Nations Journal Vol. 3 is out in the wild! (You can order your copy here.) Even after editing and reading each piece about a hundred times, the stories are still drawing me up and out of myself. Learning from people brave enough to leave behind what's expected for what sets you free will do that.
Excerpted below: a feature I wrote on Plant With Purpose partnering farmers who are growing hope and new life in remote Oaxacan communities. Pick up a journal to read the full story!
No One Will Make Them Afraid
“People see me planting crops or seedlings and they say, “Why so many plants? Why all the trees?” Carolina stands among rows of vegetables on her hilltop farm. At her feet young radishes, beans, and tomatoes push toward the sun. “It’s because we’ve destroyed something that God left for us here on earth. We’re called to help conserve this part of creation that we have.”
Carolina Contreras is a farmer. The term often calls to mind sturdy Midwestern men in overalls, but the indigenous people of Oaxaca, Mexico are farmers of a different sort. In a forgotten corner of the country, leaders like Carolina are reforming their communities by healing the land and caring for their neighbors. This is a story about these farmers.
October in Oaxaca: wildflowers everywhere. The city is preparing for Día de los Muertos. Women sell heavy garlands of marigolds from carts. Well-dressed skeletons wave paper mache hands from shop windows. In street stalls, rolls of pan de muerto steam in fragrant piles. All across Mexico people wait for their dead to return.
In the arid mountains outside the city, different preparations take place. The land keeps time with the holiday by producing flor de muerto, a spicy lavender herb, and wild marigolds. In rural communities farmers turn over the soil, plant tree seedlings, and harvest vegetables. The rhythms of the land overshadow the coming holiday. People here are not waiting for their dead to return so much as they are bringing their land to life.
Getting to a community like La Paz requires several hours in a truck, first following a highway out of the city and then climbing into the mountains. The road winds over hills and skirts valleys, the landscape studded with agave plants and cacti. Some hillsides are covered in pine forests while others are gouged, swaths of bare land tearing through the forest where trees have been slashed and burned. Eventually the road turns to dirt. It would be easy to miss the turnoff for this community. It would be easy to forget La Paz altogether. Like other remote indigenous villages, most people already have.
But look closer, because La Paz defies expectations. Meaning “The Peace,” La Paz is an indigenous Mixtec community. True to its name, the people are serene and hospitable. Land that was barren ten years ago now grows green with young pine trees. Rising above the village is a hill called La Corona—The Crown—and perched like a gem on the crown is the home of Carolina Contreras. It takes five minutes for a truck to climb the steep incline of gravel and dirt to the top of La Corona. Carolina, petite and wearing worn sandals, walks it in half that time.
Carolina remembers the day her life changed. On an afternoon in 2007, several agroecologists visited La Paz. They spoke to the community about starting vegetable gardens, saving water in cisterns, and putting nutrients back into the soil. Most La Paz residents were hesitant. After all, they had used the same farming techniques for decades, even centuries. They lived as their ancestors did. But it was true, their land didn’t grow very much food anymore, and people were hungry. Nearly half of La Paz—fathers, brothers, and sons—had emigrated north in search of work.
Unlike many of her neighbors, Carolina saw the visit as an opportunity. A single mother, she had bent low over her land for years, trying to coax enough food and income from the soil. Farming was the only way to nourish her children and afford their education. She asked the agroecologists to teach her new techniques. “If you get the opportunity to improve your life,” she says, “why wouldn’t you do it? Doors will open, but you have to move through them.”
Though she hardly tops five feet tall, Carolina is a firecracker. She’s a community leader, running the health clinic and serving as La Paz’s resident doctor and nurse. She cooks at the community kitchen, leads health workshops and farming trainings, and runs her own farm complete with a vegetable garden, trees, pigs, and chickens. She constructed a cistern to conserve water and rainfall. She reforested the hillsides surrounding her property to bring back soil fertility. She recently purchased land at the top of La Corona and built her house. Occasionally she sleeps.
From the hill overlooking La Paz, Carolina leads by example. “I have a responsibility to show a different lifestyle to my neighbors. Sometimes we don’t do things because we don’t have resources like water, but it’s not an excuse.” She waves a hand toward the blue cement cistern next to her house, which holds hundreds of liters of rainwater. “There are people in the community who see what I’m doing and they say, ‘If she’s doing that, why not me?’ So my work is a challenge and encouragement to them.”
The oldest of ten siblings, Carolina never attended high school. She dreamt of finishing her education but only her younger brothers graduated. Her dad believed her role was to get married and settle down, but, as Carolina puts it, “I wasn’t born just to stay in the house.” Though she couldn’t finish school, Carolina is determined her children will receive an education and reach adulthood with more opportunities than she did. Her daughter is in sixth grade and her son recently graduated from high school.
La Paz is transformed thanks, in part, to Carolina’s boldness, vision, and sheer force of will. Since 2007 the community reforested a hillside with pine trees. Because of this young forest, soil fertility returned and a sustainable source of wood is available for cooking. Families built cisterns so they no longer have to walk miles to haul water from the river. Renewal is visible all over the community: better diets, more income, reduced migration, increased dignity, and hope for the future.
Carolina has taught La Paz that God formed the earth and called it good. Despite her accomplishments, she has no plans to slow down. “I have a lot of dreams, and I hope to accomplish them all. Sometimes my mom tells me, ‘Hija, you even dream when you’re awake!’” She laughs. “And I tell her, ‘Yes, but these things are worth dreaming about.’”