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Ken Salazar urges more Latino-themed national parks, sites

With the nation’s Latino population booming and now the country’s largest minority group, the Obama administration’s top Hispanic official is concerned that the federal government is not giving enough attention to Hispanic history and culture.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in the past year has pushed the National Park Service to identify more sites or properties related to the histories of women and minorities that could be added to the National Register of Historic Places or be preserved as national parks or 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 in a meeting with reporters last week. “That tells you that the score is not even.”

The secretary’s concerns will be one of several issues discussed at White House meetings on Latino heritage 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 Latino voters. Obama administration officials are meeting regularly with hundreds of Latino leaders in hopes of rekindling excitement among Hispanic voters, while Republicans and conservative activists are preparing a series of 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 are instead designed 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 meeting 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.”

Salazar, who oversees the National Park Service, in June ordered a national study of people and places worthy of national historic preservation. He said he has also met with Park Service rangers in California to try to identify Latino-themed sites in the state.

One 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 asking the public to weigh in on other sites that could be used to commemorate Chavez’s legacy.

The most ambitious attempt to date to memorialize Latino history will come with construction of the National Museum of the American Latino, whose planning commission is pushing to build on a site near the U.S. Capitol. The project would cost about $600 million and be financed with a mix of private and federal dollars.

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Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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