ACES Heroes: García, Cabeza de Baca, Nakayama, Fitzgerald, Pangborn & Steel
For several years, our Innovative Media, Research & Extension team has been researching the lives and accomplishments of our agricultural and Extension “heroes”: accomplished past graduates of New Mexico State University College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences who went on to great things.
As students were returning to campus in August, 2021, we mounted five framed 36”-by-48” posters on the first floor hallway of Gerald Thomas Hall, highlighting five of these alumni heroes. These individuals represent diverse communities within New Mexico and encompass various aspects of identity that historically have been underrepresented or underrecognized. Information about the heroes can also be viewed online at https://aces.nmsu.edu/heroes/
The posters describe how each of these ACES heroes overcame difficulties and at times racial or gender prejudice to complete their education and to provide education and support for others, especially among the state’s underserved populations. These stories hopefully support all students, especially minority and first-generation students, in their aspirations, and build confidence that the college is supporting and encouraging them to break down barriers to reach for those dreams.
Our team continues to research and explore the lives and accomplishments of alumni of the college for additional posters in the future.
The six heroes currently featured are described below:
Sam Steel (1876–1893), slated to be NMSU's first graduate, was an outstanding student who would have earned a bachelor’s degree by age 17, had he not been killed just a few months before graduation. The death of this promising scholar was tragic for his family, the new college, and the Mesilla Valley community. This “amiable, industrious, and inoffensive” young man (as he was described in the murder trial) ought to have had a fine life ahead of him.
Fabián García (1872–1948), horticultural pioneer and champion of education for all, who developed chile varieties that form the basis of all New Mexico type chile grown today. As director of the agricultural experiment station he personally signed the note to purchase land for the college’s horticultural research farm. Later, he donated his estate to help low-income students.
Roy Nakayama (1923–1988), famed chile and pecan breeder, who contributed to huge economic impacts for New Mexico. He conducted research at NMSU for 32 years and developed important varieties of chile and pecans. Yet as an undergraduate he was nearly denied the opportunity to complete his degree, due to anti-Japanese sentiment.
Rose Marie Valdes Pangborn (1932–1990) helped to found the field of sensory science. She developed novel techniques for understanding how our
senses shape our experience of food. A beloved teacher and advisor, she helping a generation of students reach beyond self-imposed limits to learn and discover new things.
Fabiola Cabeza de Baca (1894–1991), who established Extension programs in remote Hispanic and Pueblo communities, focusing on respect for traditional methods and cultural richness of places where she worked. She then carried the wisdom and traditions of rural people to larger audiences, writing the widely celebrated books We Fed Them Cactus, The Good Life, and Historical Cookery.
Jessie Fitzgerald (1930–2013), America’s first female County Agricultural Extension Agent, a skilled agriculturalist and 4-H leader who had a dream to serve New Mexico communities. She never stopped reaching for that dream, even when others said it was impossible.
Background of the project
Students at New Mexico State University are 58% Hispanic and 56% women. Yet for many years, historical representations of outstanding alumni showed predominantly white men. Walking down the hallways of our building next to historical photographs of department heads, faculty and alumni, students might feel hard-pressed to see themselves represented in those pictures. Experiences like these can limit students’ view of how educational aspirations intersect with identities, families, cultural origins, and diverse communities. In 2021, it was well past time to expand representation on the interior walls of our building.
At the request of the dean of the college, faculty and staff within the Department of Innovative Media, Research and Extension conducted extensive research, collected images, and wrote up the life stories and accomplishments of prominent alumni from diverse communities. These stories were presented on large wall posters to be hung on the first floor of the building, outside the conference hall where students often attend lectures. Information about each hero was also posted on a webpage and has been highlighted by administrators in speeches during 2021. Except in the case of García, who left no descendants, families of the heroes were consulted in development of these posters, and their feedback incorporated.
In choosing which alumni to profile for this project, the team strove to reflect diversity not just of ethnicity but also in social class; national origin; gender, sexual orientation, and family structure; abilities and preferences; and beliefs. While every individual’s story is unique and should not be seen as standing in for all those in a specific category, the lives we chose to chronicle included immigrants (García and Steel), families long-rooted in New Mexico (Cabeza de Baca and Fitzgerald), agricultural families of the Mesilla Valley (Nakayama and Steel), a war veteran (Nakayama), an amputee (Cabeza de Baca), an orphan (García), and a woman partnered with another woman (Fitzgerald).
We recognize the imperative of also featuring Indigenous and Black alumni, and have reached out to others on campus to help us identify individuals from these communities who graduated from or were otherwise affiliated with the college of agriculture in its early years.
Photos are from the NMSU Archives