10 Parks that Celebrate Hispanic Heritage
The contributions, achievements, and histories of Hispanic and Latinos* have shaped our country’s history and culture since before its founding. From early explorers and pioneering settlers to soldiers on the frontlines of territorial debates and advocates for fair working conditions, many of the stories of Hispanic and Latino Americans of past and present are told in our national parks. Explore just a small sample of ways that Hispanic and Latino Americans have shaped our country’s landscape, and how parks continue to preserve and share their stories.
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
For thousands of years, Native Americans lived in what is now Florida. These semi-nomadic, semi-agricultural indigenous people were generally formed into local chiefdoms and practiced several different cultural traditions. There were as many as three million people in Pre-Columbian Florida, before contact with European people, which began sometime around 1502, brought violence and disease, effectively depopulating huge areas of the so-called "New World." The Spanish Empire, which settled in St. Augustine, Florida and built what is now Castillo de San Marcos National Monument to protect their sea routes for treasure ships, was one of the largest forces in European settlement. Spanish settlers attempted to missionize native peoples, including the Caloosa and Apalachee, by converting them to Catholicism and putting them to work within the mission community. However, within a few decades, as much as 80% of Florida’s indigenous population was gone.
Some of the first documented births of mestizos – mixed children of Spanish settlers and indigenous or African women – in the contiguous U.S. occured at this Spanish settlement. The indigenous women and their children played key roles in helping the site and community survive and grow through its various stages of European control.
The Castillo was signed over from the Spanish to the English after the Seven Years’ War (or French and Indian War, as it was called in America), then back again only 20 years later as part of the 1783 Treaty of Paris. All this exchange in European control, as well as the enduring customs of indigenous peoples, meant St. Augustine, the small bustling military town protected by the Castillo, featured a diverse mixture of cultures and people. There are records of all sorts of Europeans living in the colonial town, including German and Irish settlers, and by the mid-1700s, most of the Castillo’s soldiers were mestizos, or mixed ancestry.
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
One of the major ways the Spanish Empire secured their claims to land in North America was through acculturation of populations of native peoples. The Spanish crown granted various orders of the Catholic Church permission to establish mission communities, in which native peoples were to convert to Catholicism and emerge as part of an essentially medieval peasant society loyal to the crown half a world away. In 1718, Spanish representatives and members of the Franciscan order established a mission along the banks of the San Antonio River. Within 13 years, there were five missions along the river’s banks in what is now east Texas. Today, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park preserves four of these Spanish frontier missions, containing many cultural sites and natural areas.
Spanish mission communities were located within fortified walls and included storerooms, workshops, and living quarters for Spanish soldiers, the Franciscan friars, and the native people neophytes – or newly converted Christians. Native peoples proved to be relatively willing recruits for the missions, as they were pressed by nomadic tribes from both the north and south as well as the introduction and spread of European diseases that decimated their population. There was also a diversity in the types of Spaniards living in and working at the missions. Some were soldiers or missionaries come directly from Spain (peninsulares), while others came from New Spain (Mexico) or were born in the Americas (criollos). Those of mixed race (mestizos), bearing Spanish names but a culture that was a mixture of Indian and Spanish, made up the majority of the population, becoming soldiers, artisans, traders, and local officials. The mestizo children stemming from intermarriage between local Natives and Spanish Criollos were the beginnings of today's burgeoning Latino community in Texas.
In 2020, the National Park Foundation's Latino Heritage Fund established the SAAN Latino Cultural Landscape Apprenticeship program to train Latino youth for career opportunities in conservation, and preserve the historic landscape of the missions.
As the Spanish frontier expanded, a network of “royal roads,” or camino reales, developed between settlements, missions, and presidios, providing a path for soldiers, tradesmen, and civilians alike. Remnants along these trails are now protected and preserved by El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail, which stretches from the American-Mexican border east into western Louisiana.
César E. Chávez National Monument
In 1962, César E. Chávez founded the National Farm Workers Association – later the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) – to address the discrimination against farm workers. Migrant workers lacked educational opportunities for their children and lived in poverty, and the UFW offered a burial program, a credit union, health clinics, daycare centers, and job training programs for the farm workers. In the 1970s, working with Dolores Huerta and Larry Itliong, Chávez and the UFW expanded into a national voice for the poor and disenfranchised. Managedcollaboratively by the National Park Service and the National Chavez Center, César E. Chávez National Monument preserves the legacy of Chávez and his work within the farm workers movement.
Widely recognized as one of the most important Latino leaders in the United States during the twentieth century, Chávez brought sustained international attention to the plight of U.S. farm workers. Adhering strictly to nonviolent protest methods, he fought for better conditions by organizing boycotts and personally fasting. Joining with other reform movements, the farm worker movement gained support from millions of Americans and eventually led to the passage of California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, the first law in the U.S. that recognized farm worker’s collective bargaining rights.
The National Park Foundation has been a supporter of César E. Chávez National Monument since its designation. NPF's Latino Heritage Fund supported the park’s operations for its first year, and in 2015, NPF helped 130 fourth grade students travel to the park through the Every Kid Outdoors program. Additionally, a 2020 Women in Parks grant from NPF is supporting the research and documentation of the experiences of Mexica, Filipina, and Chicana women farm workers in California to develop future in-park programs.
Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park
For nearly a decade, the boundaries of Texas raised tensions between Mexico and the United States. Mexico, hoping to regain control of the rebellious state of Texas, which had claimed its independence from Mexico in 1836, by denouncing the U.S. annexation of Texas as an act of aggression. Mexico mapped the border of the region partly by the Nueces River; however, U.S. President James K. Polk announced the Rio Grande as Texas’ southern boundary, leaving a huge stretch of land between the rivers up for dispute. In 1845, Polk sent an army to the banks of Nueces River and demanded Mexico sell its territories of New Mexico and California. This infuriated Mexican President Joaquin Herrera, who refused to meet with the American envoy sent to negotiate terms. Herrera was then overthrown by Mexican General Mariano Parede y Arrillaga, who installed himself as President and expelled the envoy from Mexico, vowing to discuss nothing but the return of Texas and declaring his willingness to fight.
On May 8 1846, at a site now preserved as Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park, the first major clash of the U.S.-Mexican War (also known as the Mexican-American War) rung out as U.S. General Zachary Taylor and Mexican General Mariano Arista exchanged fire over the broad prairie of Palo Alto. Mexican forces stood their ground but suffered many casualties, retreating to Resaca de la Palma the next morning. The fighting along the Rio Grande lasted weeks, and soldiers passed the time between battles by singing, writing letters, reading newspapers and letters from home, playing cards, and even staging their own theatrical performances. As it was a “gentleman’s war,” some Mexicans invited U.S. soldiers to dinners and dances. Women from both countries followed soldiers to war, many as “camp followers” who worked as cooks, laundresses, nurses, or maids. One such "camp follower" was María Josefa Zozaya, who brought food and water to soldiers during the Battle of Monterrey before she was struck by gunfire – she was later commemorated in the songs and poems honoring the “Maid of Monterrey.” In the aftermath of the battles along the Rio Grande, despite continuing U.S. pressure and a growing list of defeats, Mexican leaders came to view the conflict as a war of honor and resisted for almost two years. When the war finally ended with the signing of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, Mexico lost half its national territory and the U.S. doubled in size.
Chamizal National Memorial
After the U.S.-Mexican War, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo used the Rio Grande as an international boundary, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to El Paso. However, this free-flowing river shifts in its course, and as they had done in the 1840s, both U.S. and Mexican officials made conflicting claims to the disputed territory. A century later in 1963 against the backdrop of the Cold War, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Adolfo López Mateos directed their governments to solve the problem, ending in the Chamizal Convention which put a diplomatic end to resolving a decades-long international disagreement.
In implementing the agreement, nearly 5,600 residents of El Paso neighborhoods were required to move. Property owners received at least fair market value and were compensated for moving and other expenses as 630 acres were transferred to Mexico and 193 to the U.S. Today Chamizal National Memorial, located in central El Paso, tells the story of this remarkable period of conflict and its eventual resolution, as well as the cultures of the borderlands and the people who live there. An art gallery filled with paintings, sculptures, and other works by borderlands artists reflects the history and landscape of the region and its people, and trails and picnic spots allow for a quiet afternoon of reflection or relaxation.
El Morro National Monument
Along a main east-west trail, rising 200 feet above the valley floor, this massive sandstone bluff has been a welcome landmark for weary travelers for centuries. Ancestral Puebloans built pueblos atop El Morro over 700 years ago, leaving behind symbols and pictures carved into the soft sandstone now preserved by El Morro National Monument. The reliable waterhole hidden at the base of the bluff and its shade continued to be a valuable source for water and a cool resting place for travelers. In the late 16th century, Spaniards wandered northward in search of riches and later to establish missions, and after the U.S.-Mexican War the land was surveyed by expeditions eager to explore the new U.S. land.
The Zuni, whose ancestors built the pueblos atop El Morro in the 13th century, call El Morro Atsinna, or “place of writings on the rock,” and the Ancestral Puebloans were not the only ones to leave their mark on the sandstone bluff. Don Juan de Onate carved his name into the rock in 1605 upon returning from a failed expedition, and other Spanish inscriptions from governors, soldiers, and priests who passed through El Morro soon joined his. Wagon trains bound for California also left their mark on the bluffs in the mid-19th century. Over 2,000 inscriptions in the sandstone are preserved by the park today, a mixture of symbols, names, dates, and fragments of stories that register the cultures and history of those who have passed through the area.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreational Area represents one of the largest protected areas of the Mediterranean-type ecosystem. Its climate, with its wet winters and dry summers, as well as the rugged mountains slopes and canyons, has created a landscape filled with unique natural resources. The landscape of the Santa Monica Mountains was also shaped by the people who lived and worked in the area for thousands of years, including many different Native Americans groups, the descendants of whom we know today as the Chumash and Tongva.
In the 18th century, the Spanish Sacred Expedition sought to convert Native American peoples and use their labor to build missions and tend the land. Land grants for rancheros (ranchers) also encouraged Spanish soldiers and Mexican settlers to move to Alta (upper) California to raise cattle and sheep. When California became part of the U.S. in 1848, many Mexican homesteaders and rancho owners moved away from their lands, leaving behind a strong cultural heritage that lasts to this day. In 1862, the Homestead Act brought another wave of Mexicans to the area, as well as many other people from various cultural backgrounds, providing a polyglot mixture of homesteaders. Places like Rancho Sierra Vista / Satwiwa and the Keller House preserve the stories and lives of those who shaped the park’s landscape. During the 2018-2019 school year, NPF introduced thousands of fourth grade students to the park through our Open OutDoors for Kids program. With Los Angeles directed as a Focus City for the program, over 23,000 fourth graders were able to take field trips to the park!
Pecos National Historical Park
Home to over 12,000 years of history, Pecos National Historical Park helps visitors explore the cultural exchange and geographic features that shaped the rich history of the Pecos Valley. Paleoindian and Archaic hunter-gatherers used this area to hunt for large animals and began to cultivate corn, beans, and squash in the area around 3500 B.C. before communities began to settle in the area. In the mid-12th century, these communities were living in multi-family pueblos and by 1450 A.D., many pueblos began to consolidate into a larger settlement at Pecos Pueblo, which, due to its location, hosted a lively trade between Plains Indians and Rio Grande Pueblos.
In the 17th century the Spanish began to establish a colony and Franciscan missions, attempting to govern and control the Puebloans. In response to their ill treatment, the Pueblos banded together in 1680 to expel the Spanish government and Franciscan friars from the Southwest. It was the first American Revolution, and it represented the only time that European invaders were successfully expelled from the country. In 1692, however, the Spanish forcefully reclaimed New Mexico and re-established their missions, finding little resistance from the Pecos People who were reeling from the effects of diseases introduced by the Europeans. After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the legendary Santa Fe Trail ran through the same Glorieta Pass, passing right by the remnants of the Pecos Pueblo which can still be seen today at the park.
Presidio of San Francisco
Presidios, or military garrisons manned by a small force of soldiers, were often built near a mission as a way to protect Spain’s expanding territory. Presidio of San Francisco, part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, was established in 1776 by an expedition led by Juan Bautista de Anza. The Presidio and its mission, located a few miles inland, was the northernmost bastion in Spain’s network of missions, presidios, and pueblos that extended south into Mexico. Poorly supplied and fortified, Spanish officials ordered the building of two additional forts – Castillo de San Joaquin, near Fort Point National Historic Site, and Bateria de Yerba Buena, at Fort Mason.
When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the Presidio’s soldiers simply switched allegiance to Mexico and when Mexico opened its ports the same year, foreign trade with the Russian American Company, Hudson's Bay Company, and others arrived at the Presidio. Land grants of the mission lands encouraged former Presidio soldiers and other Mexican citizens to establish cattle and horse ranches, and to the south of the Presidio farmsteads were constructed for people like Doña Juana Briones de Miranda, a businesswoman, healer, and landowner. The Presidio was occupied in 1846 during the U.S.-Mexican War and served as an army post until 1994, when it became part of the National Park Service.
Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail
The Presidio of San Francisco lies at the end of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, a 1,200-mile path that commemorates the route of Spanish colonists in 1775-76 who departed Sonora, Mexico (then New Spain) and traveled through Arizona and California to ultimately settle in Alta California and establish the mission and presidio in San Francisco. The expedition, led by Juan Bautista de Anza, was made up of a diverse mixture of people with Native American, European, and African heritage. Today, the 1,200-mile trail links many historic sites across Arizona and California, connecting the multi-faceted history and culture of the region, as well as the many outdoor recreational opportunities.
Cabrillo National Monument
Stepping ashore in 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to set foot on what is now the West Coast of the U.S. Cabrillo's flagship anchored on Point Loma’s east shore, near what is today Cabrillo National Monument, a park that tells the story of Cabrillo, his expedition, and the lasting effects of European exploration on the area, as well as Point Loma’s history as a strategic coastal defense center.
Landing in what he described as a “very good port,” which he named San Miguel, Cabrillo claimed the land for Spain. However, the Kumeyaay tribes had already lived in the area for thousands of years and continued to shape the landscape until the establishment of a Spanish fort in 1769. From San Miguel, Cabrillo's expedition headed north and got as far as Point Reyes before they were forced to turn back due to storms and wintered in the Channel Islands. Cabrillo himself died in January 1543, but his crew sailed north again under the leadership of Bartolome Ferrer, this time reaching as far as Oregon. Winter winds and spoiled supplies sent them back to Mexico, making the expedition a failure by contemporary measure. Yet Cabrillo’s documentation of the coast, the first written glimpse of the landscape, continued to assist future Spanish explorers in navigating the Pacific.
These parks and the stories they preserve and share are just a small sample of the parks in the National Park System that celebrate and honor the multi-faceted history and culture of Hispanic communities in the United States. The National Park Foundation is proud to support parks, programs, and projects that provide and preserve a greater understanding of the comprehensive and multi-faceted story of our country’s history, as well as work with partner organizations such as Latino Outdoors and the Hispanic Access Foundation, who seek to connect Latino communities with our public lands. We invite you to learn more about these fascinating stories and celebrate the accomplishments of Hispanic and Latino Americans of past and present.
*The term “Hispanic” refers to a person who is from, or a descendent of someone who is from, a Spanish-speaking country. The term “Latino, Latina, Latine, and Latinx” refer to a person who is from, or a descendent of someone who is from, a country in Latin America.