Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, second from left, met with Latino artists and lawmakers in May to discuss the National Museum of the American Latino. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Troubled by a wide shortage of national historic sites tied to the work of women and minorities, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in the past year has pushed the National Park Service to identify more sites or properties that could be added to the National Register of Historic Places or be preserved as national parks or national historic landmarks.

“Less than 3 percent of all the national landmarks that we have – the highest designation you can receive as a historic landmark – are designated for women, Latinos, African Americans or other members of minority groups,” Salazar said last week. “That tells you that the score is not even.”

Salazar’s concerns will be one of several issues discussed at a White House Latino Heritage Forum scheduled for Wednesday. The meetings, set to bring together a who’s who of Latino business, political, religious and entertainment leaders, are slated to focus on whether the government is properly serving Hispanic students, small business owners, military veterans and artists.

The meetings, held in the closing days of Hispanic Heritage Month, come as both President Obama’s reelection campaign and Republican presidential contenders are reaching out to Latinos ahead of next year's election.

Already the Obama White House has hosted meetings with hundreds of Latino leaders in hopes of rekindling excitement among Hispanic voters, while Republicans and conservative political groups are preparing to bankroll Spanish-language radio and television ads blasting Obama’s record.

But Salazar said the White House-sponsored meetings have nothing to do with electoral politics — and everything to do with finding ways to improve the country’s poor preservation of Hispanic history and culture.

“I think when you look at the way Americans most understand the history of Latinos in this country, a lot of it is being told now through the lens of what’s happening with the immigration debate,” Salazar said last week at a reporter breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “While that’s an important debate that has security and moral implications, in my view, there’s also a huge history of Latinos in the United States that’s never been told.”

Taking advantage of his perch as head of the Park Service and the administration’s highest-ranking Latino, Salazar in June ordered a national study of people, places and stories worthy of national historic preservation. He has also met with Park Service rangers in California in an effort to identify Latino-themed sites in the state.

One such location, the “Forty Acres”site used by labor activist Cesar Chavez in the 1960s to raise awareness about the plight of migrant farm workers, earned national historic landmark status in February. The agency is now asking the public to weigh in on other sites that could be used to commemorate Chavez’s legacy.

Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to memorialize Latino history will come with construction of the National Museum of the American Latino, whose planning commission is seeking permission to build a site near the U.S. Capitol that recognizes more than 500 years of contributions by the Latino community. The project would cost at least $600 million and be financed with private and federal dollars.

Agree or disagree with Salazar? What other groups or people should also earn the recognition? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Further reading:

National Museum of the American Latino recommended by presidential panel

MLK Memorial quote concerns Interior secretary

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