Latino Heritage In Our National Parks
Before our final #ALEx14 dinner, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Superintendent David Vela, a fellow Tejano, for a short interview. Superintendent Vela’s career with the National Park Service began right here in my hometown of San Antonio, TX at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. He is from Wharton County, Texas and is a Texas A&M graduate. Besides being from Texas, he won me over when he shared that his wife Melissa was his kindergarten sweetheart.
Superintendent Vela is the first Latino Senior Executive Superintendent of Grand Teton National Park. What really makes Grand Teton so special to him is that in the late 1960s his parents chose to take a vacation to Yellowstone National Park and on the trip, Grand Teton National Park was the first park they visited.
Superintendent Vela shared, “It was life-changing, literally. I was a teenager in late 1960s and I saw rangers in this uniform and not knowing anything about what they did, I thought to myself ‘I want to work in a place like this.’ I was asked at Leadership Wyoming, ‘What’s your most memorable experience?’ It was two weeks ago when my parents came up from Wharton, Texas and stayed two weeks with us. When they went up to the Superintendent’s office, their son’s office, with the view of Grand Teton in the background, it was emotional. It was THAT trip in the late 1960s that was life changing. And now all those years later they were sitting in the Superintendent’s office belonging to their son.”
Superintendent Vela talked about his 34-year career both in and out of the National Park Service which landed him at Grand Teton National Park as Superintendent in early 2014.
“I’m the only Latino Senior Executive in the National Park Service,” he shared with a great sense of pride. “For us, the blessing that I have to be here, not only as a Superintendent but as a Latino, is amazing. This park offers the wow factor. I don’t care where you’re from. I don’t care what your financial status is, this is YOUR national park. YOU own it. I’m just the caretaker for you. And I want the next generations to know what you now know. This is a welcoming, comforting, inspirational place and I’m blessed that I have the honor of overseeing it with an amazing staff, partners, stakeholders, and community. It is quite amazing.”
He continued on to say, “We can’t thank you enough for being here [referring to the #ALEx14 bloggers]. It is your generation that is going to help us let people know what’s within the realm of possibility. You can have these experiences, you can live, you can work in these places, and maybe one day you can run a place like this as a superintendent. That’s the blessing we have. We are just glad you are here.”
I shared with Superintendent Vela how glad we were to be there, too. “We’re so Tejano proud. When they told me that you were from Texas I was even more Tejano proud; it really brings it full circle for me. This is the first time I’ve seen anything like this. On my application, I noted that San Antonio Missions was the only national park I had been to,” I explained.
Queridos, as I got myself ready for #ALEx14, I anticipated learning some secret history of how Latinos contributed to something really special at Grand Teton National Park. There is no secret history. So, what did I learn?
Latino leaders in the National Park Service like Superintendent Vela and park rangers like Millie and Ricardo, and the ALEx13 and ALEx14 (and future) bloggers ARE writing the Latino heritage of the national parks. As Superintendent Vela said over and over,“THIS is YOUR park.” He wasn’t just talking to those of us in the room. He was talking to all of us Americans.
So, I say this to you Americans: YOU own our national parks. They are YOURS. Come and enjoy them!
And you, as American Latinos, are part of the Latino heritage in our national parks.
Get to know more about Melanie Mendez-Gonzales by clicking here.