Take a Hike and Explore your Identity

Tomas Deza
Huffpost Voces
Tuesday, September 22, 2015

SCA Alum Documents his journey with the National Parks Service

by Tomás Deza

This year the scale that weighs my two identities was finally balanced. I have lived the same number of years in the United States as in Argentina, where I grew up. To commemorate this anniversary, I became a citizen of the United States in July. Like me, hundreds of families throughout the country celebrated Citizenship Day on September 17th.

Working in such beautiful parks and interacting with local students… I began to feel a real sense of belonging in this country for the first time.

I grew up in Tucumán, Argentina, where you can find both tropical forests at the foot of the Andes and high desert valleys where temperatures drop substantially at night. As a child, my opportunities to explore the region were limited, but I have retained very vivid images of the trips I took with my family to nearby parks and historic towns. Following a devastating financial crisis in Argentina, my mother brought me to the United States when I was 11-years-old. As many immigrants will surely understand, during my first years in Washington D.C., I surrounded myself with other Hispanic immigrants to ease my transition into this new city. Although being surrounded by Spanish-speaking friends was a source of comfort for me, it also isolated me from the local non-Spanish-speaking community. Living and going to school in English lowered my self-esteem and made me much quieter than I had been before.

But one winter day during my sophomore year of high school, a recruiting team from the Student Conservation Association (SCA) visited my Environmental Science class, and I signed up for their annual Conservation Leadership Corps program. Alongside other teenagers, I spent time repairing and renovating trails, removing invasive species, and once even helped President Obama plant trees on Earth Day! The most important legacy of the three years I spent working with SCA is the people I met. While working in such beautiful parks and interacting with local students, some of whom soon became my closest friends, I began to feel a real sense of belonging in this country for the first time.

The most important legacy of the three years I spent working with SCA is the people I met.

Fast-forward seven years to the current day: I am a newly naturalized citizen making videos for the National Park Service thanks to the Latino Heritage Internship Program. While my naturalization ceremony wasn’t held in a national park, an agreement renewed last week by the National Park Service and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services will give hundreds of new citizens the opportunity to take their oath of allegiance in the special places that the National Park Service cares for on behalf of every American. On September 17, just as the agreement was being renewed, the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in Flat Rock, North Carolina, hosted a naturalization ceremony for 25 new Americans.

One of the privileges and responsibilities that all Americans share is ownership of the beautiful and historic places found at the 408 national park sites across the country. The national parks have been so important to my experience as a resident and now citizen of the US, so this is something I deeply appreciate. When I visited Acadia National Park in Maine as a shy and somewhat homesick teenager, the silence on top of a hill on a cool summer morning reminded me of my travels with my mother through the high valleys of northwest Argentina. In that moment, my new country didn’t seem quite so foreign anymore.

To celebrate the upcoming centennial of the National Park Service in 2016, the National Park Foundation launched the Find Your Park movement, which encourages everyone to get up, get out there, and find their park – even one in your own community. Speaking from my own experience, I encourage everyone, but especially immigrants like me, to Find Your Park in order to take advantage of the many ways the national parks help us connect to the outdoors and to each other.

Tomás Deza is a communications associate for the National Park Service. This summer he was a member of the Latino Heritage Internship Program (LHIP) and he volunteered for many years with the Student Conservation Association (SCA). He originally wrote this article in Spanish for Huffpost Voces.