Finding Juana

Los Altos History Museum celebrates notable local Juana Briones

The moment visitors step into the Los Altos History Museum, they're greeted by a wooden awning, painted white and covered in vines. The message is clear: They're entering the home of Juana Briones.

The structure representing Briones' porch is only the beginning of an exhibit detailing her life through Spanish colonialism, Mexican independence and eventually, California's statehood.

Briones, a 19th-century Latina pioneer, had five properties in the Bay Area, including a ranch that encompassed much of what is today Los Altos Hills. She was an advocate who fought for her property rights, took a stand against her husband's abuse and raised a large family. A healer and humanitarian, Briones would bring sick migrants back to her home, where she used traditional methods to treat them. She also owned several of her own businesses, ranging from her ranch to a small sewing enterprise.

The exhibit is split into four alcoves, each representing a part of her identity significant to her story. The sections are labeled "healer," "matriarch," "entrepreneur" and "advocate," each with its Spanish translation beside it. Elisabeth Ward, the executive director of the Los Altos History Museum, said she believes that this layout allows those attending to appreciate the many significant roles Briones played as a pillar of the community.

"Juana was definitely this sort of person that was a nexus, and that's what we're trying to get out with the way we've done the floor plan," Ward said. "It all comes together with Juana."

A key element of the exhibit is the work done by high school students during a two-week workshop over the summer. Twenty students were given college-level material to learn about the life of Briones and then allowed to take what resonated with them and complete projects to be featured in the exhibit. Tulu Tofavaha's project includes two original poems inspired by the story of Briones, combined with visual art surrounding them. Tofavaha, a junior at Eastside College Preparatory School, said she was inspired by the generosity of Briones, and allowed that to shine through her work.

"She didn't see herself as a phenomenal person," said Tofavaha. "She was simply doing all these things because she wanted to help her peers. She saw herself as a normal person doing normal things."

Briones' story inspired Tofavaha in her own life as well.

"I don't necessarily need to be somebody in society in order to make a significant impact on the things around me," she said. "Even though I might not exactly matter to the whole entire world, there will always be someone or something that appreciates me."

When Juana Briones' original Palo Alto home was torn down in 2011, many people heard about the controversy but possessed no further knowledge of who Briones was. Lisa Weyland, a recent visitor to the exhibit, didn't already have a wealth of knowledge related to Briones but was ready to learn more.

"I know Juana Briones' house and that she was a historical figure," Weyland said, "but I didn't know the details of her life and I'm here to learn more details and be inspired by her."

Co-curator Halimah Van Tuyl is interested in why Briones' story has been so lost, when she bears so much relevance to the area. With properties spanning from San Jose to San Francisco, Briones is not only important to Los Altos and Palo Alto, but also known as "the mother of San Francisco."

"She's been here all along," Van Tuyl said, "but why is it that some stories are repeated and known and others not?

"People are still trying to rediscover the Juana Briones story. It had been forgotten for a time period. She wasn't always included in histories of Santa Clara County, she wasn't always part of the overarching narrative ... but now people are really interested in her life," she said.

Van Tuyl has taught at Juana Briones Elementary School since 1988 and has always told her students about Briones' story. One student pointed out to Van Tuyl that if Juana was an entrepreneur, selling her sewing and owning a cattle ranch, one could only imagine the other women doing business whose names we do not know.

"I think we're at a time where people understand that some stories that have been hidden in the shadows of history deserve to be spoken and shared ... those stories give the rest of us the courage to speak," Van Tuyl said.

Co-curator Perlita Diocheca also believes in the importance of these untold stories. Holding a doctorate in ethnic studies, she considers the cultural impact of such history to be immense.

"It's so important to know local history, and it's so important to know these names and these people that are part of our culture and our community, and it is really important for community self-esteem," Diocheca said.

One way the museum is making an effort to bridge cultural gaps and maintain full access to the community is through bilingualism. Much of what is written in the exhibit is offered to attendees in both Spanish and English. This is the first exhibit in the Los Altos History Museum to be offered in both languages.

"Language is part of your identity," Ward said. "For some Latino youths who live in a bilingual household, to come into a bilingual exhibit, it makes them feel more at home."

The museum is also attempting to bridge the generational gap in this exhibit. From interactive elements for children to more informative pieces for the adults, the museum aims to draw in visitors from any age. The colors of the exhibit are bright, maps cover the walls and each alcove features a centerpiece of artifacts, such as letters written by Briones and a trunk from a Chinese immigrant that may have been given to her. Van Tuyl hopes that the exhibit will bring a new consideration of history to some attendees.

"(I want visitors) to not just think of history as facts that are all told and written down and finished but that ... we may find something new that surprises us and that can inform our lives today," Van Tuyl said.

For this exhibit, the museum involved the community through a special advisory board, separate from the museum's structures already in place. The board met with various leaders of both Latinx and historical organizations and, according to Diocheca, the community wasn't hesitant to pitch in.

"That's been the beauty of this too, how excited people are to give their ideas and resources and time and whatever they can do to help," said Diocheca.

The goal of the exhibit is to reflect the spirit of Juana, in her generosity and welcoming attitude.

"I want (attendees) to feel inspired," said Diocheca. "I want them to leave the exhibit with that energy that's in there now. There's a warmth there, there's so many positive messages."

What: "Inspired by Juana: La Doña de la Frontera."

Where: Los Altos History Museum, 51 S. San Antonio Road, Los Altos.

When: Through March 31, 2019, Thursdays-Sundays, noon-4 p.m. Special events include: a storytelling and corn-husk-doll-making workshop for kids on Nov. 10 from 10 a.m. to noon; a genealogy panel on Nov. 19, 7-8:30 p.m.; a tamale cooking demo and tasting on Dec. 8, 4-6 p.m.; 2019 events to be announced.

Cost: Free.

Info: Go to LAHM.

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