Hispanic Heritage Month: Aaron Brinkerhoff Came Out of Retirement for This Passion Job

Aaron Brinkerhoff came out of retirement to continue his passion career – being a biologist.

Brinkerhoff is a Biologist for the SFPUC’s Water Enterprise Natural Resources Division, where he studies and monitors a variety of biological and endangered species in the SFPUC’s watersheds and mentors interns in field biology. Brinkerhoff began his career at the SFPUC as a water quality technician and continued on as a biologist. “I started with lake monitoring and as the SFPUC evolved and the Natural Resources Division was established, I specialized more in fisheries and other aquatic work,” he reminisced.

As Brinkerhoff continues to assist in monitoring fish populations on the Peninsula watersheds, particularly San Mateo Creek and Pilarcitos Creek, his day-to-day work depends on the season and includes spawning surveys in the winter, fish trapping in the spring, snorkel counts in the summer and capture and tagging in the fall. Throughout the year, Brinkerhoff continues to assist in conducting tagged fish monitoring using several electronic arrays the SFPUC has deployed. Although he came out of retirement to continue his passion career, he truly hopes that he can help inspire young people to pursue careers in science, and field biology.

“The SFPUC is a wonderful place to study and appreciate very rare, unique watersheds. The watersheds are pristine and you can experience landscapes similar to what they were a hundred years ago,” he said. “It is very fulfilling to be the steward of such special places. The work is FUN! The people you work with are great, smart, curious, and interesting. It is why I continue to work here, even after retiring!”

Brinkerhoff’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from Zacatecas and landed in Texas. His grandfather worked on the railroads while his grandmother raised eight children, 17 years apart in Weed, California in a two bedroom house during the 1920’s and 1930’s. This was something Brinkerhoff has found unimaginable, especially during the great depression.

“On top of that, my grandfather suffered a slow progressing form of Hanson’s disease and was incarcerated in Louisiana multiple times,” he shared. “My grandfather escaped and made his way back to Northern California to work and support his family. When my grandmother also contracted the disease, my mom was three years old, and the family was to be separated into various foster homes and orphanages. Her oldest sister, just married at 17 years old, took all the kids under her care until their mother and father returned home from Carville a year later with the “all clear” from the disease. What a way to start a young marriage.”

He shared how his mother and her immediate family had to overcome many challenges to raise him and his siblings in California in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Brinkerhoff is half Mexican and shared how his experiences have been more from the perspective of a white male because he has fair skin and red hair, traits that he got from his grandfather. However, he described his upbringing was still strongly connected to his family’s Latin roots, about the professional accomplishments of family members, and his encounters with talented individuals from the Latinx community. “When I encounter a young Latinx person, aside from the cultural connection, I know deep down that they can achieve whatever they set their mind and will on. I want and I try to reinforce that belief, if they don’t already have it. I’ve seen it in action with SFPUC interns who are brainier than I’ll ever be and a delight to work with.”

Brinkerhoff described the continued societal challenges, prejudices and ignorance the Latin and other cultures continue to face, even today. “Only my mom and one of her six sisters were able to obtain a college education. This still seems to be an enormous challenge for many families,” he said in reflection of Hispanic Heritage Month. “The beauty and history of the culture means a lot to me. I’ve been all over Mexico many times and love the cities, museums, good natured people, music, archeological sites and food, (even at the train and bus stops).”

“While trying to incorporate us into the social mainstream and yet retain an understanding and willingness to embrace our Mexican heritage, this still seems like a great challenge today,” he explained. “Although we were raised by our single, Mexican mother, my father was white. Two of my three brothers and I look white, so this made it that much more challenging for her, and sometimes for us to embrace, (except at Christmas when all the aunties made tamales).”

Despite these challenges, Brinkerhoff still finds a lot of pride in his Latin history. “What I am most proud about my culture is the combination of resilience and good humor despite enormous challenges both here and in native Latin countries,” he explained. “The sense of family spills over to new friends, young and old.”

In reflection of Hispanic Heritage Month, Brinkerhoff shared that this year’s theme, “Esperanza: a Celebration of Hispanic Heritage and Hope,” has meant a lot to him. “There is a sense of self-worth and belief in one’s abilities and culture. That together, they can elevate a person’s life experience,” he shared. “The hope that it is not a novel thing for a young Latinx woman or man to be an accomplished field biologist or any other professional. They won’t have to be featured in a newsletter due to their heritage because it will be commonplace. They will be featured solely due to their accomplishments and their heritage will be a side-note bonus.”

Aaron Brinkerhoff (left) with SFPUC colleague Carina Gomez (right).