Through Art and Herstory: Painting America

As I grappled at my desk trying to determine through what avenues Latino culture has influenced Nome, AK, my supervisor turned to me and asked “what about Ynes Mexia?” Ynes Mexia? I had never heard of her but- having come across serval dead ends- was intrigued to learn more about her in earnest curiosity of having come across a Latina woman with possible ties to this remote town in Alaska and in desperation to find some inspiration for my LHIP art piece.

Drawn portrait of Ynes Mexia on a brown painted background. She wears glasses and styles short hair with a collared shirt while looking into the distance pensively Portrait of Ynes Mexia for an LHIP art project. Ynes is hand-drawn on canvas with an HB pencil while the painted background is acrylic paint

After some research and reading through an NPS article, I learned this: Ynes Mexia was a Latina botanist in the early 1900s and is considered to be one of the most influential botanists of her time. She started her career in her mid 50s and identified plants all throughout North and South America. She collected well over 145,000 native specimens throughout her career, and was the first botanist of Denali National Park. She was an advocate for indigenous rights and an active member in the movement to save Northern California’s redwood forest from falling under the axe.

Although my program assignment set out a simple task that was focused on celebrating and examining Latino influence in our parks + surrounding communities through art, I was presented with a more complex and pressing story of American history in the process: the reality of a skewed narrative that overlooks the contributions of people from underrepresented communities. That I have heard about John Muir, Lewis and Clark, and Henry David Thoreau almost religiously throughout my career but never of Mexia and her admirable work demonstrates how stories far too often digress from an inclusive plane to maximize euro-centric experiences over others. Apart from humanizing a group of individuals over others, the lack of representation alienates communities from being present in spaces they know no connection to.

We, as a nation and human race, are confronted with tackling the most devastating crisis of our generation. Mitigating the effects of climate change will require policies of change that could only be achieved by having BIPOC present at “the table” and amplifying their voices. Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (ITEK) and the wisdom of all communities is valuable and necessary in conversations about environmental policy, justice, and research; however, we cannot achieve these spaces while stories are obstructed from the truth by being hidden from public domain or silenced in our distributions of history. Indigenous people have been on this land since time immemorial which has consequently resulted in years of rich history. This should be reflected in our textbooks and education along with the stories of other communities.

Black and white image of Ynes Mexia and her plant dryer under a tree

Mexia and her plant dryer; NPS photo/public domain

Mexia’s career, which had it’s success during a time when womxn- especially WOC- seldom had a presence in the STEM fields, shows what it means to be fierce. She overcame sexism, racism, and ageism in the field and did so while being her most authentic self. She was brave. She was unapologetic and reminds us that we have to be too. Far too often in my career journey I’ve felt pressured to assimilate to standards that aren’t my own, but now feel empowered to remain grounded. As a Latina woman, I admire her work, am proud of learning her story, and honored to represent her through my art project.

As an LHIP intern, I joined the program because I wanted to be immersed in a community of people dedicated to taking care of this planet we call home. To be able to do so with my Latino community is a privilege, as I have also come to discover that my cohort is composed of a wonderful group of young individuals who are going to be taking this world by storm with their immense talents and passions. I believe we are all worthy of being represented in the field and deserving of a seat at “the table”- and it all starts here with hisourstory.

I don’t think there is any place in the world where a woman can’t venture”- Ynes Mexia


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