Throughout our complex history, one aspect has always remained clear and consistent - there are many faces of America. As a country of immigrants, this diversity has and will continue to lend great strength to our nation. However, we must not forget that a strong America is one that is inclusive as well as diverse.
Having lived here for 400 years, Latinos are a critical part of our nation's fabric. Although 50 million Latinos currently live in the United States, the story of their contributions and rich cultural heritage has fallen through the cracks as we have written history books for our children, formed our national monuments and parks, and, in many ways, developed a national identity for the future of America. The National Park Service - the part of our government charged with protecting sites of national historic, cultural or ecological value - can and should play a major role in recognizing the important history and culture of American Latinos.
As the 50th Secretary of the Interior, it is clear to me that historic places associated with Latino heritage are underrepresented in official National Park Service programs at all levels. In fact, just over three percent of historic properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places - the nation's official list of historic places worthy of preservation - are recognized for their association with the heritage of Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and American Indians.
This startling figure grossly overlooks the people, places, and sites that have played such an integral role in shaping this country. From Florida to California, the reach and influence of Latinos stretches from coast to coast, but it is not reflected in the larger American story.
Under President Obama's leadership, however, we are working to raise the profile of American Latinos for the benefit of future generations.
At the Department of the Interior, we have launched the American Latino Heritage Initiative to explore different pathways to better recognize the countless contributions Latinos have made. Spearheaded by the National Park Service, the initiative will evaluate the assets held by the service and identify the missing links.
As the initiative gains steam, the number of recognized and protected places within the National Park Service family will continue to grow. We are looking for new ways to build the number of national park units, national historic trails, national heritage areas, and national historic landmarks associated with Latino heritage that are protected and interpreted by the National Park Service.
We have already made significant strides in implementing this initiative. For example, just one year ago, I had the honor to stand next to Paul Chávez, the son of a 20th century hero whose sacrifice improved the lives of millions. To celebrate the life and legacy of César Chávez, together we officially dedicated '40 Acres', the headquarters of the United Farm Workers as a National Historic Landmark. Cesar Chavez was a true champion of change and with the designation of the site where it all began, visitors will be able to learn about his story and appreciate his struggle toward a more perfect union.
These are the stories that need to be told to a diverse America. These are the stories that will help us build an inclusive America.
Whether it is through our families, our classrooms, or our historic sites, we will continue to find ways to better tell our national narrative in a more complete and inclusive way. Throughout our history, our diversity has been our strength and it is undeniable that our national parks and historical sites reveal a lot about our nation's character. This initiative is just the beginning.
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Ken Salazar is the Secretary of Interior.