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Rare ASU map collection reveals truths about history of American Southwest

"Greater Arizona: Mapping Place, History and Transformation" on display at ASU
April 6, 2017

Exhibit includes documents, digitized photos of 16th- through 19th-century maps; features details, perspectives that are often lost

An exhibit of rare maps at ASU is challenging assumptions about the history of the American Southwest by showing a range of details that conflict depending on what was being documented and who was doing the work, a curator with ASU’s School of Transborder Studies said.

“The maps show you things you didn’t expect or even know,” said Theresa Avila, co-curator of “Greater Arizona: Mapping Place, History and Transformation.” “For instance, that this area belonged to France at one point — or at least France thought so.

“These maps are documents; they’re historical; they’re produced by the most learned of their time. But there’s still a lot of errors and problems with them. … History is not only what we know, but what we don’t know. So these maps help us to learn what we don’t know.”

The collection will be on display at Hayden Library on ASU’s Tempe campus through May 19. Dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries, the maps document everything from peoples to borders to geographical features, and were created by a number of nations, including France, Great Britain and Holland — all that variation reveals portions of history that in some cases have been ignored.

A group of students recently toured the collection as research for a project looking at migration to the U.S. through Latin American countries. The maps were indeed useful for their research, but Avila said she “was also able to point out the migration from Europe to the Americas first. If we’re going to really talk about migration, who’s migrating where?”

All of the maps in the Hayden exhibit come from the School of Transborder Studies Simon Burrow Collection. Burrow, a global industrialist, accumulated the collection of more than 100 original maps and 200 books over nearly three decades out of a desire to better understand the U.S. and Mexico borderlands where he conducted business. He donated it all to the school in 2012, where it is on permanent display in the Interdisciplinary B buildingBurrow will be in attendance at a May 4 celebration to honor university donors from 4-6 p.m. at Hayden Library.

Avila calls Burrow’s maps “key maps,” because they are key in understanding truths about the history of the Southwest. For example, one map, created by the U.S. government in 1839, features the independent “Republic of Texas.” At the time, however, ownership of that land was in dispute between the U.S. and Mexico, which did not acknowledge Texas’ declaration of independence.

“This map in particular really highlights a very key moment … in the revision of history,” Avila said. “Texas was never a republic. But it’s still a very strong narrative in the U.S. mind. We feel that when the Alamo happened, we were justified. And yet, when you read the narrative of this map and the way Texas was taken over, we weren’t really justified in taking this land over hostilely.”

Greater Arizona map exhibition

School of Transborder Studies Director Alejandro Lugo has helped curate a map exhibition at Hayden Library that shows how Arizona and the Southwest have been depicted over hundreds of years. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

 The images pasted directly onto the walls in Hayden are digital print reproductions of the actual maps, magnified so viewers can see the finer details. Some of the maps have been modified, like the one from 1866 marking the gold, copper and silver deposits in the region. Old photos of miners are affixed to the map at the location where they were taken.

“In an effort to remember and connect the different phases of development of Arizona” reads the accompanying plaque, “this map is paired … with Arizona mining history that is typically recognized as the state’s official history. Bringing both elements together allows for inclusion of communities typically omitted from Arizona history...”

The exhibit also features photos of the border region taken by School of Transborder Studies Director Alejandro Lugo, who co-curated the collection with Avila. Along the ramp leading up to the main level of the exhibit are photos of the existing U.S.-Mexico border fence. Along the bottom of a map from 1774 of the Spanish missions are photos of the missions as they stand today, taken by Lugo in 2016.

Pairing the past with the present in such a way makes the information more “inviting and accessible,” Lugo said. “It helps them to think about the longer history of the place and how we are a part of the landscape today.”

Most importantly, agree Lugo and Avila, the exhibit paints a more accurate picture of the history of the Southwest, and Arizona in particular.

On the state’s website, Avila said, history begins in 1912. “This collection reveals that this place — that Arizona — has a much longer story, and a much more diverse history than has been presented to us.”

Top photo: Theresa Avila, of ASU's School of Transborder Studies, shows how maps began to omit Native American tribes following the Indian Removal Act in 1830 inside the exhibition "Greater Arizona: Mapping Place, History and Transformation" in the Hayden Library on Tuesday. The project will be on display through May 19. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now 

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She Se Puede: ASU alum creates opportunities for Latina girls in STEM

ASU alum leads Degrees of Freedom, a robotics team for East Valley girls.
April 6, 2017

Si Se Puede Foundation has been organizing robotics programs for East Valley students for nearly 20 years

Update: The Degrees of Freedom team won the Rookie All Star Award at this weekend's FIRSTFor Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Arizona West Regional 2017 and advance to the FIRST Championship competition in Houston during the weekend of April 22. 

A team of high school girls is ready to compete in a robotics competition Saturday in Phoenix thanks to a nonprofit organization founded more than 20 years ago by Arizona State University alumnus Alberto Esparza.  

The Si Se Puede Foundation focuses on helping children from low-income families achieve academic success, but they’ll take anyone who wants to join their robotics programs. Esparza said that since 1998, his program has seen about 85 students go on to become engineers. 

The group’s work highlights a range of outreach efforts from the ASU community that include Camp Catanese, a tech-heavy college access program for Phoenix students; CompuGirls, a STEM program for minority girls; Conexiones, an academic achievement program for children of migrant workers across Arizona; and the Upward Bound Project, a college prep program serving potential first-generation college students.     

The Si Se Puede Foundation’s newest team, Degrees of Freedom, a collection of predominantly Latina East Valley girls, wants to start gathering trophies. This is their story: 


It’s spring break and a chilly, dark morning as seven young girls huddle together for a selfie in the Chandler Techshop parking lot.

The Degrees of Freedom high school robotics team is headed to Flagstaff for the FIRST regional robotics competition where they hope to claim the rookie all-star award for first time teams. Alberto Esparza, CEO of Si Se Puede that funds the team, checks everyone is present and snacks are accounted for as they get ready to leave at 5 a.m..

Outside the parents of Valeria and Camila Treviño huddle together as they see both their daughters off. They would go, but they can’t afford to spend time away from their jobs. As the vehicle begins to drive off, Valeria and Camila’s mother walks alongside as she waves goodbye.


Alberto Esparza, with his graying hair and trimmed mustache, towers over children running through the Hartford Elementary cafeteria. Little ones tug at his shirt to show him their Lego robots or run into him for a quick hug. Esparza walks with a gait of authority that would have served him well 23 years ago as a probations and parole officer.

Thinking back to his undergraduate years, Esparza comments, “when I was at Arizona State University, I saw myself going into the FBI; I saw myself becoming an attorney. But I had a passion for the community.”

In 1993, Esparza felt he had reached a crossroads. He left corrections, and a lucrative position, to spend his life savings on creating the Si Se Puede Foundation with no previous non-profit experience and little support from his family — who couldn’t understand why he left a stable career path.

Esparza became the primary teacher of foklorico dance groups, soccer programs and even ESLEnglish as a Second Language classes with the hopes of improving the odds of succeeding in high school and college for the children of his East Valley community. Working in corrections had made him feel he was treating problems rather than preventing them. “It’s not that I’m a tough guy,” he said of his own success in school, “I grew up in that environment, too.”

After four years of work, Esparza found himself broke and sleeping in his unheated office on a cold November night questioning his choices. But that same year Si Se Puede received its first funding grant from United Way for $25,000.

“I don’t mind saying that the application that I filled out was filled out in pencil. I didn’t have a computer, typewriter, if you will, and I felt so uncomfortable when I submitted it.”

With the support of the Chandler Police Department and those who were familiar with his approach he secured the grant that allowed him to start Lego robotics programs in Chandler schools.  

“I decided, ‘why don’t I bring robotics to the East Valley to communities deemed at risk,” Esparza said. “Your zip code shouldn’t dictate whether or not these programs are available.” 

Today, Esparza’s Si Se Puede foundation partners with schools all over the Valley offering programs for a range of ages. His only rule is that they don’t charge students for participation. He has seen 85 students go on to study engineering at a variety of different universities and considers everything “his kids” go on to do a success.

As a young mother arrives at Hartford elementary and hugs her son, he points out she was once one of his students in elementary school. He remarks that this East Valley community is where his heart is and that his success may be impressive but a result of years of effort, “I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’m persistent.”

Before heading to Flagstaff for the FIRST robotics competition, the girls of Degrees of Freedom and the Binary Bots team, a co-ed team sponsored by Si Se Puede, spent every Saturday and sometimes weekday afternoons planning and building their team robots. Students from all over the Valley that participate in either team met at the ASU Chandler Innovation Center, which adjoins the Chandler TechShop. The teams must raise $5,000 to compete and money to purchase tools and equipment. The students work with mentors from General Motors, ASU alumni and ASU students to raise money and build robots.

The theme of this year’s competition is “STEAMWorks.” Robots must pick up gears and balls and then climb a rope. 

ASU junior Ruy Garcia Acosta, who is now a mechanical engineering student, went through the program himself in elementary school and mentors students on both teams. He credited his time with Si Se Puede for opening up his perspectives.

“It helped be more intrigued about the engineering aspects,” he said speaking of his time in the program. Acosta manages to squeeze in time with high school students because, “I interact with the kids because they’re really smart and really bright, and I really like to make sure that they know that they’re on the right track.” 

Acosta and other mentors supervise students and provide insight as they design their robots and use the equipment to cut, drill and program. 

ASU alumnus Allan Cameron, a doctorate in elementary education, coaches the Degrees of Freedom team. He was part of the squad that beat MIT in a robotics competition that later was dramatized in the 2015 movie “Spare Parts.”

He met Alberto Esparza a few years ago at a party.

“He was thinking of starting a high school level team for the community,” Cameron said. “So there I am with a little drink in my hand, and I say if there’s anything I can do to help let me know. The next thing I know I’m spending five days a week working with the kids.” 

"Dr. Cameron," as the kids call him, helped Esparza start the Degrees of Freedom this academic year, purposefully making an all-girls team to create more leadership opportunities. Cameron, who has daughters of his own, sees the team as an attempt to address larger cultural influences that deter many young women from STEM fields. 

“Girls tend to get the Barbies. Guys tend to get the trucks, the dynamic stuff that moves,” Cameron said. “In here, they get to get dirty and break things … and culturally, we’re swimming upstream.”

Valeria Treviño is one of those young women on the Degrees of Freedom team and sees aerospace engineering in her future. Bailee Kagen is interested in quantum physics. 

Treviño and her sister on the team joined Si Se Puede in third grade and have participated in every robotics program offered. The girls are able to come afterschool because their mother drives them every day and even gives rides to other team members. Treviño’s parents wholeheartedly support their daughters, who will likely be the first in the family to attend university. “My mom wanted to give us opportunities she didn’t have,” Treviño said.

With a month left to go before competition time, the girls are testing, driving and adjusting pieces of the robot frame. “Let yourself get comfortable, and make sure you have it where you want it,” a mentor tells the girls. They take turns drilling a hole into a piece of rectangular metal that is part of the robot’s adjusted frame.  

Madeline Badger was using the drill as her teammates cheered her on. When she finished she exclaimed “nailed it guys!” Valeria Treviño, however, laughed, “You didn’t nail it, cause you’re not using nails.”


The FIRST regional robotics competitions began in Flagstaff last month. Robots are weighed and measured to comply with competition standards. Teams are given the day to test their robots on the field or make adjustments before competition. The following day with music blasting and teams wearing matching red Mohawks and gold lame capes — there’s even a fully suited horse mascot — competition begins.

Months of labor are boiled down to a series of 2-minute rounds. As students compete, they collect points that give them their standing.

“I’ve had the time of my life,” blasts on overhead speakers the girls lip sync and goof off around the robot as they wait to compete in their first match. 

Degress of Freedom drivers, Valeria Treviño and Madeline Badger, do their team handshake before heading to the driving port. The first 30 seconds, robots function automatically and as a buzzer sounds Valeria and Madeline dart out for their controllers. They maneuver their robot around collecting gears and in the last 20 seconds push their robot to climb.

As the competition wears on, the team continues to perform. But their final two rounds are plagued with communication problems from the controllers and a loose piece of hardware that prevents the robots from climbing.

As winners are announced, the girls have their hearts set on the rookie team award, given to the strongest community influence in their first year as competitors. It allows the winner to advance to international competition.

At the end of the day, different categories are called, the girls place seventh out of more than 50 teams. But they tear up as the final winners are announced and they don’t hear their names.

Esparza reminds them how highly they placed for a first-time squad while Cameron reminds them of a lesson he reiterates often, “You’re here to fail, because if you’re not failing, you’re not pushing hard enough; you’re just doing all the stuff that everyone has done before.”

At the end of the night, the girls shake hands and congratulate other teams. As Esparza prepares to leave the auditorium, the girls come bounding across the floor smiling and laughing. They’re teasing a teammate for getting her first kiss, on the cheek, from a boy on a competing team.

“It was in front of everybody, and everybody was like ‘beso, beso, beso,’” said Valeria Treviño as her teammate hides her face in her hands.

Later, over a dinner of chow mein and stir fry, they discuss strategy of how to improve their chances at the next regionals at Grand Canyon University.

Sights, sounds and efforts of competition.