Ynes Mexia, the Latina Who Took Plant Love to New Heights

BY: 
Susanne Ramírez de Arellano
 | March 22, 2023

Image courtesy of Nuestro Stories.

Ynes Enriquetta Julietta Mexia was a Mexican-American botanist and female plant collector — one of the most successful of her time. 

Her accomplishments were not just the number of plants she collected and studied or the miles she traveled as a woman alone. 

Ynes Mexia’s most outstanding achievement was to smash convention for women of her generation and all of us who came after. 

She was brave and did not fear combating racism, sexism, and ageism during her ground-breaking career. 

Ynes Mexia was a pioneer

At the time, no other women were like Ynes Mexia in her field. She was over 50, a woman of color, traveling the world as a botanist — unheard of for a woman of her time.

Mexia discovered a new genus of Asteraceae, known after her as Mexianthus. She accumulated over 150,000 specimens to study over a 16-year career. Her travels (she spent 13 years traveling the Americas) were not without danger — Ynes Mexia endured poisonous berries, dangerous terrain, bogs, and earthquakes.  

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1870 to her Mexican diplomat father and an American mother (her grandfather was a famous Mexican general.) 

A turbulent history

Mexia was born in 1870 in Washington, DC, and endured a rough childhood, during which she moved often. She was an introverted child who preferred reading, writing, and exploring the outdoors. 

After she finished school, Mexia moved to Mexico to help on her father’s ranch. When he died, she took over its management.  While in Mexico, she lost her first husband soon after their marriage and divorced her second husband after he financially ruined her family ranch.  

She was to spend 30 years in Mexico, but in 1909, at 36, life’s travails led her to suffer a mental and physical breakdown. She moved to San Fransisco for proper treatment and a new life. There, she began work as a social worker but soon became passionate about environmentalism.

A new vocation

She was middle-aged when she discovered her calling and became one of the most prominent researchers in her field. She wrote then: “I have a job, I produce something real and lasting.”

Ynes Mexia was an early member of the Sierra Club and increased women’s representation in conservation and botany. However, many people came down on her for traveling alone, saying it was unsuitable for a woman, especially a woman of her age. 

Mexia was an active member of many of the California Botanical Society, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Association of the Pacific, the Sociedad Geográfica de Lima, and the California Academy of Sciences. She was also an honorary member of the Departamento Forestal, de Caza y Pesca de Mexico.

Mexia said, “I don’t think there is any place in the world where a woman can’t venture.”

Her story is fascinating and is an empowering one for women — of any age. 

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