24 Jun Reflecting on the Importance of Parks
“The national park is the best idea America ever had.”– James Bryce The past two weeks have consisted of experiences I will remember for quite a long time. On Monday June 13th, I was given the opportunity to accompany NPS representatives that were assisting in the memorial service for Helen Fabela Chávez at the César E. Chávez National Monument. The monument is located in Keene, California on a property known as Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz, which contained both the home of César Chávez and the headquarters of the United Farm Workers (UFW). The monument consists of the Memorial Garden where César Chávez is buried, the same place Helen was laid to rest in order to be right next to him. It was my first time visiting the site, and I couldn’t have asked for a more intimate and special way of doing so. Alongside three other NPS rangers, I was placed at one of the gates to ensure that people would not enter while the interment was occurring.
The Memorial Garden was closed off for the Chávez family since that is where the burial would take place. Every family member was wearing white with some of the men wearing guayaberas, few of the women wearing embroidered blouses, and the younger generations wearing shirts with the UFW logo. The burial consisted of prayers by the cardinal, who dedicated a prayer to the continuing fight for farm workers rights and social justice. This simple prayer could not have been more appropriate because although César Chávez has been the face of the farm workers struggle in the United States, Helen stood by his side throughout his fight.
The presence of many UFW flags at this service is a testament of the legacy of the Chávez family and a reminder that the fight for justice for disenfranchised communities is far from over. To see the UFW flag fly amongst the California and United States flag was a symbolic representation of the recognition of this very important aspect of “American” history. In a country where in the last decade there has been proposed legislation to ban Mexican-American studies in districts such as the Tucson Unified School District, having a place dedicated to highlighting such narratives gives one a sense of belonging. Establishing monuments tied with the histories of ethnic minorities are an important step in changing the perception that the national parks are only for certain individuals. It has definitely changed my perception that parks are more than “nature preserves” and can offer a place to tell the stories of our communities that too often get at most a paragraph in U.S history textbooks.
A bit of reflection occurred for a few of days after that Monday and it wasn’t until this past Saturday that I was compelled to reflect a lot more than I was previously doing. I got the incredible privilege to attend President Obama’s remarks at the National Park Service’s Centennial Celebration at Yosemite National Park. Never would I have thought that I would be invited to attend such a special event and listen to President Obama give a speech in person (Many thanks to HAF and the WH!). In his speech, President Obama talked about the accomplishments of his administration, such as having protected more than 265 million acres of federal lands and waters. Although he mentioned that this was something to be proud of, he recognized that there is still a lot more to be done in regards to our parks. As he mentioned in his speech: “We got kids all across this country who never see a park. There are kids who live miles from here and have never seen this. We gotta change that because the beauty of the National Parks System is that it belongs to everyone. It is a true expression of our democracy.” It is clear that the President understands accessibility issues, which is probably why he created the Every Kid in a Park program that grants 4th graders and their families free admission for a year. Initiatives such as this are crucial in order to reduce financial barriers that prevent many families, especially minorities, from visiting these wonderful places. President Obama told us about the first time he visited a park at 11 years old and how he hopes every kid gets the opportunity to feel the same way he did. I am also hopeful that many more kids will be able to visit parks, fall in love with them, and be stewards for them in this rapidly changing planet. Parks offer a place to rekindle your spirit and to feel connected to something greater than yourself. Why are parks important? Well, there are many answers to this somewhat complicated question. But before I can answer, I must also challenge my own definition of what a park entails. Before my internship, I believed parks had to have some degree of green space. Now, I am beginning to understand that a park can take many forms, César E. Chávez National Monument being an excellent example. This year for the Centennial, the NPS has been encouraging people to find their park whether it is a natural or a historical site. The challenge, however, comes in ensuring that people actually FIND their park. As my internship reaches its halfway point tomorrow, I am motivated to continue brainstorming strategies SEKI can connect to the Latino community of the Central Valley and help them find their park.