UTEP Professor Plays Key Role in New Smithsonian Exhibit
Last Updated on August 10, 2022 at 12:00 AM
Originally published August 10, 2022
By Daniel Perez
UTEP Marketing and Communications
Yolanda Leyva’s unique back story helped her become the trailblazing, award-winning researcher and faculty member from The University of Texas at El Paso featured in the first exhibition and gallery of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino (NMAL).
Leyva, Ph.D., associate professor of history, is one of 12 notable Latinos who share their personal and professional stories via eight-foot-tall digital storyteller totems that are part of “¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States.” According to the online gallery component, “¡Presente!” includes critical concepts, moments and biographies that promote the historical and cultural legacy of U.S. Latinos.
This exhibit opened June 18, 2022, in the Molina Family Latino Gallery in the National Museum of American History. The 4,500-square-foot gallery is the first dedicated museum space on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the contributions of U.S. Latinos. NMAL will use the space to tell bilingual stories about Latino artists, healers, educators, entertainers, entrepreneurs, innovators and others who have helped to build the U.S. and shaped its culture to multigenerational and cross-cultural audiences. The exhibit runs until 2025.
Leyva, born in Juárez, Mexico, but raised in El Paso, said a Smithsonian representative asked her to share her experiences as someone who grew up on the border and who decided to join the professoriate. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that only 3% of the approximately 840,000 full-time faculty members in U.S. higher education were Hispanic females, according to 2020 data.
“One of the messages I hope people get from my video is that history is important,” Leyva said. “Not just because it teaches us about the past, but because it can give us hope. Without hope, we become demoralized or cynical.”
Leyva, who also directs UTEP’s Institute of Oral History, said she sat on a bar stool in front of a green screen and spoke to an interviewer for about 90 minutes in February 2021 in a Central El Paso recording studio.
The educator shared how she was born with a twin sister to a young, poor mother who decided she could not care for the babies. She gave one daughter to her aunt who lived in El Paso and the other to her mother who lived in Juárez. The daughter who stayed in Juárez died within a month from drinking contaminated water.
Leyva thrived as a child and did well in school. She decided to attend UT Austin because she had visited the city several times as a high school participant in statewide shorthand and typing competitions. The city’s hippie culture fascinated Leyva, who wanted to experience something different.
Her initial dream to become a journalist turned into a business degree for job security. After college, she took a part-time job as a receptionist with Travis County (Texas) Emergency Assistance. She often translated for the social workers and noted their rudeness to their clients. Leyva reported the offenses to her manager, who hired Leyva as a social worker. Leyva worked there for 10 years, eventually becoming a supervisor.
She moved back to El Paso in the mid-1980s to help care for her elderly parents. At age 30, Leyva decided to become a historian after she realized the significance of the stories her family shared about such topics as the Mexican Revolution, the Great Depression and World War II, and their connection to history. She enrolled in UTEP’s M.A. in History program and graduated in 1989. That degree led to several teaching jobs at colleges and universities in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
The University of Arizona accepted her into its doctoral program, and in 1999 she became the first Mexican-American female to earn a Ph.D. in history from that institution. UTEP hired her as a tenure-track professor of history in 2001.
Leyva, a curatorial adviser for “¡Presente!,” said it was fun to experience how the institution uses technology to enhance the viewer experience. In the case of the totems, which are placed around the Digital Storyteller Plaza, visitors can use touch screens to ask about different topics so they can see all or part of the presentation by artists, activists, educators, entrepreneurs and community leaders.
“This exhibit is geared at showing the diversity of Latinos who are part of many different groups with many different experiences,” Leyva said. “I think it’s really wonderful that the Smithsonian is reaching out to UTEP in this way.”
Melissa A. Carrillo, acting chief digital officer for the NMAL, is the representative who asked Leyva to share her experiences. She said her curatorial team wanted Leyva’s participation because of the professor’s life on the U.S.-Mexico border, her success as a trailblazing Latina, and her decades-long efforts to document the realities of Latinos who live in the Paso del Norte region through oral histories.
Carrillo praised Leyva for how she helped with the framework and pre-production of two of the exhibit’s digital media elements: the storyteller totems and the large digital triptych at the gallery’s threshold that features digital greeters to welcome visitors into the gallery.
“(Leyva’s) work as a historian and her research accomplishments are both critical to informing, representing and impacting national stories featured in cultural products such as exhibitions and online outreach,” said Carrillo, a two-time UTEP graduate who earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1989 and her master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies 10 years later.
Carrillo, who has been with the Smithsonian for about 23 years, earned the University’s College of Liberal Arts Gold Nugget Award in 2015.
Jeff Shepherd, Ph.D., professor and chair of UTEP’s Department of History, said Leyva was an excellent choice to represent the border because of her decades of writing about the lives of border residents, and her work in the museum field that has helped to raise awareness about the struggles and successes of communities in the Paso del Norte region.
“It is a fitting testament to the leading role (Leyva) has played in foregrounding Latinx communities in both her published work and her museum exhibits,” Shepherd said. “There are few individuals who have so powerfully and poignantly advocated for social justice outside of the University, while transforming the lives of students inside the classroom.”