Midy Aponte (Courtesy Rodney Choice/www.choicephotography.com)

Latina Leaders: On a mission to increase Hispanic presence in our national parks

Midy Aponte has one mission – ensuring that Latinos are an integral part of America’s national parks and historic sites. She was appointed as the Founding Executive Director of the American Latino Heritage Fund of the National Park Foundation in the Fall of 2011.

Established by former Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, the mission of the American Latino Heritage Fund is to assist the National Park Service, and communities across the country, to ensure that our national parks and historic sites preserve, reflect and engage the diverse stories and communities of American Latinos throughout American History and for future generations.

For the past two years, Aponte has been spearheading the Fund’s strategic direction and overseen management of programs and development to establish the Fund’s national presence.

Speaking about Salazar, Aponte says, “He saw an opportunity to make a change that is going to have a lasting legacy, not only for him, but for all of us.”

“I think that when you are in a position of leadership, and you see an opportunity, you take it,” she adds.

Where were you born, and raised? Where is your family from?
Both of my parents are from Cuba. I was born in Washington Heights, New York but was raised in Miami, Florida. I now live in Washington, D.C.

With a background in communications and business, what attracted you to the world of national parks?
I was about to enter three years building my business The Sánchez Ricardo Agency, a Hispanic Communications and Digital Media Consultancy in Washington, D.C. I was continuing my career in public relations, when I was approached by a former colleague about joining American Latino Heritage Fund of the National Park Foundation. I first turned it down, because I wanted to continue to build my business…but the mission and the vision and the call to action was way too large, and so I wanted to be a part of it. I felt deeply we needed to do this at the right time and right moment to change the national dialogue — so I went with it full force and haven’t looked back. I put a full pause on the agency, and I am focused entirely on the Fund for now.

What is the main reason studies show that only 9 percent of Latinos currently visit national parks?
What we’ve heard from our bloggers is that we don’t see our history reflected in the parks. I’ve heard people say that they’re too expensive, that you need a special membership, that it’s too far away, or camping is not a part of the Latino cultural fabric. We are little by little deconstructing that. Entries are usually $9 or $17, and no, you don’t have to camp or need a membership. There are hotels and resorts. I think it’s just not knowing. It hasn’t been part of our experience.

What do you find to be the best method so far to getting more Latinos to go to national parks?
Just informing. We held an expedition in August where we took nine bloggers to get to know the parks — go on a hike with the park rangers, go for a drive and see the waterfalls and the mountains and the canyons.

I didn’t grow up going to parks, but the first time I went to a real national park (besides the Everglades), was the Fall of 2011 — Big Bend National Park. Once you visit one, there is a bug that gets inside you, and you want to go back. First you have to get them there, and that’s why the expedition was so critical.

I think the Latino community, in general, is very hungry and thirsty for knowledge about our own history. With the increase of Hispanics, they are wanting to revisit that history, and explore it, and understand it. I think it’s important for us to know our own stories.

What do you love most about your job?
I think it’s the people, the community that’s on social media, on the ground, and the encouragement I feel — the love I feel from people wanting to see the Fund grow and succeed. I also love doing research and finding out things like there was a community of Cubans in Philadelphia in the 1700’s, also talking to the park rangers, doing work to reach multicultural audiences, and going to visit the parks.

What’s the one piece of advice as you rose in your career you will never forget?
Something that was told to me very early on — “If you don’t have a seat at the table, bring your own chair.” You have to fight for it to be heard and instill change. We’re all empowered and equipped to be that voice.

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