When we arrived at Mujer Obrera for the first time, the gates were locked. We were told to arrive around 10am, but our friend Julian had to be at work soon after, so he dropped us off a bit early at a park down the street. We said our goodbyes and surveyed the beautiful park we were in. We took the extra time to reflect on our time with him, and we read a few passages out of the book he had given us: You Are The World. Good stuff. When it was time, we walked back to the locked gate, only to find it still locked. We called our contact Carolina and found out that the man in charge wouldn’t be there until 1pm that day. A bit of a problem considering our lack of transportation and lack of sunscreen.
Nonetheless, we walked the four and a half miles back to the NASA Service Center where Harvey was getting another hip replacement. Despite the intense heat, it was a fun walk. We were exploring a new city and, while exhausting, had an excitement to it. We made it back uneventfully and got to work on what we could do with our limited means. So after another day spent working on our laptops in the mechanic’s waiting area, we were more than eager to get our hands dirty the next day.
We had Harvey back from the shop with tentative assurances that he was road ready. So we drove him over to the garden around 10:30am the next day, and sure enough, the gates were open. As we walked in, we were greeted by a small group of would-be gardeners, all about our own age, working at re-potting Aloe Vera plants to be sold at a farmers market. We greeted Carolina and introduced ourselves to the rest of the group. They were friendly and welcoming, though it seemed clear they were not used to seeing new faces.
We asked Carolina to put us to work, and at first she seemed stumped. The head honcho was the one to ask about jobs for newbies, and he was otherwise engaged for the moment. So she showed us around the repurposed residential lot. It was much bigger than we would have guessed from the street, and they had a wide variety of crops already growing tall. The sunflowers stand out most in my mind, some of them almost as big as my head, and covered in a healthy drift of bees. Towards the back were also a huge stack of adobe bricks and more that were still drying in the sun. They would soon be used in the construction of an oven. We walked in a large circle and eventually made it back to the shaded bench with the now re-potted aloe plants.
Carolina put us to work temporarily clearing small clover and morning glory from an irrigation ditch that ran nearly half the length of the lot. The plants may have been small, but they were sprouting up all down the bottom and sides of the ditch, clogging and stealing the water; water that was already dangerously scarce. While Stefan carried out this task, I followed behind him, removing the loosened dirt that was left behind his carnage. But before too long, our host, Guillermo, emerged.
He wore a bandana on his forehead and a wide straw hat, and looked perfectly in place in this garden of toil and growth. He came out with tools and a sense of purpose I envied. Carolina introduced us, and I asked how I could be of use. After some pondering, he set me digging a hole to plant some citronella plants. They would help keep mosquitoes and other pests away from the garden. Most of the dirt I moved was dry and dead, although near the bottom there remained some life. We placed the plant and then filled the hole with a mixture of healthy soil and chicken poop.
With the plants in the ground, the next task was a relaxing one. The Dia de los Muertos festival would begin in November and for the flowers to be ready, they would have to be planted on the first of July. We all sat in chairs in a circle and began to break open dried flower pods. These were leftover from the previous year’s celebration and most were rich with seeds.
Sitting in the shade breaking open the seed pods, we had cooled considerably. The work could have been monotonous, but instead it was peaceful and satisfying. During this time, Guillermo had disappeared into his trailer and in a moment, he returned to us with a bounty of honeydew, strawberries, and papaya, most of which had been grown right here in La Mujer Obrera. He explained to us that papaya is very important in developing countries and is often considered holy. They are incredibly nutritious and fruit year-round. Even the leaves have healing properties and can be used to treat wounds. Eating the sacred fruit we were dirty and we were clean. We felt full and we felt happy.
After we ate and finished the flower seeds, Guillermo informed us that it was time for a blessing to Tlaloc, the Aztec God of Rain and fertility. We could participate if we wanted. The group followed Guillermo over to a small shrine tucked away in some trees. He lit some incense and individually he had us sweep some over our head and into our heart. We each gave a small blessing to the health and growth of the plants and food around us. Then we walked around the farm blessing each plot and the life that was growing there. We once again circled back to the benches and the shrine.
At this point there was little else planned for the day. We decided to go ahead and finish the remaining flower buds and talk. The hottest part of the day was approaching and the party was coming to an end. We thanked Guillermo for everything and promised him we would send love his way as well as more volunteers.
I can’t wait to return to El Paso and see my fellow farmers again.