Through Mentorship, Becca Vasquez Connects Latinx Heritage with Urban Agriculture Future

by Becca Vasquez

It was there on my late grandfather's rented garden plot in Burlington, IA, where I harvested my first vegetable. I remember running between the corn rows with my cousins and brother, playfully tossing dirt clods at each other, and eating freshly picked cucumbers with salt, chile and lemon. This vivid childhood memory of the garden persists despite my general childhood amnesia. My grandfather, Jacinto, was a gardener, or perhaps in today's terms, an 'urban farmer'.

His vegetables and herbs were harvested and sold, sometimes handed out for free to neighbors during garage sales, just a short walk away from his apartment. While my grandfather was alive I was very lucky to have a taste of food sovereignty and to be able to have that connection of growing somewhat traditional Mesoamerican crops, while living in a city, and cooking with what was harvested. When he wasn't in the garden, he worked full-time at CASE IH welding and painting tractors. But my parents told me, despite him being picked on, he even gardened in a small plot next to CASE.

It was as if he had never-ending energy and resiliency. My grandfather died when I was in middle school, the only thing I have left of him is an old CASE hat that I still wear. I wish I could've asked him endless gardening questions, which are now lost.

The United Farm Workers of America

When I first heard of Dolores Huerta & César Chávez and the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), I was around 15 years old. I read about them on the computer my dad built via dial-up internet, and there was a tiny paragraph about them in my high school textbook.

Reflecting on the UFW, the role so many Latinxs had (and still have) as migrant farmworkers, and the exploitation of their labor in the food system, I thought to myself, "No way am I going to pick vegetables in the field—that's a step backward." Those were the feelings of food injustices impacted on me as a youth, and at the time it stained my connection to food, without me really even knowing it.

However, the UFW movement and the Chicano movement influenced me to move to the border town of El Paso, Texas, and study for a couple semesters in the Chicano Studies Program at the University of Texas at El Paso. While living in the desert, struggling and rethinking my future, I began to delve into geology and environmental justice. Eventually, I found my way back to Iowa.

I started growing food not really thinking about why. I had no idea what the 'local food movement' was, what 'foodie' culture was, I didn't know anyone growing food, I didn't feel like I belonged at the farmer's market, and I had never been on a large-scale vegetable farm. The first vegetable I ever grew by myself I was in college, cultivating them in 5-gallon buckets at my parent's house. My mom won a salsa making contest and cooked meals with the vegetables I grew. Slowly, it then became an enormous passion of mine to grow food that connected me to my culture, and to my family. Growing food changed everything, and my new found love for cultural foods shaped my last 2 years in college.

This is where I say 'thank you' to my professor and mentor Maureen McCue MD PhD. In one of her classes, I conducted a project in which I attempted to make a healthier version of gorditas (pastries), and tried sourcing the ingredients from within a 120-mile radius. Although my gorditas didn't taste as good as I wanted them to, I realized that masa (dough) made from nixtamalization was a mystery to me and many other Latinxs of 1st, 2nd 3rd, 4th, 5th generations. The loss of traditional crop varieties, traditional farming practices, and historical cooking techniques was having a negative impact on the land, our diets, and our health. This was something I knew I wanted to explore.

Mentorship and Research On the Land

After a couple years of container gardening I wanted to learn more about farming sustainably, and right after graduating college I began searching for mentorship opportunities, stumbling upon the Women, Food & Agriculture Network (WFAN). I quickly applied and was accepted for an on-farm internship position in the Harvesting Our Potential (HOP) program. ZJ Farm (now Local Harvest CSA), owned by Susan Jutz, was the first farm I ever worked on. During that growing season, I also had the opportunity to work on Wilds Woods Farm with farmer Kate Edwards. I wasn't a quick worker and there were vegetables and herbs that I didn't know how to plant or harvest. I am truly thankful for Susan and Kate’s patience and knowledge, and for the discussions we had in the field and over lunch, for the new friendships, and for the new connections I made that summer.

Full of excitement from the opportunity WFAN made possible, I told my Latinx friends and family, "Hey! I'm workin' on a farm growing food!" I'll never forget their confused facial expressions, the concerns of financial stability, and the questions of will this be a useful skill for my future. A friend of mine’s mom gasped and said, "¡Ay! ¿En los campos?" Basically to say, “Why are you working in the fields, like a migrant?” On top of that, I learned that as a child, my mom and her siblings, alongside my grandparents Naman and Julia, had picked tomatoes in Florida to earn extra income.

Working as a farmhand for two sustainable CSA farms with wonderful women farming mentors, I tried to push back the old, but still relevant feelings of being detached with the local food movements and farming. I felt ashamed, or that I was wasting my time of going back to the "fields" and "not using my degree." The stigma of Latinxs as always being farm laborers, and not farmers, stuck in the back of my mind. That's when urban agriculture stepped back into my life. Growing local food, advocating for food sovereignty, food justice, and building an inclusive food movement were my passions, and I wanted to pursue them even if it was just volunteering my time.

Years passed. After volunteering, AmeriCorps, internships, working, conferences, workshops, meeting inspiring people and mentors (shout out to Sonia Kendrick of Feed Iowa First), and being part of some wonderful opportunities and initiatives involving agriculture, I simply continue to grow food in a rented garden plot like my grandfather. I try to grow the variety of crops that my ancestors grew, I'm learning to save seeds, and attempting to experiment with traditional cooking methods. I continue to say there are LATINO/A/X growers, gardeners, and farmers! Hopefully, I influence my friends, family, and others Latinxs. I know that some believe that urban agriculture (or indoor growing) doesn't make a big difference, but for me, it changed my life. Urban agriculture, which for me has meant renting land in the city, sharing someone’s backyard for the purpose of growing food, container gardening, and even at one point simply growing a single tomato plant in my apartment, allowed me to grow my own food no matter where I live.

I think mentorships or farmer training programs (like WFAN's Harvesting Our Potential program), which help connect prospective women farmers with established women farmers, have a life-changing impact. Equally important are farmer training programs, seed libraries, school gardens, and community gardens led by African American, Native American, Latinx, Asian American, immigrants, and refugees. Leaders in those communities can help to address a myriad of historical and present-day traumas, including slavery, stolen land, exploitive labor, discrimination, and the aggressive push for assimilation. Making the act of growing food seen as not a step backward, but a step forward.

WFAN’s program for beginning and aspiring women farmers, Harvesting Our Potential, is made possible by generous support from the Iowa Women’s Foundation and Ag Ventures Alliance.