Explore Latino Heritage by Visiting America’s National Parks

Did you know? There are more than 20 national park sites which interpret Latino heritage, from the earliest Spanish explorations to the accomplishments of modern figures such as César Chávez. Here is a small sampling of some of these sites:

Cabrillo National Monument

In search of the seven wealthy cities of Cibola and hoping to find the mythical Strait of Anian, a passageway from the North Pacific to the North Atlantic, explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo instead was the first European to discover the west coast of the United States when he landed in 1542 in the harbor of San Diego Bay. Today, Cabrillo National Monument commemorates Cabrillo’s voyage and the cultural interactions that occurred between American Indians and the Spanish and Portuguese explorers. Visitors can also visit the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, learn about how the military used the site, and explore nature.

Reenactors fire cannons at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, ®Daniel Schwen

Reenactors fire cannons at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, ®Daniel Schwen

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

Castillo de San Marcos stands today as a monument to the Spanish empire’s 300-year occupation of Florida and to the interaction and clashes of cultural groups that built the unified nation that is the United States today. Constructed to protect Spain’s settlement in St. Augustine from pirate raids, hostile American Indian tribes, and neighboring imperial powers, the fortification is a symbol of the cultural and imperial struggles that shaped early North America. Never captured in battle, Castillo de San Marcos is both architecturally impressive as the oldest surviving masonry fortress in the United States and culturally significant because its stone walls are a testament to the endurance of this nation’s Latino heritage and to the other cultural groups that have played a role in its story.

César E. Chávez National Monument

Established by President Barack Obama on October 8, 2012, the monument is located among the Tehachapi Mountains in Keene, California, about 27 miles southeast of Bakersfield. The property is known as Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz (La Paz), which was designated as a National Historic Landmark along with the monument on October 8, 2012. The property was home to César Chávez from the early 1970s until his death in 1993 and includes his gravesite and the headquarters of the United Farm Workers.

Chamizal National Memorial

In between the Texas-Mexican border stands a memorial where the American and Mexican flags fly together as a symbol of the historic treaty that ended a century-long dispute between the United States and Mexico. A testament to what two nations can accomplish when they work together to understand their differences and find common ground, Chamizal National Memorial commemorates the milestone in both nations’ diplomatic relations and its influence over the United States’ and Mexico’s shared heritage and border culture.

Exhibit at DeSoto National Memorial

Exhibit at DeSoto National Memorial

De Soto National Memorial

Hernando de Soto is famous in Latin American history as the Spanish conquistador who joined Francisco Pizarro in the invasion of the Inca Empire, but he is also a critical player in American history as the first European to discover the Mississippi River. Located on Shaw’s Point, which is the general area historians believe was the landing place of De Soto’s 1539 expedition, De Soto National Memorial commemorates de Soto’s landing in Florida and his northwestward expedition into North America. De Soto National Memorial is also an archeological site with artifacts and trails left behind by American Indians who guided de Soto’s expedition through Florida to the Mississippi.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Although Key West, Florida may be the southernmost point in the continental United States, the story of America’s rich cultural heritage expands beyond the zero mile marker of US-1. Located almost 70 miles off Key West is a cluster of seven coral reef islands that explorer Ponce de León discovered in 1513. Upon seeing the abundant population of sea turtles he named the islands Las Tortugas (The Turtles), but when explorers and merchants learned that the islands lacked fresh drinking water they soon changed the name to Dry Tortugas. Despite their name, the cluster of islands at Dry Tortugas National Park–which includes Garden, Loggerhead, Bush, Long, East, Hospital, and Middle Keys–is the site of events that have played an important role in American cultural and maritime history and a reminder of the seminal role the Spanish have played that history.

Inscription at El Morro National Monument. "On the 25th of the month of June, of this year of 1709, passed by here on the way to Zuni," Ramon Garcia Jurado.

Inscription at El Morro National Monument. “On the 25th of the month of June, of this year of 1709, passed by here on the way to Zuni,” Ramon Garcia Jurado.

El Morro National Monument

At El Morro National Monument, over 2,000 carvings at the base of a sandstone promontory record the presence of ancient peoples and later travelers who transformed El Morro into a well-preserved historic document. Each pre-Columbian petroglyph and later signature, date, and message inscribed at El Morro has a unique and significant story to tell about the peoples of different cultures who were there. Until the turn of the 20th century people left their mark at the base of this monument, including the Zuñi Indians whose ancestral ruins stand at the top of this historic headland, the Spanish, and Americans. Today, El Morro National Monument preserves the ruins and petroglyphs of the Ancestral Puebloans and the inscriptions of the Spanish and Americans who took inspiration from the ancestral Zuñi scribes. Archeological investigations of Spanish exploration and Latino heritage connections to the region are ongoing, and contribute to our understanding of El Morro’s long cultural and historical significance.

Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail

Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail traces the route followed in 1775-1776 by Spanish commander Juan Bautista de Anza II, who led almost 300 colonists on an expedition from Mexico to found a presidio and mission near San Francisco Bay. The trail, which is over 1200 miles long and today can be traveled via an auto tour, commemorates, preserves, and invites visitors to explore elements of the Spanish colonization plan for its northern most territory. Visitors can experience key remains of Spanish colonization: the presidio or fort (military), the mission (religious), and the pueblo or town (civilian). Many of the sites along the trail are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Old Spanish National Historic Trail

After Mexico became independent from Spanish rule in 1821, trade flourished between the eastern part of the United States and the vast western territory. Networks of trails developed as explorers, traders and settlers attempted to find safe passage through the treacherous, dry, and scorching hot interior lands. The Old Spanish Trail developed during this period as westerners sought a way to connect the burgeoning trading post at Santa Fe to the riches of Los Angeles and southern California. First officially established in 1829, the main branch of the trail spanned over 2,700 miles, cutting through the southwestern corner of Colorado, moving north and west through Utah and finally turning south again toward Arizona and lower Nevada, with a terminus in Los Angeles, California.

Mission Concepcion, part of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, ©Travis Witt

Mission Concepcion, part of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, ©Travis Witt

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

In the 16th century, Spanish missionaries and soldiers began moving north out of the Valley of Mexico to found missions and presidios. The Spanish Empire extended its claim in the New World to the land along the San Antonio River, the present day site of the City of San Antonio, converting American Indians to Christianity, acculturating them to the European lifestyle, and making them Spanish citizens. The San Antonio missions played a major role in all aspects of Spanish colonial frontier life as they related to religion, the military, culture, and agriculture. The Franciscans established the first mission in San Antonio, the San Antonio de Velaro Mission, also known as The Alamo, in 1718. A second mission, Mission San José, was constructed two years later a few miles downstream from Mission Velaro. About a decade later, three other missions, which had first been in East Texas, were relocated to San Antonio. The park includes four of the missions in San Antonio– Espada, Concepción, San José, and San Juan and parts of the irrigation systems that supported the missions the Spanish erected to help defend, settle, and expand the Spanish frontier into Texas.

San Juan National Historic Site

During the 16th century, recognizing the need to protect the Spanish treasure fleets on their voyages to and from the New World, the Spanish erected vast fortifications throughout their territories in the Caribbean Islands and the Gulf of Mexico. Designated a World Heritage Site, the Spanish system of fortifications in San Juan, Puerto Rico is the oldest European construction in territory of the United States and one of the oldest in the New World. These fortifications guarded the entrance to San Juan Bay, helped the Spanish maintain sovereignty over Puerto Rico, and protected Spanish commerce in the Caribbean basin. The forts and three miles of city wall are fine examples of military architecture reflecting the power and glory of the Spanish Empire and the beginning of European ascendancy in world affairs. San Juan National Historic Site preserves these massive fortifications and offers youth-focused programs on the Spanish and Latino history of the island forts at its Discovery Center.

To learn more about Latino heritage in the national parks and beyond, please visit the National Park Service’s Hispanic Heritage website for information, travel itineraries and more.


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