heritage and related historic sites throughout the country. However, diversifying the National Park System to include these sites is a process that will take widespread advocacy and grassroots action.
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Although numerous national park sites commemorate aspects of Hispanic culture — including Cabrillo National Monument, Coronado National Memorial, Dry Tortugas National Park, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and San Juan National Historic Site — large gaps in this important history are missing. NPCA hopes that in the future, all Americans will be able to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month through expanded national park sites that recognize the many contributions of Latino Americans across our country.
For more information on NPCA’s efforts to support expansion projects in Southern California, visit NPCA’s Rim of the Valley campaign page or contact Dennis Arguelles or Laura Torres in NPCA’s Los Angeles Field Office.
About the author
Dennis Arguelles Los Angeles Program Manager, Pacific
Dennis, Los Angeles Program Manager, works on park protection and expansion efforts as well as engaging diverse and underserved communities not traditionally connected to the national parks.