News Coverage

28 April 2016

UNIVISION: The Untold History of Hispanics and African Americans in our Nation’s Public Lands

Category: News Coverage

On Thursday a coalition of civil society organizations have urged President Barack Obama to ensure greater participation and involvement of Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans citizens in national parks and public lands of the United States.

The manifesto presented to the White House states that there are many ways which prevent minorities from visiting and using these spaces, including geographic remoteness, lack of economic resources (which impacts greatly in the disparities) and cultural barriers. An example of the latter, according to the Rue de Mapp leader of the OutdoorAfro organization, explains how many African Americans have been afraid and continue to be uncomfortable in federal parks due to the horrors of lynching, Jim Crow laws and other forms of racial segregation occurring in places like Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

Asians also have their reservations with national parks because as the manifest states that in the past "many Japanese Americans were imprisoned in concentration camps, many of which were on public lands." This happened in parks like the Tule Lake and Manzanar in California and Minidoka, Idaho.

Many Hispanics also feel marginalized in these spaces. Many of them have native ancestors who were stripped of their land and keep a historical grudges with those parks. “Many of the national parks have departments of archeology because obviously there are ruins there. They can be very old or more contemporary ruins. But the fact is that these lands were not always parks and once belonged to natives and that is not always recognized", said Manuel Ceballos Galaviz student University of Texas at Austin and community activist of Mexican origin.

The promoters of this initiative claim that these stories of minorities are known. As are those people in these communities which rose up and fought to prevent their removed from these public lands. An example of this resistance with Hispanics could be the Chicano Park in San Diego, California, considered a historical center and recently nominated as a National Monument.

In 1950, the first highway in California was built. This cut in half an immigrant community who were there precisely because it was the only place they were allowed to live because of the racial laws. People began to lose access to the bay, the beach, and natural areas, Galaviz stated.

"They tore up the community where they lived. They displaced thousands of African American and Mexican families. They were left without green areas or spaces and then in 1970 became very angry when they were told by the local government that their children could not play or walk on the highway, they needed green spaces and they took a lot which was uninhabited and transformed it with maguey, nopals and all kinds of plants. They turned it into a community park: Chicano Park remains today and now is full of graffiti honoring the cultural heritage of this community. "

But at present date there are still important challenges, community activists ensure that in the memo to President Obama. The anti-immigrant sentiment has had a negative impact on the Latino access to public lands, especially in border areas. "In the park between Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, California people don’t even get close. The undocumented immigrants, for obvious reasons; but neither are people with documentation because the 'Migra' is always there and they do not want to feel discriminated against or mistreated. Although it is a beautiful nature reserve, nobody goes there", emphasizes Galaviz.

The problem is not limited to a matter of historical recognition.

"I have traveled by car to about 15 parks with my family and I have never seen a ranger who speaks Spanish, who is African-American or Asian. We know they are very busy, but they never greet you or explain anything in English, much less in other languages. They never tell stories. They have never come to talk to us. When I was a child, my father Joseph and I spoke the most English. When we got to the park, we would look up as much information as possible and we would translate it to my mom and sister, Hilda,” says the young Zoraida Martinez, a Hispanic enthusiast of these spaces.

She adds: "I know that my experience is not typical for Hispanic families. Very few know the parks and I think that is because most people do not know that they are there and that are available, or they have no money to pay for gas or transportation to go there. "

The young Californian, 24, is currently doing an internship at the organization Colorado Conservation to communicate to the public the benefits of national parks, her favorite park is Arches National Park in Utah. "I did not know before, but now I know very clearly that this is what I love doing and I wish more people from all backgrounds could visit and enjoy nature so well," says Martinez, who says that these family outings changed her life and she plans to get a masters degree in Public Environmental Policy.

"For decades the parks have kept their information and staff the same while populations have changed and no longer represent them. It is urgent that this be updated to be more inclusive with all populations. Our public areas must reflect the demographic and ethnic diversity of the citizens of our country,” said Maite Arce, President and CEO of the Hispanic Access Foundation, one of the organizations promoting this initiative. The future of the national parks can depend on this change as it strives to "look more at other populations, like the Hispanics."

"It is clear that the future of America is of minorities who are growing increasingly. If they do not feel that these parks belong to them, in the future they could vote not to protect them and rather remove protection because they don’t find them value. There are already congressmen who advocate to have the spaces used for commercial use. That would be a very bleak future for many areas and many biological and historical areas,” says Arce.

Silvia Perez-Rathell, national director of corporate and federal relations in Washington D.C. League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), agrees. "The fundamental thing is to have more education and visibility on national parks. The more they know the Hispanic history of the parks, more of interest they’ll have to visit them. It is also clear that if more Hispanics are seen in the parks, as park rangers or visitors- more of them will be interested in visiting. Another concern is that visits to the parks have to be coordinated as a vacation for the whole family and that costs money, which is a limitation,” she says.

"It seems to me that there should be more Hispanic people working in these parks or at least bilingual people to talk to people who come from elsewhere. Not only for Latinos, but also for Asians. People from everywhere. These are sites that should be shared,” says Martinez.

"There are opportunities for everyone in the national parks, but they are not communicated well throughout the population. This can and must improve and that is our struggle,” concludes Maite Arce.

"On the anniversary year of the National Parks we ask Obama to improve access to these areas, to bring people from all over the country and allow us to appropriate these spaces. We also ask improve the access, include more rangers and specialists representing these communities so that they themselves can recount and tell their own stories in their own languages. This is an issue that this country has had with these groups for a long time. It is time to act,” emphasizes Arce.

The ask is that all American children and adults have the opportunity to discover their own history and heritage in public areas and federal agencies in charge of land should start to respect and integrate different cultures through disclosure, management and interpretation.

Other sponsoring agencies are: CLLARO, Green Latinos, HECHO, Hispanic Federation, Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, Latino Outdoors, Valle del Sol y VOCES.

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