He grew up listening to his teachers tell him that his ancestors had come to the United States on the Mayflower.
Now, as he readies to exit his high-profile cabinet post in the Obama administration, Ken Salazar hopes his legacy will highlight his cultural roots.
The manner in which he criticized Eurocentric classroom teaching fueled a determination, when he assumed his post as Interior Secretary, to push for civil rights for Hispanics.
On Wednesday, when the White House announced that Salazar planned to step down in March, many Latino leaders noted that the native Coloradan stayed true to his vow.
Salazar, one of the few Latinos whom President Obama picked for his cabinet, helped form a commission to study the establishment of a Latino museum at the Smithsonian, played a key role in the national landmark designation of the California 40-acre compound of the late civil rights leader Cesar Chávez, and oversaw a review meant to make the case for the creation of a national park chronicling the story of Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado.
That voice for Latino recognition in the nation’s landmarks and parks prompted some leaders to lament losing Salazar in the capital’s corridors of power.
“He’s done a great job,” said Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. The role of monuments and parks across the United States, Wilkes said, “is where our part of history doesn’t get told … it’s mainly the English heritage.”
Salazar, 57, who identifies as a Mexican-American, was working hard to change that, Wilkes said.
Cid Wilson, who served on the commission to study the establishment of the National Museum of the American Latino, and who is an acquaintance of Salazar, said the news of the former U.S. senator’s resignation had saddened him.
“He fought to keep the whole project of a museum devoted to Latino history in the U.S. in the Interior Department so that he could have it under his jurisdiction,” said Wilson, son of Dominican immigrants and a board member on several national Latino civil rights groups.
The departure of Salazar, whose family roots in Colorado span five generations, is the latest cabinet secretary to leave the administration as Obama heads into his second term. Among others leaving is Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.
The departure of Salazar and Solis, in particular, is resonating among Latino leaders, who already had voiced concern about the lack of diversity among the top people in Obama’s second-term administration.
Groups like LULAC have been calling for the Obama administration to name at least three Latinos for cabinet posts. They argue that Latinos now number more than 50 million in the nation, and that they were critical to the re-election of Obama.
Salazar and Solis, in fact, regularly served as Obama surrogates on the election campaign trail, dispatched to woo Latino voters.
Latinos turned out to vote at a record rate on Nov. 6; they accounted for 10 percent of those who cast their ballots. An overwhelming 71 percent chose Obama over his GOP challenger, Mitt Romney.
Salazar’s tenure was also marked with sharp criticism for his handling of the BP oil spill in 2010. Salazar oversaw a moratorium on offshore drilling after the spill and promoted alternative energy sources throughout the nation.
It was one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history and led to the unprecedented shutdown of offshore drilling.
Business groups and Gulf Coast political leaders said the shutdown crippled the oil and gas industry and cost thousands of jobs, even aboard rigs not operated by BP.
But Salazar said the industry-wide moratorium was the correct call and that his ultimate goal was to allow deepwater operations to resume safely. He acknowledged that the drilling ban caused hardship, but he said his job was to protect the public and the environment even as the administration tried to boost domestic energy production.
Salazar has also been criticized for being insensitive to wildlife
“I wish he’d stay,” said Wilkes. “But I understand that in that position, it can take a toll, it’s a lot of work.”
Details as to why he’s stepping down remain sketchy, but, according to published reports, Salazar wanted to devote more time to his personal life, which includes returning to his Colorado ranch.