High schoolers at LA History Museum celebrate Briones

Photos by Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Volunteer John Grafton, left, hacks dried grass with a machete as Perlita Dicochea, co-curator of the Los Altos History Museum’s upcoming Juana Briones exhibition, watches.

Adobe-brick making, medicinal-herb planting, archival research and videography were all tools of the trade for the 22 high schoolers who created exhibits for the Los Altos History Museum.

The museum this month hosted a two-week workshop during which the students, including several from Los Altos and Mountain View high schools, learned about Juana Briones and developed displays that tell the story of her life. Their work will be featured in the exhibition “Inspired by Juana: La Doña de la Frontera,” scheduled to open Oct. 18 and run through April 20.

Born in 1802, Briones was of Afro-Mestiza heritage and was one of the first female landowners in California. Although never formally educated, she was a skilled healer and successful rancher.

She wasn’t just an entrepreneur. She was also a survivor of domestic violence, at a time when domestic violence wasn’t illegal.

“Of course it’s great that she was successful and owned a lot of land, but the context of her struggle is very inspiring to me,” said Perlita Dicochea, co-curator of the exhibition. “Even today, it’s hard for women to deal with domestic violence, and she just powered through and got help.”

Dicochea said she hopes that the students walk away from the workshop feeling like they can embrace the dualities in history; Briones was both a formidable entrepreneur and a victim. She was both wealthy and discriminated against because of her ethnicity and gender.

“I hope that they start to take ownership of this area’s rich, complicated, not-always-positive history,” Dicochea said. “I hope they embrace all of that and realize what it takes to keep community stories alive.”

To keep Briones’ story alive, the students developed exhibits about the aspects of her life they were interested in. Some students created a project that uses maps of the Bay Area that were made at different points in time and from different perspectives. Others made a video to tell the story of her domestic abuse based on a letter she wrote to a priest. Another group created a mixed-media collage.

The student contributions are a first for the Los Altos History Museum. Dicochea said the museum is trying to widen its audience – by involving the community in creating the exhibitions, more people will be reached by the content than typically visit museums.

Halimah Van Tuyl, the other co-curator of the exhibition, said she was delighted by the students’ work.

“They are passionate about history, and not just taking in the facts, but asking questions and wanting to connect aspects of history to their own lives,” Van Tuyl said.

The Los Altos History Museum is located at 51 S. San Antonio Road. Hours are noon to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Admission is free.

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