By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Hispanic Heritage Month begins on September 15 of each year to mark the independence day of five Latin American countries — Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Our nearest neighbor to the south, Mexico, celebrates its independence on September 16, and Chile on September 18. In this column we’ll take a look at 13 U.S. national parks, monuments, and historic sites that commemorate a Hispanic past.
1. Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, Florida
Castillo de San Marcos was built between 1672 and 1695 to protect the city of St. Augustine and to guard the sea route for treasure ships returning to Spain. The fort served several nations over the next three centuries: Spain, Britain, Spain again, and finally the United States, but it was never taken by military force. After Florida was purchased by the United States in 1821, it was renamed Fort Marion and used by the U.S. army until 1899.
2. Fort Matanzas National Monument, Florida
A ferry carries visitors across the Matanzas River to this historic fort located 14 miles south of St. Augustine. There you’ll find a visitors center, a self-guided nature trail, and broad ocean beaches. The well-preserved masonry watchtower fort was built by the Spanish from 1740 to 1742. The tall tower allowed a view of all vessels approaching St. Augustine from the south, and its cannon kept potential enemies from advancing up the Matanzas River.
3. De Soto National Memorial, Florida
You may have learned about Hernando de Soto in grade school, but this is the real thing. The memorial in Bradenton commemorates this conquistador’s 1539 landing and exploration. At the age of 14, de Soto sailed from Spain for the New World, spending his first years in Central and South America. In his early 30s, de Soto was both rich and bored, so he led his own expedition into what is now the Southeastern United States. The De Soto National Memorial museum displays maps of de Soto’s four-year journey, information from archaeological sites along de Soto’s trail, and examples of 16th-century Spanish armor and weapons, as well as American Indian pottery.
4. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Almost 70 miles west of Key West lies a cluster of seven islands composed of coral reefs and sand that, with the surrounding shoals and waters, make up the Dry Tortugas. The area is famous for its bird and marine life, its legends of pirates and sunken gold, and Fort Jefferson, one of the largest coastal forts ever built. Ponce de Leon discovered the Tortugas in 1513, naming it for the numerous sea turtles, or “tortugas,” that inhabited the islands. Since then, the Dry Tortugas have been the site of hundreds of shipwrecks. As for getting there, unless your coach floats, you need to travel those 70 miles in the air or on a scheduled boat tour.
5. Fort Frederica National Monument, Georgia
Located on St. Simons Island, Fort Frederica was established in 1736 by the British to claim the same southern coastal area already contested by France and Spain. They endured several Spanish attempts to take the fort. The Spaniards finally withdrew, and nearly 20 years later the English did the same. Fort Frederica National Monument contains the sites of the town and the fort. An hour or two in the visitors center rewards tourists with insight into the unusual history of this monument.
6. Chamizal National Memorial, Texas
Located in El Paso, the memorial commemorates the 1963 settlement of a century-long boundary dispute between Mexico and the United States. You’ll visit the Los Paisanos Gallery with its displays of ceramics, sculptures, and other media, as well as traveling museum exhibits. An indoor theater and outdoor amphitheater are the locations for lectures, poetry readings, musicals, and other performances.
7. San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, Texas
Four Spanish frontier missions — San Jose, San Juan, Espada, and Concepcion — dating from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, are preserved here. Threatened by French encroachments from Louisiana, Spain stepped up its colonization and established six missions in what is now eastern Texas. By 1731, changing political policies, drought, and disease caused the missions to falter. The San Antonio missions seen today still bear the distinctive stamp of generations of Indian and Spanish inhabitants and are still active parishes.
8. Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site, Texas
On May 8, 1846, troops of the United States and Mexico clashed on the prairie of Palo Alto in the first battle of a two-year war over the ownership and boundaries of Texas. As the only unit of the National Park Service with a primary focus on the U.S.-Mexican War, Palo Alto Battlefield also interprets the entire conflict, representing the perspectives of both the United States and Mexico. The 3,400-acre site lies at the southern tip of Texas. The visitors center offers an orientation video and exhibits on both the battle and the U.S.-Mexican War.
9. El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico
El Malpais National Monument is a relative newcomer to the National Park System. The name means “the badlands,” but don’t let that deter you. The area holds much interest beyond the fact that Francisco Vasquez de Coronado visited it in 1540. The Spaniards must have been impressed by the landscape’s weird volcanic features, such as lava flows, cinder cones, wrinkled pressure ridges, and elaborate lava tube systems. However, they had to be disappointed to find that the Seven Cities of Cibola, which were said to be filled with gold and wealth, were only a myth.
10. El Morro National Monument, New Mexico
In western New Mexico, a castle-like bluff rises 200 feet above the surrounding desert. At the base of the bluff, called Inscription Rock, is a year-round waterhole where seven centuries of residents and passersby recorded something of their history while they rested and slaked their thirst. First to come were the ancestral Pueblo Indians, who carved petroglyphs into the rock. Then, in the late 1500s, the Spanish arrived, and later, the Americans. While they rested in its shade and drank from the pool, many carved their signatures, dates, and messages. Today El Morro National Monument protects more than 2,000 inscriptions and petroglyphs, as well as Puebloan ruins.
11. Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, New Mexico
Located in central New Mexico, this monument contains the ruins of three Pueblo Indian villages, plus Spanish mission structures from the 17th century. Back then, the Salinas Valley was one of the most populous parts of their world. People lived in apartment-like complexes with hundreds of rooms surrounded by courtyards or plazas. When the Spaniards arrived in 1598, they found a desert, rather than a land of milk and honey. So instead of getting rich, the colony focused on converting the natives to Christianity. The friars learned and preached in the native languages and didn’t attempt to destroy the native religion. By mid-century, however, their successors attempted to extinguish the Indians’ religion, and conflict followed.
12. Coronado National Memorial, Arizona
The exploratory voyage of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, which took place from 1540 to 1542, brought the Spanish to what would be called the Southwest. The memorial was established at the Arizona-Mexico border with the hope that Mexico would create another memorial on its side. Should you go, plan to spend a couple of hours in the museum, a half-hour to hike to Coronado Peak, and a bit more time to enjoy the scenic overlook at Montezuma Pass. If you’re a spelunker, come armed with flashlights to enjoy exploring Coronado Cave. Regularly scheduled interpretive programs are offered during the busy seasons.
13. Cabrillo National Monument, California
On September 28, 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo landed at San Diego Bay near what is now Cabrillo National Monument. He and his crew were the first Europeans to explore the West Coast of the future United States. A statue of Cabrillo looks out over the bay. A film and an exhibit hall highlight Cabrillo’s life and times at the visitors center. A model of his flagship also can be seen. And the view overlooking the bay is exquisite.