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Migrant farm workers as environmental pioneers

By James Mejia

My mother, Ophelia, held her first job at the age of five picking beets in the hot fields of Northern Colorado. Little did she know that her family, who was following the fields from state to state, would instill in her the importance of remaining connected to the land. My grandmotherís settling in Colorado permanently was the best thing for my mother and her siblings so they could stay in school and invest in the community ó but she never lost the common sense principles that made her an environmental pioneer:

1. The safest food to eat is that which you grow yourself. In this age of pesticides and genetically modified food, knowing all the inputs into creating your food is a basic environmental principle. If you have to eat it yourself, you might tend toward a more sustainable way of growing food. When Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta protested in favor of improved conditions for workers and a diminished use of deadly pesticides, they were actually advocating for the safety of the American consumer as well. Ever since I was a child my parents grew many of our own vegetables and some fruits ó in an organic, sustainable way. They continue this practice today.

2. That which comes from the earth should be put back in the earth. Before Denver city government put out purple bins for composting in some neighborhoods, my parents had a bin in our backyard that was used for composting. Between 13 kids (Iím number nine), our dog and composting that would soon become fertilizer; I canít ever remember throwing away food.

3. If you have more than you need, trade it or give it away. When we grew surplus cucumbers or squash, they frequently became our impetus for visiting neighbors with gifts. In return, we frequently received a basket of tomatoes or the occasional melon. In our neighborhood, we traded seed, zucchini bread and pies ó sustaining neighborhood families and neighborhood friendships.

4. Growing your own food is like printing your own money. Ron Finley who calls himself a guerilla gardener in South Central L.A., points out that when the private sector doesnít provide fresh fruits and vegetables creating neighborhood food deserts, you must grow your own. Instead of spending money on fresh food, grow it.

5. Food that you grow doesnít make you fat. With obesity rates soaring especially among children, one major weapon fighting against the trend is fresh fruit and vegetables. Earth Day is not only about a healthy planet, but also about healthy people.

6. Growing food grows your pride. Studies show that when children grow their own food, they are much more likely to eat healthy foods, foods they havenít tried before, and fresh foods that keep them lean. My mother could have told scientists that, no better way to get us to eat vegetables than the pride of having grown those vegetables ourselves.

When many think of Earth Day, they think of technologically advanced methods for fighting climate change or building new wind farms. Those strategies are important but out of reach for many typical families to affect. For my family and many Latino families that have farmed, gardened and ranched for generations in the Americas, Earth Day is a reminder about where we come from and a reminder about where we should remain ó connected to the land.

Just one generation ago, the idea of recycling was revolutionary. Now my nine-year-old daughters blanch at the idea of sending aluminum can or plastic bottle to the landfill. Recycling for them is second nature.

In a city like Denver and in a state like Colorado with a favorable climate and lengthy growing season, our community should return to our simple roots, farming and gardening in the same way that our mothers and grandmothers would. We owe it to our children to teach them the sustainable ways that were passed down from our families and ensure that growing their own food becomes second nature.





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