Winners named in historical essay contest

Courtesy of the Los Altos History Museum

The Los Altos History Museum partnered with the Los Altos Historical Commission to sponsor the 2019 Margaret Thompson Historical Essay Contest, open to local students in grades 3-6. The theme for this year’s contest – “Inspired by Juana!” – incorporated the recent Juana Briones museum exhibition. The winning essays were selected from 156 entries. Winners and their schools include, front row, from left: Kira Tierling, Gardner Bullis; Rachel Kim, Covington; and Zachary Po, Covington. Second row: Gianmarco Mendoza (brother of winner Giancarlo Mendoza), Santa Rita; Madeleine Park, Montclaire; and Claire Hanson, Loyola. Third row: Nora Saraci-Alonso, Covington; Bryanna Dong, Covington; and Elaine Choi, Covington. Back: Michael Shtrom, Pinewood; Abigail Kamenetsky, Pinewood; and Caroline Koltek, Pinewood.

Below are the winning essays.

By Zachary Po

Third grade, third place

Dear Grandpa and Grandma,

            How are you? During the mid-winter break, Mom brought me to the Los Altos History Museum to learn about Juana Briones. She was a 19th-century successful entrepreneur in the Bay Area. She owned sewing and trading businesses and ranches.

            I most admire her inventive spirit in finding business opportunities in the frontier. For example, she sold food, milk, and produce to sailors and traders who spend months out at sea. She also showed resilience by advocating for her personal rights and family rights. It was extremely rare for a woman to own land!

            During my annual vision exam in January, I found out that I was color-blind. It made me start thinking about the people who are completely blind. According to the World Health Organization, there are 39 million blind people in the world, more than the population of Canada! More than 90 percent of them live in developing countries. So I decided to invent a pair of glasses that can tell the blind person if there is a person or car approaching him/her. The glasses will make use of motion sensor technology and infrared technology. The glasses, via an earphone, will inform the blind person the speed of an approaching car or whether it’s just a friendly dog wagging its tail. My invention will help them to become independent and be safe in their environment.

            Even when Briones is no longer around, her ingenuity and humanism are still alive. In the Bay Area, there are many successful companies such as Apple, Facebook, and Google. These companies hire workers and serve customers from different nationalities, cultures, and religions, helping to make the world a better place.

            Briones’ indomitable spirit touched the lives of countless people and she is a great inspiration for us.


By Rachel Kim

Third grade, second place

Dear Aunt Cindy,

            As we are approaching International Women’s Day, I have been learning about Juana Briones and how she is an important local historic hero. She was one of few Mexican-Americans to own land, more so a woman owning land under her name, which was rare at the time. I admired how she went from an abused wife to a respected businesswoman. Juana and her Hispanic colleagues had to certify their land ownership before the U.S Land Commission when California first became a state. The process was too difficult and expensive for people who owned land under Mexican law. Though she didn’t receive an education, she hired a lawyer to fight for her case and went to the U.S Supreme Court. Juana Briones showed persistence in a time of hardships and adversities.

            Juana Briones inspires me to think about my future and how I can make a difference, like she did. She inspires me one day to become a scientist that helps challenging world problems such as climate change and health in poor countries. If I work hard and never give up, I can accomplish many of my goals. Juana showed persistence during her lifetime and if I do too, I can make an impact like her.

            Though Juana Briones is no longer with us, her legacy continues to inspire others to make a difference. Juana and I have similar characteristics. She worked hard to be heard since women didn’t have as many rights back then. I consider myself a diligent individual and advocate for my friends. Many people told Juana to give up, but she never did and went on to do great things. I see myself as ambitious and persistent, and with those qualities, I could change the world like Juana Briones.


By Kira Tierling

Third grade, first place

Dear Auntie Linda,

            I am excited to tell you about Juana Briones, a brave woman who used to own four-fifths of Los Altos Hills. Back then, it was not normal for a woman to own a business. At her ranch, she sold milk, hide, and tallow to earn money. She also fought for her own rights and her children by divorcing her husband, who was unkind to them. It was uncommon for a woman to achieve these in the 19th century. She grew up being a healer, using herbs to help people.

            Eventually, she earned enough money to buy more land in today’s Palo Alto and Los Altos Hills.

            I want to be a judge who makes the world a better place by making sure that the laws will treat all women and men equally. Even though the world is better today than in the 19th century, unfortunately, some people and countries still do not respect women and girls. Sometimes they don’t have equal pay or provide equal education. Just like Juana did, I will use my confidence, courage, and persistence to achieve my goals.

            I feel lucky that I live on the land that this amazing heroine used to own because she fought for her own and her children’s rights, she broke the unfair rules, and became successful with no education. She smartly worked through the law system for 13 years, from 1851 to 1864, to get approval to own her land in San Francisco. Juana Briones is truly a bold figure for all people!


By Giancarlo Mendoza

Fourth grade, third place

February 1, 2019

Dear Uncle Stephen

            I can’t wait to tell you about a very special woman. The special women is Juana Briones. She was a woman of many strengths, and that’s what I admire about her. I found it interesting and surprising that she left her husband. It was probably really hard to do that, because at the time women depended on their husband financially, but Juana Briones defied all odds. Juana also raised eleven children between 1821 and 1841, eight of whom lived to adulthood, and also adopted an orphaned Indian girl. I also was interested that she was a healer, advocate and land owner. Juana Briones went to the governor to prove her land was hers and got a lawyer to protect the land. Juana Briones went to the priest to get permission to break up with her husband because her religious beliefs required her to.

            Juana Briones made me think about the future. I see myself as an entrepreneur/scientist who will make biodegradable fishing baits and lures after an athletic career. My business product will make the ocean and waterways a cleaner place. Why? Well, because it will be biodegradable and if the bait gets stuck in the water or in the fish, it will dissolve.

            Juana’s actions inspired me by making me want to be a nice and kind person who stands up for the rights of other people. Some people I would stand up for include my family. Other people I would stand up for are homeless people. With the fishing business I will start, I would build houses for the homeless and send the mentally ill homeless people to a specialist.

            I think you could be inspired by Juana Briones, too.


By Madeleine Park

Fourth grade, tie for second place

Dear Mommy,

            Juana Briones was a wonderful businesswoman, landowner, advocate for her family and friends, and, most importantly, a healer. I most admire Juana Briones because she was a self-made woman in the 19th century. Born in 1802, Briones lived during a period of time when women were treated like second-class citizens and even considered the property of men. Women were not allowed to even vote until after the death of Briones.

            However, despite these limitations, Briones persevered to become a healer, businesswoman and advocate. Something I found interesting about Briones was that she was illiterate. She never received formal education on how to read or write, yet still acquired knowledge in herbal medicine.

            Briones relied on herself and on the community around her to become a respected healer. In 1889, when she died at 87 years of age, Briones had overcome many barriers, despite being illiterate and an anti-discrimination woman.

            Juana Briones inspires me to make a change, because, like her, I want to be a healer. I want to be a pediatrician and help kids who are sick. It feels awful being sick, and I want to help kids feel better faster so that they can et back to doing what they enjoy – playing!

            The connection between Juana Briones and myself is that we are both girls with big dreams. Briones inspires me to believe in myself and reach for the impossible. My teacher once told me that a goal without a plan is just a wish. I know what I want to accomplish, and I’m going to face the world with courage and determination!


By Claire Hanson

Fourth grade, tie for second place

Dear Grandma Hanson,

            Do you know who Juana Briones is? I went to an incredible museum exhibit in Los Altos and found out all about her! She was born in 1802 in Santa Cruz Villa de Branciforte. She was unusual for her time because she was a businesswoman that sold cow hide and milk from her own cattle; she was also a healer in her community. I admire how she healed so many people without modem technology. Some plants she used for healing were yellow monkey flower, California poppies, yerba buena and chamomile. I found it really astonishing to learn how kind she was to many people. For example, Juana was usually helping more than one patient at a time in her home.

            Did you know that I want to be a teacher someday and use creative curriculum, kind of like how Juana used creative ingredients in some of her medicines? Like Juana, I will be able to help many kids at one time, just like how she helped many patients at one time in her home. As a student, I am gathering information that I like about all of my teachers so I can become the best teacher that I can be. Juana is like you, Grandma, because you both look for the good in everyone and are kind to all.

            You would have like to see how organized the displays in the exhibit were! I think you would have liked to have seen the horse saddle that showed what type of things Juana sold, since I know you like creating things, too. Even though Juana lived a long time ago, whenever I think of her I will remember her kindness, perseverance and hard work. l hope you enjoyed learning about Juana Briones in my letter.


By Audrey Wang

Fourth grade, first place

Dear Mom,

            Juana Briones was an accomplished, brilliant woman with many talents. I admire her for many reasons, but one fact is most distinguishing to me: although she couldn’t read or write and had not received proper education, she was able to teach her nephew medicine. Juana learned medicine from her Native Californian friends, and became an expert at bone setting and midwifery, and well known for her Yerba Buena medicinal tea. She also owned many acres of land and a dairy. This is surprising because in the 19th century, women did not have many rights, especially without a husband. Juana’s husband was an alcoholic and abusive, so she separated from him.

            Even with no education, Juana did not let that stand in her path. Instead, she was determined to make a life for herself. She inspires me to think about my future by showing me that even if things block my path, I can always push them aside and continue onward. This is an important lesson for me because I often let hard things stop me. When I grow up, I hope to become an author of cookbooks. I need to learn to be like Juana, because there will be challenges.

            Juana Briones left a remarkable legacy after her death. I hope my writing and recipes will also help people to realize that healthy food is just as delicious as any other food. I will try to introduce kids to new and delicious cuisines because most children in America never try anything new. I want to call one of my books “Kids Eat Around the World,” especially written for kids to become adventurous in their tastes. This connection shows that even when people are no longer alive, it’s important to realize that they can still inspire us.


By Elaine Choi

Fifth grade, third place

Dear Mom,

            I am writing to tell you about an inspiring woman, Juana Briones. She worked as a businesswoman, healer, philanthropist, farmer and rancher during the 19th century. While Juana also served as an advocate for her family in this area, she was a mother of eight.

            What I found most admirable about her was that she did not back down when people looked down on her because of her gender and race. During her years as a successful businesswoman, Juana Briones stayed confident and continued to argue for her opinions and rights. She experienced hardships when her husband, Apolinario Miranda, abused her. I found it surprising that even without any proper education, Juana owned property. It was uncommon for women to have ranches in their own name at the time, especially those who did not know how to read or write.

            Juana Briones motivated me to think about the future because she made a difference even when so many people doubted her. When I am older, I want to make an impact that could help thousands of people. Becoming a doctor would help me find solutions to world problems. Humans all over the world are dying due to cancer. There is no stable cure yet, but I hope to find one. Doctors earn more money and can donate to those in poverty.

            Although Juana Briones may not be with us, she can still inspire us. Juana was a strong female who made changes, and I would like to do the same. She had relationships with different minority groups, nationalities and religions, as do I. Someone may pass away, but that does not mean they cannot continue to positively influence us. I can relate to Juana because I have similar goals that she had.


By Nora Saraci-Alonso

Fifth grade, second place

Dear Grandparents,

            I have recently been told of an inspiring woman named Juana Briones. She was one of the first Mexican businesswomen of her time. She lived in the 1800s in what is now the Bay Area, where I live.

            I admire her most for her persistence and smarts. When California became part of the United States and most Mexican landowners had to give up their properties, she fought her way through the U.S. legal system to defend the rights of Mexican landowners, which is even more remarkable considering she was illiterate. Another highlight of her story is that she divorced her husband because he was abusive. A divorce requested by a woman was extremely rare at the time and very difficult to accomplish.

            Her persistence to fight through obstacles big and small to achieve her goals inspires and emboldens me every day. I have noticed our world is changing, mostly because of human damage (e.g., air pollution, oil spills, melting ice, global warming, wars, etc.), and I want to give my contribution to fighting climate change and inequality just as Juana fought the Supreme Court for Mexican rights.

            Juana reminds me of Gjyshi (our beloved great-grandfather), who bravely fought in World War II and worked tirelessly to build a better community. Both of their stories have taught me to think beyond my personal life and strive to make an impact that will shape the future and improve the lives of others.

            So Grandma and Grandpa, how are you inspired by this unique woman?


By Bryanna Dong

Fifth grade, first place

Dear Mom and Dad,

            Juana Briones is an admirable person. She was a Mexican-American pioneer, businesswoman, healer and a landowner. She helped the people in her small community by selling milk and vegetables to others. As a nurse, she also helped heal smallpox and scurvy, delivered babies and treated broken bones. What was really surprising to me was that she was one of the first three settlers in Yerba Buena (in San Francisco)! Another interesting fun fact was that she owned land even though back then, land was usually owned by men. I was extremely shocked to hear that Yerba Buena was named after Juana’s healing mint tea!

            Juana Briones inspired me to think about my own future and how I might make a difference in the world like she did. She encouraged me to be a strong and outspoken leader, and to stand up for what I believe in. Today, in some cases, men ear higher wages than women, even if we do the same work. For example, a woman would get seventy-five cents while a man gets a dollar. Back then, only men owned property, not women. Not women, until Juana Briones took action! To me, it isn’t fair that, in history and even today, men have more rights than women. I think everyone should be equal; no one is greater or more powerful than another gender.

            Though Juana Briones died on December 3, 1889, she is still with us in history, heaven and in our hearts. She inspired me, hopefully you, and the world. Though she isn’t around anymore, she still lives in books, places, dreams, thoughts and beliefs. People are so inspired by Juana that they have followed in her footsteps, taking the same path in making the world a better place.


By Caroline Koltek

Sixth grade, tie for third place

Dear Mom,

            Juana Briones, a Mexican-American pioneer, is someone to be admired. She was a strong female, fearless entrepreneur, and was always willing to help others.

            There are numerous aspects of Juana to be praised, and one of these was being a resilient woman. She was brave enough to leave her abusive husband even though this was difficult since women were not independent at the time. Along with this strength, she was a brave entrepreneur and was one of few women who owned property under her own name. The third and final reason I admire this woman is because she always wanted to help others. From dedicating her attic to soldiers living in rough conditions to healing many with her yerba buena tea, Juana Briones was always ready to help no matter the circumstances.

            In addition to being someone to be applauded, she is also inspiring. Juana inspires me to make a difference in our world. I am inspired by her to use my talents to serve others as Juana was a entrepreneur, healer, and humanitarian.

            Instead of using these talents for her own gain, she used them to benefit others, and that inspires me to do the same. For example, Juana was a substantial entrepreneur, and I aspire to be one as well. She used this talent to start businesses, and talents like this help make our world a better place, which is what I would like to do.

            I feel a genuine connection between Juana Briones and me. She was uneducated but did not let that hold her back from being successful. Just like her, I do not let anything stand in the way of my success: Juana Briones is a courageous person, and I know that, like her, I can be one, too, and make the world a better place.


By Abigail Kamenetsky

Sixth grade, tie for third place

Dear Grandmother,

            I have been reading about Juana Briones and her fascinating life. I admire her both for her toughness and for her compassion. She had the perseverance to deal with the death of four children, and she was kind enough to adopt a Native American girl. In 19th-century California,· it was unheard of for a woman, especially one who was illiterate, to divorce and sue an abusive husband, and yet that is what she did – and won! Also, this was at a time when marriage was considered indissoluble. She is an inspiration to all women including me, to achieve their dreams.

            Oh, Grandma, I dream of becoming a businesswoman like Juana. It is not just her business acumen that inspires me, but also the positive contributions she made to the lives of so many people in her town. Her farm sold basic food staples such as milk, eggs, and meat. She also took up sewing to earn extra money. The profits from her business enabled her to contribute to the poor and help refugees. We both wish to heal ill people and cure diseases. I yearn to help the sick with medicines like Juana did with her herbal Yerba Buena teas. Maybe I could make the world a better place by eliminating deadly diseases. I can only imagine what it is like to be such an astounding woman like her.

            Even 130 years after her death, Juana is a huge influence on me. Today, when women still struggle for equal rights, we can read about an inspirational example of a woman from 150 years ago who fought for her rights in a male-dominated society. I hope to visit you soon and tell you all about Juana Briones, La Dona de la Frontera.


By Michael Shtrom

Sixth grade, second place

Dear Suma,

            There were numerous admirable traits of Juana Briones. Firstly, her persistence in divorcing her husband, even though she was a woman, was a truly admirable trait of Juana Briones: At the time, the court did not typically grant women divorces if their husbands did not also wish for divorce. Secondly, the intelligence of Juana Briones would qualify as another admirable trait. Juana was able to maintain a farming and cattle business without any assistance from her husband. Another obstacle Juana was able to overcome in order to run her business was her illiteracy. However, Juana did not give up. Lastly, a final trait that is highly admirable in Juana Briones is her courage.

            Filing for divorce against her husband was one of the most intimidating courses of action that a woman could have taken at the time. The chances of the judge ruling in her favor were highly slim. Juana, however, was courageous and filed for divorce anyway.

            Juana Briones was courageous and stood up for gender prejudice. A cause that I can stand up for in my family is anti-Semitism. The vast majority of my family was killed in World War II. My great-grandmother had ten siblings, only four of which survived in the World War II. I can preserve the memories of the mass murders by learning of the deaths of my family and others from those who have experienced that horrific time in order to ensure that it never occurs again. Just like Juana Briones, I can stand up for what I believe is wrong in the world.

            Although Juana Briones is no longer alive, the examples that she set throughout her life have inspired people. She believed that gender prejudice was wrong and she took it into her own hands to make it right. Just like Juana chose to stand up against gender prejudice, I choose to stand up against anti-Semitism in modern life, for I do not believe that it is right. People of history like Juana inspire fighters in the new generation of people in order to make the world a better place.


By Shelby Stevens

Sixth grade, first place

Dear Mom,

            The amazing woman Juana Briones de Miranda did many things to change the course of women’s rights. Instead of doing traditional female roles like washing clothes, raising children, or cooking food, she became a successful businesswoman who owned many businesses and segments of land, and a strong advocate of women’s rights. She showed much courage and effort in tough times. I believe Juana Briones was one of the most valiant, hardworking women of her time.

            I admire Juana Briones because of her selflessness, effort, and courage. Juana put others before herself. When life was hard for Juana, she made a living selling vegetables to sailors and even helped them escape the ship. Though Juana never got a proper education, she was among the few women in California to own property in her own name and become a skilled farmer and rancher. I also admire her courage. It was scary being the only woman to own huge portions of land or a business, but she faced her fear, becoming one of the most fearless women of her time.

            Juana inspires me to think about the future and how I could make a difference. I see myself as a powerful businesswoman who will change women’s rights forever. I dream of creating a clothing store company featuring logos and quotes about women’s rights. Juana has influenced me to raise awareness about women’s rights.

            Juana is another example that even when someone is no longer with us, they still inspire people to make the world a better place. For example, Clara Barton demonstrated that women can make organizations to help the world. Rosa Parks stood up for African-American rights by starting the bus boycott. Many other women have changed history, but in Juana’s time, she was definitely the greatest.

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