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Brian Chavez: George Meléndez Wright  and Living History in Yosemite National Park

In June 2016, Brian Chavez experienced an epiphany—a moment of pure clarity that foretold his future—and it was all thanks to his grandmother Lupe. She invited him on a bus tour of Sequoia and Kings Canyon and Yosemite national parks with a group from her senior citizen center in Wilmington, an industrial town sandwiched between San Pedro and Long Beach in Southern California. Although in his early 20s, he accepted, because he was very close with his grandma, as he called her. When their bus pulled up to the giant trees in Sequoia, Brian was awestruck.“I was amazed that these 2,000-to-3,000-year-old trees even existed,” he recalls, “and they were still here with us. I was so inspired that I remember wearing a Montana Peak Cap that I had, because I wanted to look like a park ranger.”


But his life truly changed the next day when riding in the front of the bus with his grandmother and they entered the famous Wawona Tunnel on Highway 41 en route to Yosemite Valley. “You're going through this long tunnel, right? And you see the light at the end of the tunnel, and then the light gets bigger and bigger and bigger. And then boom! You see Yosemite Valley. And I thought ‘Whoa, what is this? This is incredible. How does this even exist here?!’”


“I remember pulling on my grandma’s arm like, let's go, let's go see this thing. We gotta get out now! So, we went to the rim at Tunnel View. It was a summer day, but it was overcast. And there was a light drizzle, but I looked out and everything just popped,” Brian reminisces with a big smile. “I could see every single rock, the greens, oranges, reds, the incense cedars, everything. I remember looking out and saying, ‘This has to be the most beautiful place on earth. There's truly no other place like Yosemite Valley.’ It was in that moment that I thought, I don't know what I need to do, but I need to figure out a way to be here, to work here, to live here. That goal never left me from the moment I stepped off that bus that day with my grandma.”


Six years later—after earning degrees in history from Long Beach Community College, UCLA, and Cal State Long Beach, and working in various capacities in museums and with the History Society of Long Beach—Brian joined the National Park Service. Last year he worked as a seasonal bilingual interpretive park ranger in Sequoia and Kings Canyon. But in the spring of this year, he drove back through the Wawona Tunnel for a similar job in Yosemite National Park. He did it. He finally returned.

Soon after he arrived, Brian won a permit in the lottery system that allows a quota of visitors to hike the challenging Half Dome trail. Before he attempted the ascent, he stopped by the Curry Company cafeteria to treat himself to a muffin and a coffee. As he was eating, he studied the large timeline on the far wall of the cafeteria that lists, chronologically, important dates and people in the park’s history from 1848 to 1997. “One image jumped out to me more than the others,” he remembers. “I did a double take, and I thought ‘Who is this guy?’ He looked different than the other people on the wall. And then I got up close and I saw his name—George Meléndez Wright. And he was in the park about 100 years ago. He has a Spanish name, he looked like someone from my dad’s side of the family. In fact, I thought … he looks like me!”

Intrigued, Brian took a picture of Wright’s image and name with his phone and proceeded to his hike. A few days later, he researched Wright, and he was stunned. Not only was Wright half Salvadoran—Brian is Mexican American—but in 1927 Wright was hired to do exactly what Brian was hired to do in 2023—interpret Yosemite’s amazing wonders for park visitors. Wright, he learned, spoke Spanish as does Brian. And Brian was working out of the same building that Wright did. Brian immediately wanted to know more, so he went to Yosemite’s Research Librarian Virginia Sanchez, and she knew all about Wright. She gave Brian a copy of Fauna of the National Parks of the United States: A Preliminary Survey of Faunal Relations in National Parks, Fauna Series No. 1. Fauna 1, as it became known, was perhaps Wright’s most important written piece of work, which he completed in 1932. Brian also read some of Wright’s articles in Yosemite Nature Notes, and he purchased my recent biography of Wright.

Brian wondered why he hadn’t heard about Wright, and so he thought of how he could spread the word about Wright’s legacy in Yosemite and the park service. Why not create a living history program to bring Wright to life almost 100 years after he began work in the park? After all, he reasoned, Yosemite had a tradition of living history programs in the past, whether it was representations of John Muir, or the acclaimed portrayal of African American Buffalo Soldiers by ranger Shelton Johnson. Brian asked his Branch Chief of Interpretive Field Operations, Sharon Miyako, if anyone had ever portrayed Wright. The answer was no. And she liked his idea. The next obvious steps were to continue his Wright research—above and beyond all his daily duties—and seek out Shelton Johnson for advice.


Shelton Johnson thought Brian’s idea had great potential, and so they began an informal apprenticeship on how to bring Wright to life for the park visitors. “It’s funny,” reflects Brian, “but there are some parallels between my life and Wright’s. Probably the strongest being how important my grandmother was to me, and how Wright was raised by his grandmother. When Shelton was training me, he told me I’d never fully embody Wright, that I was never going to be him, but find connections and carry the essence of who he was with me.”

Brian developed a 15-minute presentation that was going to premiere in front of the Yosemite’s museum during the park’s annual Obata Art Weekend this past August: “A Walk in the Park with George.” But as the time neared, interpretive park ranger April Kunieda—who was the Obata weekend project lead—convinced Brian to extend his talk to one hour. Just walk around as Wright, she suggested, work off your outline, but also respond spontaneously as Wright might have as things come up while you amble about with visitors. It was a smashing success. When I was asked to give a talk this past September in Yosemite on the Wright biography, Brian performed the 15-minute version of his Wright presentation in front of the park museum before I spoke. He nailed it. It was so well researched, at times moving with nice dashes of humor, educational and a beautiful tribute.


“I rarely saw myself reflected in the fabric of American history when I was growing up,” says Brian. “And so, for me, in everything I do, even before the National Park Service, I want to make sure that people know that people like me, Latinos, had agency in the past. That our story is not just a story of survival of racism and hardship. It's also a story of incredible imagination, of resilience, of building, of creating, of playing an active role in the shaping of American history. Like George Meléndez Wright.”


— profile by Jerry Emory, author of George Meléndez Wright: The Fight for Wildlife and Wilderness in the National Parks

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