Discover the Story of Ynés Mexía, the First Mexican-American Botanist and Environmentalist

Ynés Mexía BELatina Latinx
Image courtesy of Outside Magazine.

Although climate change has been a heated topic in recent years, the environmental movement has been a long-standing fight. One of the first people involved in the preservation of the Redwood trees in California was Ynés Mexía, a botanist who found her love for environmentalism in her 50s and is one of the most highly-renowned collectors of plant specimens in the U.S. 

Ynés Mexía was born in Washington D.C in 1870 and, because of her father’s job as a diplomat, she moved quite a bit in her life, having lived in Philadelphia and Ciudad de México before moving to San Francisco in 1908. She struggled with many mental health challenges and experienced many hardships like her father’s death, the death of her first husband, and a brutal divorce from her second husband.

After moving to California, Mexía planned on working as a social worker but quickly discovered her love for botany, which propelled her into a successful career as a botanist, environmentalist, and collector of all things plant-related. She enrolled at UC Berekely at the age of 51 and shortly after was out on excursions in Alaska, Central America, and South America, where she collected over 150,000 plant samples.

Ynés Mexía Sauraula mexicae BELatina Latinx
This specimen of Saurauia mexiae in the Steere Herbarium was collected by Mexia and named in her honor. It is a “type specimen,” which is a specimen selected to serve as a reference point when a plant species is first named. NY Botanical Garden.

Ynés Mexía also made several excursions through California and became passionate about preserving the Redwood trees in the state’s northern region. She became involved with the Save the Redwoods League and the Sierra Club, both of which were instrumental in the preservation of the Redwood forests in California.

Mexía was the first Mexican-American botanist in the U.S. Her continued success allowed her to gain more and more funding to continue her excursions and grow her collection of plant specimens. 

She was the first botanist to extract plant materials from Denali National Park. She once wrote, “a well-known collector and explorer stated very positively that ‘it was impossible for a woman to travel alone in Latin America.’ I decided that if I wanted to become better acquainted with the South American Continent, the best way would be to make my way right across it.”

In 1938, Mexía fell ill due to lung cancer and passed away, but her contributions to the field of botany are still recognized to this day. Her collection of specimens is held in museums and other archives, and her legacy as a woman and a Latina in botany in the years that she studied and grew her career is astonishing.