Conservation has a long history in the U.S., looking back to the creation of the national parks, and to all of the efforts since to protect species from extinction and preserve habitats. A new book asks readers to take another look at conservation through the lived experiences of Indigenous people and their environmental knowledge.
Jessica Hernandez, Ph.D. is an Indigenous scholar, scientist and community advocate from the Maya Ch’orti’ and Zapotec Nations. In Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science, Hernandez uses stories of her own family and other first-hand accounts by Indigenous people to shift the perspective of how conservation is practiced and who benefits from it.
The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple recently spoke with Hernandez about some of the themes in the book.
LISTEN to the interview
Kara Holsopple: I want to start with the title of your book, Fresh Banana Leaves. There’s a story about banana leaves in your father’s life. He was forced to be a child soldier in the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s. How did a banana tree save his life?
Jessica Hernandez: Yes, my father was unfortunately forced to join the guerrilla, the opposing forces against the army. That was because we were losing a lot of our men during the Central American Civil War, so their next push was to recruit children, especially boys as young as 11.
In this guerilla encampment, there was a tree that he had built a strong connection and relationship with. It was a tree that he will climb to gather bananas for the other children or his comrades. This was a banana tree that he would seek as his sanctuary to kind of ignore the reality that he was facing, especially at a young age. He used his imagination as a little boy to escape that harsh reality.
[When he was 14] his guerrilla encampment was bombarded and attacked. He saw a bomb dropping while he was standing under the banana tree, and instead of the bomb igniting, he saw how the banana leaves wrapped in a way that prevented the bomb from igniting. That seems surreal, but it was just based on the teachings that he has passed down to me, and my generation – that nature protects you as long as we protect nature.
I think that it was a way for the banana leaves to give him a fresh start because he was able to seek refuge after the incident, especially as he made it through Guatemala, Mexico and eventually to the United States.
Holsopple: How did his story impact your decision to pursue environmental science?
Hernandez: I think his story plays a big role in my life today and even in all the teachings that I embody. My father had siblings, but they were younger, so they weren’t of age to be recruited. He was the only one displaced from his family. He met my mom in Oaxaca, in the Zapotec pueblo, and she was the only one displaced from her family.
Oftentimes when it comes to Indigenous knowledges or lived experiences, they’re ignored because we don’t have what they consider valid forms of citing or valid forms that kind of support our lived experiences or first-hand observations.
I think that being in connection with my relatives back home, even though we were displaced, allowed me to foster a relationship with nature – allowed me to understand that even in the diaspora outside of our ancestral lands, we can build those relationships with nature. It obviously requires us to reclaim those relationships because we’re in a different environment.
I think that just learning from his teachings, learning from his lived experiences, especially seeing how nature protected him in his hardest times of life, especially during the war, allowed me to become more curious about the science behind nature. That’s why I decided when I was given the opportunity and privilege to pursue higher academia, to go into the environmental sciences.
Holsopple: You write about your Indigenous family in Mexico and about a concept that your grandmother taught you of being an unwelcome guest or a welcome guest on the land. What did she mean by that, and how does this idea help inform your work?
Hernandez: She always kept in mind that we were displaced, especially, my parents and their children, which one of them is me. I think that that was just her way of making me understand that anywhere that I walked, that was not my ancestral land. I was walking in someone’s home. I was walking in someone’s home as an unwelcome guest.
In order for me to become a welcome guest, I had to navigate building those relationships with the land and also the people who have the historical record of being the original stewards and caretakers of these lands.
As a result of that, anywhere that I go or end up having to move because of education or job opportunities, I am reflecting on how I can build those relationships with the Indigenous communities and Indigenous lands that I’m currently occupying. I think it’s manifesting the fact that if we’re not in our ancestral lands, we are in someone’s home and we have to build those relationships to be welcomed into their homes.
Holsopple: You write about relationships, about all of the ways that environment is part of everyday life in Indigenous communities in Mexico, from traditional food plots to embroidery work. Can you say a little bit more about that relationship?
Hernandez: It ties back to how we pass on our knowledges because our knowledges are not published or not written in peer-reviewed articles. We pass our knowledges through our traditions of storytelling.
Coming from a family of artisans, especially where our women embroider, and they weave our flowers, our regalia, our traditional clothing, I always understood that we were always kind of using nature as our canvas.
We tend to view arts or social sciences as something outside of our realm when in reality, they can all be interconnected.
We will embroider a lot of the native flowers to our region. We will embroider stories that the flowers can tell. If you come from a family that embroiders, you can see a huipil, which is our traditional clothing, and see what kind of story it’s telling and what kind of personality it’s invoking.
I think that it shows how our relationships with nature can also be manifested through art, which is something that in the Western cultures is not as welcome, especially in the sciences. We tend to view arts or social sciences as something outside of our realm when in reality, they can all be interconnected.
Holsopple: How was your Indigenous knowledge and experience challenged by professors and advisors in your academic career?
Hernandez: Oftentimes when it comes to Indigenous knowledges or lived experiences, they’re ignored because we don’t have what they consider valid forms of citing or valid forms that kind of support our lived experiences or first-hand observations.
I think that in that sense, I was told to separate myself from the science. I think that’s hard because when we look at how Indigenous communities see the world, we see it through a holistic lens where everything is interconnected. I think that in sciences, in the name of objectivity, we tend to remove ourselves and our entire spirituality from practicing science because it has to be objective.
Holsopple: How did you reconcile that?
Hernandez: I think I’m still reconciling that. I think that part of that is us redefining what we view as science and pushing against the narrative where we have to continue separating ourselves, where we have to just focus on the numerical data without incorporating the lived experiences.
Holsopple: You write that conservation groups have romanticized Indigenous people and culture. How do Indigenous science and conservation differ from mainstream conservation or Western conservation?
Hernandez: I think the main difference is that in many of our native languages, when I’m trying to explain conservation, there’s not really a word that translates to conservation. Part of the words that kind of touch upon what conservation is attempting to do, are healing or protecting.
I think that that kind of makes conservation different because we’re not trying to save. We’re trying to heal and protect, and we’re not just focusing on one puzzle piece, we’re trying to focus on the entire puzzle completed.
Holsopple: What do you want non-Indigenous people to take away from the book?
Hernandez: Part of the healing is a collective healing. We all play a major role in that. I think that oftentimes it can push non-Indigenous readers to kind of feel attacked or take things personally. But I think that part of the healing is also reflecting on one’s positionality, learning the true histories of the spaces or places we occupy, and also uplifting those voices.
I think that for non-Indigenous peoples, I would just want them to know that everyone plays a role in the collective healing. It’s just that we are all playing different roles. In order for us to truly liberate our lands, we also have to liberate ourselves. Hopefully, as we continue living on, and especially in the Seven Generations, they’re going to be doing a different type of healing.
But right now, our healing is kind of coming together at the table and being able to collectively have conversations, listen to one another without taking it personally, without feeling like we’re the ones being attacked, when it’s a bigger discussion that kind of points to the larger systems, not us individually.
Jessica Hernandez, Ph.D. (Maya Ch’orti’ & Binnizá) is a transnational Indigenous scholar, scientist and community advocate. Her postdoctoral work focuses on energy and climate impacts. She is the founder of Piña Soul, SPC, an environmental consulting & artesanias hybrid business that supports Black & Indigenous-led conservation and environmental projects through community mutual aids and micro-grants. She is the author of Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science (North Atlantic Books, 2022).