By Estevan Rael-Gálvez, Ph.D.
Editor’s note: Last week the National Park Service released the “American Latinos and the Making of the United States: A Theme Study,” which focuses on the contributions of Latinos to our national heritage and culture. Essays by nationally recognized scholars address the contributions and experiences of American Latinos and cover such topics as immigration, sports, medicine, food, and education among others. The theme study, a publication of the National Park System Advisory Board, is an important resource for preservationists working to identify and evaluate Latino-related places for historic significance. Estevan Rael-Gálvez, senior vice president of Historic Sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was involved in the development of the theme study. Here he shares his observations about the study and its importance in helping preservationists tell the complete story of our country’s history.
As a nation, we are only beginning to understand the depth and breadth of our full history. Because so much has been obscured, subjected to myth, or erased entirely, the challenge before us is enormous. Even for those of us that grew up in communities and places as old and older, and yet as far away from Plymouth Rock and Mount Vernon as could be, the singular narratives reflected in textbooks and televisions alike were what all American schoolchildren learned. The irony for me and so many others—of emerging from such deep and rich histories and yet not ever once seeing yourself reflected in the national narrative—is more than just painful, it is debilitating. Yet, while the challenges may be great, we also have the opportunity and responsibility to continue to remember—to awaken the past, and in so doing, revealing the full complexity of the who, what, and where that makes us a nation. Because wisdom sits in places, place offers us a field of possibilities in recovering the full and complex diversity of the United States.
For those of us fortunate to work in organizations with a place-based focus and in the field of preservation, the imperative of revealing the strength of diversity is all the greater. It is interesting to think that the National Historic Preservation Act was passed in 1966, in the midst of the civil rights movement, where the tenacious march of men and women, claiming space and thirsting for justice, articulated not only a discourse around rights and citizenship, but a sense of belonging within the nation as whole. Yet, in spite of the context, the preservation movement then, and over the past 46 years, has not been characterized by an inclusive agenda, either in engagement or in the outcomes. For instance, the diversity of individuals leading and working in preservation-based organizations, in state offices, and on state commissions was then, as now, incredibly low. Similarly, the percentage of places listed in the National Register that reflect cultural diversity is shockingly low and still stands today in the single digits.
New Mexicans call the south side of a house, building, or plaza, shielded from the wind and bathed in the rays of the sun, la resolana
. Safe and warm, this place is also dynamic because for generations it has been the space where men and women gathered and carefully articulated observations of their contemporary world, relating the memory, knowledge and wisdom of those who came before them, and passing it on. This image came to mind in the work that I began shortly after I joined the leadership at the Trust in June 2011. I was asked to participate in a forum convened by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar at the National Chavez Center in Keene, Calif., to discuss how to better integrate American Latino heritage into the story of America. Four months later, Secretary Salazar convened another forum, the White House Forum on American Latino Heritage, in Washington, D.C. Last October, I returned to Nuestra Senora Reina de la Paz, the site where, from the 1970s until the early '90s, César Estrada Chavez and his family lived and led the farm worker movement. Exercising his authority under the Antiquities Act, created to designate and protect unique and historic features in the U.S., President Barack Obama designated the property as a National Monument, the first site to recognize the work of a contemporary Hispanic. Being able to close this circle of events at La Paz reflected tenacity and hope at every level. “Si se puede” (yes we can) has not only become a rallying cry through the generations, but a vision for a future, including a future for the inclusion of more Latino/a sites in a renewed focus on history and preservation that is inclusive.
These visits and milestones were also a part of a larger effort, bringing knowledge and scholarship to bear upon the direct action of preservation. In 2011 Secretary Salazar appointed me to serve as a member of the American Latino Scholars Expert Panel of the National Park System Advisory Board. The opportunity to work with a dedicated group of scholars from throughout the country on this panel over the past two years has been nothing short of invigorating, and has for me represented the profundity of the age-old resolana
. We had a particular charge—to plan and implement the American Latino Heritage Theme Study. The planning was interesting as the circle of scholars negotiated the framework and structure, centered by the active work of making
—a nation, a life, a living democracy, all of which accentuated the long arc of Latino presence, experience, and contributions to the nation. The making
was also at times like its etymology reveals—from the Indo-European base *mag
, kneading—and indeed was an effort of mixing and strengthening toward the final product. This framework also resulted in the following themes: Arts, Business and Commerce, Education, Empires, Wars and Revolutions, Food, Immigration, Intellectual Traditions, Labor, Law, Media, Military, New Latinos, Religion and Spirituality, Science and Medicine, Sports, and Inclusion, themes which became commissioned chapters from scholars, whose critical thinking, research and writing was what the making
eventually gave rise to.
This incredibly rich theme study was recently completed and released; however, this work is only the first step. With the ultimate goal of the study to create an even greater synergy and momentum, the study contains useful content for students of every age, cultural, educational and civic leaders, as well as for the general public. However, the promise underlying the study is that it also will be used to identify historic properties for potential nomination to the National Register and properties that could be nominated as National Historic Landmarks. The occasion to recover omissions and erasures, and to transform the National Register and the recognition of what is significant to the nation, stands before us. Yet, this work can be a part of that change. As Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano has noted so cogently, “we are what we do, especially what we do to change what we are
.” We all have this responsibility to expand and raise consciousness, to change statistics, and to reflect why place, people, and knowledge matter. I would encourage all to read the essays contained in this study, think of possible nominations and add the living force of the resolana
Estevan Rael-Gálvez, Ph.D., is the senior vice president of historic sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.#Announcements #NationalRegister #LatinoAmerican #Diversity #NationalParkService