For 70 years, Latinos have played a central role in the economy and culture of Washington's Yakima Valley. Yet they are largely missing from the area's monuments and historic sites.
That is a theme that repeats across the United States, even in areas where Latino settlers preceded white settlers by hundreds of years. Only about 3 percent of the more than 85,000 entries in the National Register of Historic Places are dedicated to minority groups, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Interior.
To change that, the National Park Service launched the American Latino Heritage initiative last year. The project's efforts include identifying historically significant Latino sites for preservation, studying the barriers to preserving historic sites of minority groups, and finding better ways to tell the story of Latinos in America.
"We've lost a lot of these sites already," said Jennifer Meisner of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation and an event organizer.
Gabriel Martinez, station master at Radio KDNA in Granger, said at least one historic site worthy of preservation or at least marking as significant would be the Yakima Valley's Crewport settlement, one of the first places migrant workers landed in the '40s and '50s.
As part of the Interior Department's preservation efforts, 35 high school students, mostly from Western Washington, came to Yakima Valley this week to learn about the area's Latino heritage and find ways the National Park Service can tell that story to young people. The event is serving as a pilot program that, if successful, could be a model for similar events in other states.
The four-day tour originated in youth summits in Colorado dedicated to historic preservation.
As in Colorado, participants in the Washington summit are expected to produce practical recommendations for strengthening historic preservation.
"We treat the students like consultants. This is not a field trip. This is not a camp," Colorado organizer Ann Pritzlaff said. She is helping to organize the Washington tour.
Since starting in 2007, the Colorado youth summits have produced tangible results. Students helped the city of Denver overhaul its Denver Story Trek campaign, which it rolled out for the 2008 Democratic Convention.
Earlier this year, the Interior Department consulted some Colorado students involved in the summits about the American Latino Heritage initiative.
"I got to have lunch and speak Spanish with the Secretary of the Interior" Ken Salazar, Alex Rios said.
The Denver high school student also recommended ways to improve the campaign.
"For me, it was really important that all Latino and Hispanic people aren't just lumped together," Rios said. "Because being Mexican or Cuban is really different than being Honduran or Guatalemalan."
Or Spanish in Rios' case. His ancestors emigrated from Spain to Colorado and northern New Mexico in the late 1500s.
Along with a couple other students and Pritzlaff, the 16-year-old came to the Yakima Valley to serve as a mentor to the Washington students.
"What I want them to take away is that they can make a difference," he said.
The group is presenting its recommendations to National Park Service officials and others are a town hall Friday at Mount Rainier National Park.
Sixteen-year-old Jonathan Gomez Ross said he already felt more connected to his heritage and more empowered to protect it after only one day.
"I really don't know my own history," he said.
That history includes the Yakima Valley, where his family lived for two generations after emigrating from the Oaxaca region of southern Mexico. Today, Gomez Ross and his parents live in Seattle, where he attends Cleveland High School.
Several students at the summit expressed a similar ignorance of the history of Latino Americans. When asked how many had studied civil rights leader and labor organizer Cesar Chavez, only three students raised their hands.
Ricardo Garcia, co-founder of KDNA, a Spanish-language public radio station in Granger, gave the students a first-hand account of that struggle in the Yakima Valley. The station helped keep the Latino community connected during that fight in the late 1970s and 1980s.
"The history that I've lived through the past 55 years needs to be written," Garcia told the students.
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