By Julia Gamolina
Selina Martinez is a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and a Xicana born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. She has been involved in a diversity of projects with local tribal nations through the ASU Indigenous Design Collaborative and Taw Arc. Selina has led architecture studios at the ASU Design School, integrating the use of 3D laser scanning and indigenous and bioclimatic desert design responses, and is currently a designer at Childers Architect.
In 2020 Selina was a recipient of the Radical Imagination grant from the NDN Collective, establishing the seed funding to create Juebenaria, a project focused on providing an evolving collection of a plurality of lived experiences. In her interview with Julia Gamolina, Selina talks about her various projects with Indigenous urban communities and embracing identity, advising those just starting their careers to not be afraid to disrupt existing cycles of the establishment.
JG: Tell me about your foundational years — where did you grow up and what did you like to do as a kid?
SM: Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, I had the privilege of being able to visit my Yaqui grandparents in Penjamo and my extended family in the town of Guadalupe. Despite residing on the west side of Phoenix, these visits allowed me to experience the unique values and energy of each environment, which ultimately shaped my sense of identity as a Yoeme person in the Sonoran desert.
As a child, I was fortunate to be influenced by both of my parents, who were always engaged in home renovation projects. Whether it was laying saltillo tile throughout our house, adding a skylight to a room, or simply cultivating a garden in our backyard, these projects left a profound impression on me. I learned that altering our living space in various ways had a significant impact on our happiness and well-being. Furthermore, seeing my parents take on these projects themselves instilled in me a sense of confidence that I too could tackle similar endeavors in the future.
What did you learn about yourself in studying architecture?
In architecture school, the curriculum and faculty did not reflect my own identity and primarily focused on western methodologies. Regardless, I fell in love with architecture and the multiplicity of design conversations that were evolving in academia as I progressed through undergrad and graduate school.
During my final semester of undergraduate study, I crossed paths with Wanda Dalla Costa, the first indigenous woman architect from Canada, who became a mentor and introduced me to indigenous architecture as a potential career path. Through her courses, I studied the impact of colonial practices on indigenous communities and the correlating lack of growth in the number of indigenous architects, and the overall lack of representation in design professions. Prior to this, I honestly had not even considered exploring indigenous architecture and its connection to the built environment. This new influence drove me to continue my pursuit to become an architect and to carve a path that avoided settling for the status quo.
How did you get your start in working in architecture?
During my year off before returning for graduate school, I began to work on historic preservation-related projects in the downtown warehouse district with Levine Machine. This is where I was introduced to 3D lidar laser scanning as a tool to document precise measurements of existing buildings, outputting point cloud files to be used in post-production to create highly precise digital 3D as- built models. My confidence in my ability to use technical tools and proficiency in 3D modeling evolved quickly with each project as I was able to refine the process from scan to 3D as-built, and from new construction concepts to output of drawings.
During this same period, I had the opportunity to work on a grant-funded project that ultimately resulted in the successful completion of my first built project. Through the invitation of Wanda Dalla Costa, we worked with the Gila River Indian Community to create traditional shade structures known as “vathos,” complete with adobe benches beneath them at the Mul-Cha-Tha fairgrounds in Sacaton, AZ. This collaborative effort involved working closely with tribal stakeholders to develop the architectural design drawings, which required multiple meetings and discussions leading up to the construction phase. I was privileged to learn about the traditional archetypes, natural materials, and a shared desire to combine contemporary building techniques with traditional ones. Once construction was completed, I was able to physically touch something I had drawn digitally and experience the heaviness of the resultant architecture.
Tell me how you got to TawArc, and what you’re focused on these days.
I was fortunate enough to be brought on board by Taw Arc to collaborate on two exciting projects — the creation of an indigenous welcome wall and a custom O’odham-inspired table for the ASU Hayden Library in Tempe, AZ. Through close collaboration with library stakeholders and local indigenous artists, we were able to curate and oversee the fabrication of two unique pieces that weave a powerful indigenous narrative throughout various levels of the library.
Over the past year, I’ve also had the opportunity to lead architecture studios at the ASU Design School. These studios were designed to challenge the conventional way of thinking and inspire third, fourth, and sixth-year architecture students to push beyond the traditional boundaries. We asked the students to explore how the discipline of architecture could be used to learn about the past, in order to shape a better future. To make the studio experience more meaningful, we incorporated a real-world project. We responded to a Request for Proposals (RFP) released by the Town of Guadalupe in 2021, which outlined their vision for new developments in a predominantly Yaqui community. By involving architectural students in this conversation, we helped raise awareness of an urban indigenous community and exposed students to real-world architectural implications of responding to an RFP.
Currently, my primary focus is on completing the requisite hours necessary to take the licensure exams and become a licensed architect. Recently, I embarked on an exciting new chapter in my career by joining Childers Architect in Phoenix. This firm specializes in medical architecture and Native American projects, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to broaden my skill set in this highly specialized field. So far, my experience at Childers Architect has been truly enlightening. I am eager to expand my technical knowledge and gain a deeper understanding of the intricacies involved in this type of work. I am confident that my time with this firm will equip me with valuable new skills and expertise that will enable me to excel as an architect in the future.
Looking back at it all, what have been the biggest challenges? How did you manage through perceived disappointments or setbacks?
As a woman of color working in the architectural industry, I have faced my fair share of challenges. One of the biggest frustrations is the perception that my counterparts tend to have of me, particularly when it comes to my technical skill set. I have often found myself having to go the extra mile to prove my worth and capabilities, even when it should be a given.
Sadly, it's no secret that the architectural industry is predominantly led by white males in both industry and academia. However, instead of allowing these obstacles to bring me down, I choose to use them as a source of motivation. I am determined to serve as a representative for other underdogs, to defy the odds and overcome the barriers that women of color in this industry often face. I am committed to paving the way for future generations of architects from diverse backgrounds, and I am excited about the positive changes that lie ahead.
What have you also learned in the last six months?
Over the past six months, I have really had to relearn the importance of maintaining balance in my life. Whether it's balancing my work and personal life or balancing my physical and mental well-being, I know that it's essential to my overall happiness and success.
Another aspect that I've come to realize is the importance of recognizing when I have outgrown certain things in my life. This can be anything from a job or relationship to a particular hobby or interest. When I notice that I'm no longer feeling fulfilled or challenged by something that used to bring me joy, I know that it's time to reassess and make changes. It can be difficult to let go of something that we've invested a lot of time and energy into, but I've learned that it's necessary for growth and progress. By recognizing when I've outgrown something, I'm able to make room for new experiences and opportunities that will help me continue to grow and develop.
Maintaining balance and recognizing when I've outgrown something are two concepts that go hand-in-hand. When I'm in balance, I'm able to see more clearly when something is no longer serving me, and I'm more empowered to take action and make changes to evolve.
What are you most excited about right now?
I am currently working on a project that involves collaboration with the prestigious British Museum of London. The project is a digital exhibition that stems from my ongoing initiative, Juebenaria, which means "plural" in our Yaqui language. Juebenaria aims to represent the past, present, and future narratives of the Yaqui people.
The digital exhibition is extremely exciting because it will provide insight into the contemporary context of various Yaqui communities, spanning from our homelands in Sonora Mexico to the various settlements in Arizona. To bring this vision to life, the exhibition will utilize cutting-edge technology, including 3D scan data and 3D model recreations of the original Yaqui settlement of Guadalupe. We will also incorporate critical narrative and collaborate with other Yaqui creatives to create a dynamic and engaging exhibition. By situating artifacts within the Yaqui collection of the British Museum, the goal is to uplift direct narrative of Yoeme peoples and embed ourselves and our artistry within an international platform.
Who are you admiring now and why?
Currently, I am admiring the Chinese philosopher Leih-Tzu for his wisdom and insights into life. He offered a unique perspective on the nature of reality and the human condition. Leih-Tzu's teachings have had a profound impact on my life, and I often turn to his writings for guidance and inspiration. His philosophy emphasizes the power of simplicity and encourages us to embrace the natural flow of life. By letting go of our attachments and embracing the present moment, we can experience true freedom and find peace within ourselves. What I find particularly inspiring about Leih-Tzu is his ability to convey profound truths through simple and concise language. His teachings are accessible to anyone, regardless of their background or beliefs. These are values I hope can translate into my architectural practice as I progress in my career.
What is the impact you’d like to have on the world? What is your core mission? And, what does success in that look like to you?
The intention behind all of the work I am involved in is to uplift the importance of how we see ourselves inheriting the ancestral environments we live in today and our role to maintain and evolve our culture for the next generations. Territories are true history books and can be considered living entities embedded with memories that hold knowledge, celestial connections, seeds, rituals, languages, and more. Preserving our culture is directly correlated to the environment — natural and built. It is a process that can engage beyond a single lifetime.
As my architectural career evolves, I want to create channels of access for indigenous populations to engage and embed their worldviews within architectural design. Actively re-integrating suppressed identities and indigenous knowledge as valid within the context of the architecture field. When a community has access to opportunities to engage in the process of cultural sustainability through design tools, there is a reclamation of power through autonomy, empowerment, and ownership of narrative. The ability to archive histories, document current realities, and envision indigenous futures from the lens of an indigenous community is viewed as highly disruptive of the status quo. This is what motivates me — the chance to use my skills and talents to elicit change, to help preserve and protect the cultures and environments that are so integral to our collective history and future.
Finally, what advice do you have for those starting their career? Would your advice be any different for women?
Embrace the power of integrating identity into your design practice and boldly advocate to interject new identities into the field of architecture. Don't be held back by the fear of disrupting existing cycles that perpetuate the status quo in both the architectural industry and academia. Embracing change can ignite a transformative shift in our design processes, resulting in innovative solutions that push beyond conventional boundaries. As designers, we have the power to shape our environment on both micro and macro levels and to ultimately “design designs” so it is critical that we reclaim autonomy to drive meaningful change and create a more equitable future for the next generations to come.
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