National parks made my immigrant family American

The parks reflect America’s unique immigrant history and help us feel seen in the country’s evolving landscape

(Illustration by Katty Huertas/The Washington Post)
7 min

My father became an American citizen on the Fourth of July in 2016. Standing before a panorama of towering cactuses at Saguaro National Park, he and 19 other Tucson residents took the citizenship oath exactly 240 years after the United States declared independence from Great Britain — and 100 years after the National Park Service was established.

Long before we became U.S. citizens, my parents and I blended our Indian cultural traditions with our burgeoning American identities through frequent road trips across national parks. On Christmas morning, instead of gathering around a tree and opening presents, the three of us would load our car with a cooler full of chapatis wrapped in tinfoil and thermoses packed with sabji and drive to one of America’s natural wonders to picnic. There, we’d see other Indian families — seemingly almost all of the park visitors in sight that day — doing the same. We spent last Christmas in Big Bend, hiking along the shimmering Rio Grande at the country’s southern lip. The year before that, we spent the holiday in White Sands, sledding along gypsum sand dunes as the December wind whipped through our hair.

The first U.S. national park was created 151 years ago on March 1, 1872, when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act. Since Yellowstone’s inception, millions have relished America’s national parks, heritage sites and monuments. For my family, these places have never been havens for backpacking and mountain-climbing. We aren’t an athletic family, and have best enjoyed the views through scenic overlooks, leisurely strolls along well-beaten paths, or from the refuge of our roving sedan.

For immigrants like us, the country’s national parks, often heralded as “America’s best idea,” are more than picturesque retreats into the great outdoors. They have helped us define and shape our own American consciousness long before we had U.S. passports. They allow us to see ourselves in America’s evolving landscape.

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After my parents left India in their twenties, they lived for a decade in the United Kingdom, where I was born, before we moved to the United States in 2002, when I was a toddler. The timing of our move coincided with the aftermath of 9/11, which drastically shifted the trajectory of America’s perennial immigration debate, demonizing those who look like us, including South Asian, Muslim and Arab immigrants. Still, we wanted to give America a chance.

The U.K. doesn’t proudly brand itself as a nation of immigrants who can achieve the same as their natural-born counterparts, my parents told me. Only America could claim that label. There was no better way, we decided, for us to explore our burgeoning American identity than to indulge in an all-American pastime: road trips.

National parks were my family’s door to America. Doubling the entry fees would limit access to immigrants like my father.

It began with the Grand Canyon, which became our one-stop shop for relatives and friends who visited us in Arizona. Despite the park being a five-hour drive from Tucson, we still make it a point to show our guests the glimmering South Rim as the sun slips behind the canyon before spending the night in a Route 66 roadside motel. Our travels embody the highway’s eternal promise: Starting in the 1930s, westward-bound migrants traversed the road in search of new beginnings during the Great Depression. By the 1950s, Route 66 became a popular highway for vacationing families: a centerpiece of what would become known as the “great American road trip.” Now, 70 years later, immigrants like me and my parents have re-envisioned the tradition, taking the steering wheel and riding the highways that stretch like arteries across the country’s pulsing heart.

National parks also helped us grasp at the lesser-known tendrils of American history. While visiting the Great Smoky Mountains in 2019, we learned how the lush region, settled by European immigrants in the 18th century, was first inhabited by the Cherokee and then developed on the backs of enslaved people.

After that, we drove down to Atlanta, where we visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park and began to understand how King’s civil rights victories cleared a trail for Asians like us to move to the United States under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which removed national-origins quotas.

And when we visited Yosemite in 2013, we became aware of John Muir, the Scottish immigrant whose activism led to the park’s creation, although he himself harbored racist views toward Indigenous and Black people. Hundreds of Chinese immigrants, we learned, also helped develop Yosemite, building roads with handpicks and shovels.

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Beyond educating us about U.S. history, our trips to national parks offered us vital civics lessons as we mounted the rungs of American bureaucracy, evolving from visa holders to permanent residents to, finally, naturalized U.S. citizens. While driving to Arches in southeastern Utah, just before the 2020 presidential election — the first my mother and I could vote in — we listened to the final presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden on the radio, in which the candidates discussed immigration for the first time.

And on Christmas Eve in 2021, we rode east along Interstate 10 to White Sands, stopping at a roadside Punjabi dhaba in Deming, N.M., where we noticed the growing number of Punjabi immigrants in the trucking industry. These immigrants, we learned, are transforming the American highway.

Each national park we explored fostered a renewed appreciation for America and its possibilities, but simultaneously taught us something new about its blemished history and politics.

Over time, American immigration debate has taken new shapes — and national parks remain central to the narrative. Earlier this year, the Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida temporarily shut down after 300 migrants, mostly Cubans fleeing economic crisis and repressive government, arrived on the islands. And migrants from Central America continue to trudge across Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a federally protected area of the Sonoran Desert, in southern Arizona after crossing the Mexican border on foot. Their remains are still excavated in the depths of the desert, while border wall construction threatens the landscape.

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My parents and I haven’t yet visited Organ Pipe, although it is a short, two-hour drive southwest of Tucson. The monument pays homage to the organ pipe and senita cactuses — the only place in America where they grow in the wild. But it is also a physical reminder of the migrants who still risk their lives in a grueling quest to become the country’s newest immigrants. Their journeys may differ from ours, but nevertheless cement a cornerstone of the immigration stories that have always stitched the nation’s patchwork.

“National parks are the best idea we ever had,” the novelist Wallace Stegner once declared. “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

On that momentous Fourth of July in Saguaro National Park, I was mindful of this country’s complicated, thorny history. Still, I fought back tears as my father lifted his right hand and took the oath of allegiance to the United States. Since moving here in 2002, we waited 14 years — until the cusp of my adulthood — to officially call ourselves Americans.

The oath, then, was a long time coming. But there was no better place to recite those 140 words than in a national park full of saguaros, their emerald arms forever outstretched in greeting to welcome the three of us as Americans — not just on that scorching summer morning, but long before we had the passports to prove it.