Planting seeds of autonomy in communities of color

By Flor Olivo

Native people have a long-standing tie to Mother Earth, nurturing it to produce food needed to survive and also creating sustainable ways of life. Decades of American imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism throughout the world has severed many of these connections, causing indigenous peoples and immigrants of color to flee their territories, lands and gardens, often to live on inhospitable new land. At times, the removal has resulted in those ousted to end up doing the work of planting, sowing and picking, for others. Some who have arrived in other countries have forgotten or have been unable to continue these practices for themselves.

I've planted a garden every year since 2006. Through this process I discovered I come from a heritage of agricultores. My mother’s father worked the land, grew and sold tomatoes for a living in Colombia. My father’s family also had lands in Mexico before ending up in the city of Monterrey Nuevo Leon, Mexico. As I got a little better at gardening and yielded more fruits and vegetables, I began posting photos and writing about my garden. Everyone I knew was very supportive, intrigued or interested in forming their own gardens. I wondered why most of the gardeners I knew were white progressives. I also wondered why more people I knew didn’t garden.

Being able to grow our own food as communities of color helps us get closer to discussions of environmentalism in our spaces. According to Reverend Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. in the book Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots, “Inhabitants [of communities of color] are exposed to greater health and environmental risks than is the general population. Clearly, all [people] do not have the same opportunities to breathe clean air, drink clean water, enjoy clean parks and playgrounds, or work in a clean, safe environments.” This extends to conversations of self- sustainability and inclusion in decision-making that affects what we consume.

There are many reasons these exclusions, trespasses and direct attacks continue to happen in our neighborhoods, but amidst that there are things we can do to begin taking back our agency and actively working to reinstate our voices. There are movements in Mexico and South America that have re-established water sovereignty and rights for indigenous communities. There are communities that survive on their own gardens.

Recently I asked my friends on FB what were things that prevented them from gardening.

Many expressed lack of knowledge. Alicia Cervantes, community activist shared, “I have no idea how to start or when. We bought seeds but don't know what to do from there.” Maria Alma Razo, mother of five, said, “I tried it last year and nothing grew.” Karla Morales, mother of two, wrote, “would love to learn!”

A few more, lacked the space. “I live in an apartment, but I support local farmers,” wrote Elise Boxer, University of Utah professor. Arlene Padilla Arenaz, Academic Advisor in the College of Engineering at the University of Utah, wrote, “I live in a condo and don't have space. When I lived in a house, I used to grow everything.”

And there were also those who had accomplished it successfully. Marissa Tellez, educator in Texas, acknowledged her natural talent, “I do have a green thumb but i think its pure luck. I actually love working in the garden but it can be a [little] expensive.”

There are ways to find time, resources and spaces to make gardening work. Our communities hold hidden answers and also practical methods, practices and tools that can be very helpful. I've learned a lot on my own but I've also been able to learn from my elders and other gardeners. My tio abuelo helped me grow a row of tomatoes using compost to fertilize that flourished last season. He also taught me to use plastic bags as string. The years before that my dad helped me to think of ways to fertilize and organize our produce to use water more efficiently.  
Two years ago, Maria Lopez, a Rose Park community mother, really inspired me with her pots and backyard garden. She was growing potatoes, corn, chilies, tomatoes and fruit. All things she used in her kitchen daily.

Lopez who only speaks Spanish says, providing her family with organic fruits and vegetables was her drive. I wanted to “have natural vegetables, that didn’t have chemicals. It wasn’t hard to start. It was easy. I just planted seeds.” She picked the seeds she liked. She worked the soil, took care of them by weeding the space around the plants and made sure she kept the dirt moist. She proudly shared that “everything she’s planted has grown beautifully. The secret is watering consistently.”

She does not fertilize, just makes sure to till regularly and water. Lopez says, “use what you plant. It’s worth the work if you are able to control that your fruits and vegetables don’t have chemicals that can hurt us.”

Gardening has been an uplifting experience that I have used to stay connected to my roots, maintain spirituality and to explore a healthier lifestyle that I can afford. It has also become an active way of re-establishing an art that defines self-determination and power. For people of color gardening can promote healthier eating habits, peace in knowing where your food comes from, it can help your family economy by saving money on vegetables and fruit. And can even become a local economic booster through farmer’s markets.

It's not hard to start. All you have to do is plant a seed, literally.


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