During the Centennial year of the National Park Service, our role as America’s storyteller has taken center stage. We are proud of the accomplishments we have made over the past 100 years, but at the same time, we are committed to doing a better job of telling a more complete version of our history so that every American sees him or herself reflected in the parks.
An important part of that effort for us involves new park sites that reflect a more diverse range of American stories. While the national parks are most commonly known for preserving iconic American landscapes, what makes these more than 400 places even more important is that they tell iconic American stories that define who we are and what we stand for. Every quintessential American experience is – or should be – represented in the National Park System.
President Obama and Congress are helping us do that with a number of new national park sites that have been designated in the past few years. The Pullman National and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park tell important stories about African American history and the civil rights movement of the 20th century. Honouliuli National Monument tells the difficult story of confinement camps where thousands of Japanese Americans were sent during World War II. And, the César E. Chávez National Monument tells the remarkable story of César Chávez and the farm worker movement in this country.
President Barack Obama signed a Presidential Proclamation on October 8, 2012, creating the César E. Chávez National Monument. This peaceful “La Paz” site, in the Tehachapi Mountains northeast of Los Angeles, commemorates César Chávez and the struggles and accomplishments of the farm worker movement. A visitor center and the memorial garden where César Chávez is buried are open to the public.
The story of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers is an inspiration for people around the world who stand up for civil rights, for the health and safety of their people and for the environment within which they work and live. César stood up for all farm workers, not just Latino, but Filipino as well.
For me, the designation of the César E. Chávez National Monument in October 2012 was the culmination of a decade of building trust with the Chávez Family, ensuring that they believed that the National Park Service could carry this story with the honesty and integrity it deserved. When the family visited Manzanar National Historic Site, and saw how the National Park Service had treated the complex history of the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War 2, they told me that they could trust us with the story of their father. We will never betray that trust, to present history authentically, so that we all may learn and be inspired.
Since the park’s establishment, thousands of visitors have learned more about Cesar Chavez and his legacy. The park has also been the backdrop to naturalization ceremonies, as new Americans take the oath of citizenship and has hosted fourth graders as part of President Obama’s Every Kid in a Park initiative. It is a vital and relevant part of the National Park System, and we are incredibly proud to be able to share this truly American story with visitors from around the world.
Beyond just these new national park sites, the National Park Service is committed to welcoming more diverse audiences and telling more diverse stories across our system. The Find Your Park/ Encuentra Tu Parque campaign, launched by the National Park Service and our partner the National Park Foundation, invites all Americans to discover everything that a park can be. It was important to us that the campaign and our outreach is bilingual and reaches younger audiences, many of whom are less familiar with national parks.
A series of heritage initiatives and theme studies has also improved our efforts to tell more complete stories, both in existing parks, in new parks and through programs including the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program. Recently completed studies of Latino heritage, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and Women have added substantially to our understanding of these groups and their rich history; and ongoing theme studies are developing our knowledge of LGBT history and the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War.
It’s the National Park Service’s responsibility to preserve these places and to ensure that the ideals and the lessons they represent are communicated to successive generations of Americans.
While it’s true to a certain extent that the national parks are about the past, they’re also very much about the here and now. Our historic and cultural sites are powerfully symbolic, and they speak to issues that are relevant today: immigration, tolerance, the meaning of the Constitution, civil rights, war, labor, the environment. For this reason, they are vital to the nation’s civic education.
These places have a role in our social and political discourse. They define the American experience and express American identity in all its diverse forms. Places like the César E. Chávez National Monument have as much to do with the America that will be as the America that was, and we honor that, today and every day in the National Park Service.