Located on the southern tip of Florida, the Everglades National Park – a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve, Wetland of International Importance, and a specially protected area under the Cartagena Treaty – is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles live side by side. And now, thanks to interpretative ranger Daniel Agudelo, visitors to this 1.5 million-acre marvel can learn about the park in Spanish.
“I wanted to be a change agent to make the space more comfortable for everybody,” says Agudelo, who notes that 60 percent of households in Miami Dade county, where the park is located, speak Spanish as a first language. “We offer a German walking tour every Wednesday due to the number of German visitors we get, but no Spanish tour in Miami? If we’re trying to be more inclusive to the community, we as a park need to resemble that community.”
Breaking Barriers of Language and Culture
As a young seasonal ranger fresh out of college, Agudelo decided to effect that change himself, proposing a ranger-led guided walk in Spanish in the hope of attracting more local residents to visit the Everglades. “Here I was, this new guy coming in with these radical ideas,” he recalls. “Were they going to pay attention to me, were they going to think I was crazy? But my supervisor was super supportive and the whole team encouraged me. I was very appreciative.”
Despite Agudelo’s fluency in Spanish, giving a tour in another language was no easy task: first off, it required learning new names for the multitude of flora and fauna that inhabit the park, a specialized vocabulary that most people never learn in their day-to-day lives. Over and above the lexical issues, however, the primary challenge was cultural. “How can I portray the concept of wilderness to a family that lives in a city and speaks very little English?” Agudelo says. This is an especially acute issue for a park like the Everglades, whose swampy denizens can scare people off from taking tours, however safe they are.
The problem that Agudelo is trying to solve is not unique to the Everglades: America’s national parks often fail to attract visitors from underprivileged and minority communities, even though they may be located very close to an urban area. To counter this, Everglades park set up a free trolley service from Miami for those without access to cars or unable to pay the $25 parking fee. “I also make sure to point out to people that the park is open 24 hours a day, so before 8:00 or after 5:00 you can come in for free,” Agudelo says. He has also taken to social media, creating bilingual promotional videos to get the word out and allow people to get a taste of the park from the comfort of their own homes. The park even got in on the Pokemon Go phenomenon, hosting both the virtual figures and real meetups that attracted some 200 people.
Outreach from the Arctic Circle to Santa Monica with the SCA
Agudelo’s commitment to outreach is both a personal commitment and an outgrowth of his experience with the Student Conservation Association. Having discovered the SCA by chance during his college years, he soon found himself attending its National Park Service Academy, a learning program designed to introduce young people – especially those from diverse and minority backgrounds – to career opportunities in the park service. “We learned about how the baby boomers are going to be retiring soon, so there’s going to be a void,” he says. “And if we want to be relevant to the next century, we’re going to have to connect.” Agudelo certainly made his connection, as he wound up interning for the SCA every single summer during college.
The internships proved to be as varied as they were formative. His first assignment sent him 20 miles north of the Arctic circle to the Inuit community of Kotzebue, Alaska. There, he participated in the construction of an interpretive park that combined elements of the four areas that make up the Western Arctic National Parklands. As the parklands are remote, difficult, and expensive to access, the interpretative park – which included informative pavilions and a garden with native plants – gave residents a chance to get a sense of the natural areas that make up a part of their cultural heritage but which they might otherwise be unable to access.
From the frigid north, Agudelo’s next assignment took him to the National Park Service’s downtown office in sunny Los Angeles. Again, the goal was outreach, but the methods were rather different. “We converted a food truck into a mobile museum,” he recalls. “We’d drive that truck to each neighborhood, pull up to the curbside and set out information and games and talk to people who’d probably never heard of the Santa Monica Mountains in their lifetimes, even though they live so close to it.” The bilingual internship, raising awareness with minority communities about a national park resource located very close to where they live, proved to be the ideal training grounds for his future work in South Florida.
Agudelo landed his job at the Everglades right out of college. Although it is currently a seasonal position, it represents an impressive start to his ranger career. He is realistic, though, about what it took to get there. “It was hard. Internships don’t pay as much. You do the same work as an interpretive ranger but without the same respect. There were a lot of sacrifices.” But he wouldn’t exchange it for anything. “If it weren’t for the SCA, I don’t know where I’d be,” he concludes.
From the Bottom Up
Agudelo’s story conveys two important lessons. First, that the National Park Service as an institution is making serious efforts to look more like America. And second, as Agudelo’s proposal to create a Spanish tour in his park demonstrates, that the most successful efforts to improve diversity often come from the bottom up. This only underscores the importance, then, of encouraging people from all paths and provenances to join the conservation field – in order to broaden it from within.
Want to learn more about getting a job with the park services? Check out our two-part series on what it takes to become a park ranger.