Meet Fernanda Luppani

Fernanda Luppani is the current editorial program specialist for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Indian (NMAI). We sat down at the busy Mitsitam Coffee Espresso Bar at the museum to discuss her windy path that led her to a museum she holds close to heart and considers a second home.

It was a Friday afternoon and don’t ask me why but for some reason I expected to walk into a quiet and peaceful museum where Fernanda and I could sit by a window and chat. My favorite time of day to visit museums are the middle of the day, in the middle of the week. Less crowded, I love walking the floors alone and taking in the art all to myself. So with that in mind, I already had created a beautiful scenario of what this interview would be like. Did I think this was 20/20? What I didn’t know was that all day, the museum was host to the Lumbee Nation Festival.

As soon as I walked in, I was met with tables topped with beautiful textiles and beautifully woven baskets and people chatting and taking photos among them. I heard music over my headphones and a small crowd hovering over the jewelry in the gift shop making purchases. I was early so I made my way to the museum’s Mitsitam Cafe and had the most delicious chicken tacos. Then I slowly made my way over to the Mitsitam Coffee Espresso Bar and found a table to meet Fernanda.

Fernanda has a magnetic presence. When she walks into a room you can’t help but notice her. It is more than just the carefully selected jewelry imbued with meaning, or the floral headpiece reminiscent of Frida Kahlo. She has the darkest black hair, usually pulled back and her outfits are also usually just as dark but decorated with lace or frills. Her fashion turns heads. She is anything but basic, everyone. But it isn’t her carefully selected outfits that stands out to me. The second she walks in and sees me, she gives me the warmest of smiles that makes me feel less nervous about my first “interview.” This is what makes Fernanda, Fernanda. She has this uncanny ability to make everyone in the room feel comfortable. Her personality is just as warm and friendly as that smile that you can’t help but feel a little extra pep in your step. And I’m not talking about the kind of people who loudly step into the room with bright optimism coming out of every pore at six in the morning ready with a bullhorn to announce today’s inspirational quote. She considers herself a mama bear so maybe that's what it is. You just know that she cares, you know she isn’t afraid to care. Her strength is muted but not without that magnetic presence. I’m a little biased because I do consider her a friend but this isn’t a formal interview and I’m not here to make our Latinx community look anything but amazing so whatever.

We sat in the middle of the busy espresso bar and I told her she would be the first of hopefully many to be interviewed. Fernanda is a program specialist for the museum, something she says is only part of the job. NMAI is the only Smithsonian museum that is equipped to publish their own books, so with the help of a contracted company, Fernanda helps with the distribution. She also does editorial work for anything translated into Spanish. When she talks about NMAI, you can see how much she loves her work. She has been working for the Smithsonian Institution for about seven years and had her start in two different units before arriving at NMAI. She’s been at NMAI for just over a year now, but to hear her talk about it you would think she has been there forever, “It is an honor to be at this museum and I feel really lucky to work with the people that I work with and learn from them and everyone is so open. I love this place. It’s really a privilege and honor to be here.”

Fernanda Luppani was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She immigrated to the United States at the young age of eleven, miles away from the Smithsonian, in southern California. Interested in science, physics, and astronomy very early on, she decided to pursue a career in this field. But quickly realized that cultural astronomy and Mesoamerican studies more aligned with her interests and she received her bachelor’s degree in archeology and anthropology from the University of California, San Diego. When you look at where she is now, it is easy to think that her path was a straight one that led her all the way to NMAI. At eight, she had decided she would be an astronomer and that led her to invest time in learning all about it before it led her to more discoveries about other connected interests. I don’t know about you, but at eight, I would dress up in costumes and sing to my parents with the stage name, Kelly, forcing them to record me. My path? Not so straight.

But in hearing about her journey, you come to see there was never a specific end goal that you could pin point to, just a general idea of where Fernanda wanted to be, what she wanted to do. With each new chapter in her life, small shifts and adjustments were made to account for new self-discoveries about where her life could lead her. And this wasn’t without its real life challenges. Fernanda started in community college before transferring to UCSD. Working the entire time to offset the cost of tuition and books, Fernanda knew this would be the only way to reach new heights in her blooming career, “Being an immigrant, having limited resources, I had to fund everything I wanted to do in this country. I have been working nonstop since I was sixteen years old, full time since I was nineteen, through school, through internships. I feel fortunate even though I’ve had to work really hard, I’ve had opportunities.”

After seven years and a major change, Fernanda graduated UCSD. At this point she had thought about going into education but found the university setting to be a bit too elitist. She was also sure she needed to pursue a PhD program to continue with her mesoamerican archeology studies. So flipping through stacks of catalogs outlining the many different programs available to her, she found herself locked into one at the George Washington University. It wasn’t a PhD program and it was all the way across the country, but the master’s program for museum studies is when it all clicked. Universities aren’t the only setting where education and learning can foster. Museums are a space where research is done, and education is shared among the public. So in 2006, Fernanda went to the George Washington University as a part time student and a full time development researcher for the school.

By this point, things were slowly coming together. This is also around the time when she would begin applying to all kinds of jobs with the Smithsonian to get her foot in the door. Getting a job with the Smithsonian Institution, a federally funded group of museums known all around the world, can seem daunting but Fernanda knew this is where she was destined to be. Recalling an early undergrad memory from an anthropology class where a professor showed the class a video of NMAI breaking ground, Fernanda describes where that thread to NMAI began to pull at her, “I was looking at this video in California and I was thinking, ‘I wanna visit that place. How can I visit this place?’ and I had never left California and never thought that I could even come to DC. It was so outside my sphere of possibilities, not from the desire to do things but from the capacity. Being Latina and being an immigrant, coming from a very modest household, it...seemed impossible but it became a dream…” Being the steadfast person she is, she knew she had no other option. No amount of distance or financial hurdle would keep her from pursuing this path.

But despite her own personal career ambitions, a big part of her desire to be at the Smithsonian, and in particular, NMAI, is to serve the native community. She makes this very clear and in describing how she sees and defines her own success, she is careful not to appear self-interested. “My desire to be in this museum is I want to serve the native community. I want to be of service to the constituents of the Smithsonian, which really is the world. But in being in this particular unit, I want to devote myself to being in service of native people, of all of the Americas not just the United States.” Fernanda doesn’t appear to have a selfish bone in her body but I understand that being the selfless person that she is, why she feels the need to clarify. Now that she is at NMAI, her success is aligned to that of the mission of her museum. I remind her that being selfish is not an entirely bad thing but perhaps selfish isn't even the right word to use here. In all her time spent working and studying, focusing on her growth, I would say that she was investing in herself so that she could one day invest in others. 

From a young girl who started working at a cleaners in California to a woman who has reached the museum she saw in a video all those years ago, she knows that her career is far from peaked, “Now that I’ve been here for a year it’s been incredibly rewarding...I’ve accomplished my dream. It’s been 20 years since I saw that video. To some, this may not be a dream at all but to me it is. I need a new dream now.” 

So what advice does she have for others looking to the museum field as a career option? “Don’t let anyone or anything including yourself tell you that you can’t do something, because if you’re willing to work hard, anything is possible. I wholeheartedly believe that. You might have to take years longer to achieve what you desire than other people. Don’t compare yourself, do whatever it takes according to your rules, according to your perspective...because what is life if not all of those experiences leading up to your successes, however you define them.”

If you would like to contact Fernanda, you can e-mail her at luppanif@si.edu.