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Let a Thousand Border Gardens BlossomKent Paterson Special to News.com
Youth are involved in a growing number of community initiatives in the borderland and Southwest.
(LAS CRUCES, N.M.) - Arturo Esparza brought the visitor to the small patch of chile, tomato, eggplant and sunflower rising from the desert earth of Vado, New Mexico. As a summer wind lashed at the garden, scattered thunderstorms punctured the sky. Off to the east, a rainbow broke through the mist blanketing the craggy peaks of the Organ Mountains.
Asked if he was afraid the turbulent weather would damage the planting at the doorstep of the Vado/Del Cerro Community Center Esparza was philosophical: “We’ll see if it grows and if not, well, too bad.”
A junior at Gadsden High School, Esparza participates in Vado’s Teen Outreach Program (TOP. According to adult leader Dora Dorado, the two-year-old program involves more than 150 young people in gardening, art, civic and other activities.
“The young people participate very well with it,” Dorado said. “They learn how to plant according to the different seasons of the year. Hopefully, we can continue with the garden.” Lacking a regular budget, TOP’s activities are supported by donations from participating non-profit organizations, Dorado said, adding that each young member receives a $25 gift certificate every month.
The Vado project is among a growing number of community initiatives in the borderland and Southwest that teach youth how to garden, run a small business, respect ecology and cooperate for the common good.
Located on the US-Mexico border in the low-income community of Anapra/Sunland Park, New Mexico, La Casita Community Center sponsors a group of young people that sells plants every Saturday morning at the summer farmer’s market behind Ardovino’s Desert Crossing restaurant.
Interviewed at the market, high school student and La Casita program participant Geraldo Munoz ran down his stand’s product line: trees, herbs, fruits, sunflowers and potted plants. After four years of planting and market peddling under his belt, Munoz said he liked coming out to the market. “It’s fun. I like to have fun,” he said. Taylor Moore, an adult volunteer for La Casita, assists Munoz and friends. “The kids get better selling and the market gets bigger,” Moore said.
In addition to learning backyard farming, the six-year-old program teaches young people money management and allows them to practice English-language skills, Moore stressed. The longtime community activist chuckled that a lot of trial and error goes into the project, such as when children “forget to water,” but that many members soon overcome their hesitations. “They get over that hump,” Moore added. “They blossom, just like a flower does.”
At first impression, 12-year-old Desiree Telles is one of La Casita’s blossoming flowers. A five-year veteran of the program, Telles already knows about business income flows. The young girl explained how money from market sales is divided up among participants and to pay for water costs and other expenses. “First time we came to Ardovino's we sold $300,” Telles reported. “Sometimes we sell more than that.”
A 20-minute drive north of Anapra and Sunland Park, Vado sits in the heart of southern New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley. Home to several thousand residents, the rural community is surrounded by dairies, farms, pecan orchards, truck-stops and a cement plant. Like Anapra/Sunland Park, Vado is a federally-designated colonia because of the unincorporated town’s historic lack of basic infrastructure including paved roads.
Settled heavily by recent immigrants, US-Mexico border colonias are sometimes stereotyped as crime-ridden slums. However, TOP’s budding corps of gardeners and youth activists express community pride as well as the gleanings of future political leadership.
On a recent afternoon, TOP members attended the Community Youth Voice Town Hall. Breaking into small groups, a few dozen participants considered their own strengths as individuals, analyzed the positives and negatives of their community and then brainstormed solutions.
A bright-eyed middle school student, Melby Lozano said she liked helping friends out and enjoyed participating in TOP. “This was barely going to be my first year, but I really got along with the people in the community,” Lozano said.
“I think we need a bigger park and more recreation centers for young people, so they won’t hang out in gangs and all that,” said Brenda Martinez, a Gadsden High School student. A better park, she added, would help get young people away from video games. “It would be healthier for them to go out in the parks and be in nature,” she said.
Reporting back to the main meeting, small group spokespersons listed friendly people, environmental consciousness, bilingualism, family values, access to leaders, proximity to outdoor recreational activities, and the closeness and safety of the nearby big city of El Paso as among the strong points of their community.
For improvements, many youths suggested a bigger and better park, more lights, added roads, a drainage system, recycling programs, an emergency preparedness plan, paved streets, a swimming pool, enhanced law enforcement, a hospital, an ambulance, sports teams, jobs, and a newspaper.
Collected together and summarized, the recommendations will be passed on to New Mexico state lawmakers later this year, said Veronica Carmona, lead organizer for the Las Cruces-based Colonias Development Council and a convener of the Community Youth Voice Town Hall.
Other local groups that participated in the town hall included the Women’s Intercultural Center, American Civil Liberties, Del Cerro RSVP Seniors, Centro Fuerza y Unidad, New Mexico Teen Pregnancy Council, and the New Mexico State University Government Department.
Outside the Vado/Del Cerro Community Center where the meeting was held, colorful visions splash walls lining a small park and playgrounds. Paused on the edge of the garden, Arturo Esparza detailed the mural painted on one wall by young artists. The art displayed hot air balloons, an eagle, a horse and mountains. “Whatever little kids think of,” Esparza summarized. Inspired by the existing work, Esparza contemplated the next mural in the works. “Hopefully we do a good job,” the young gardener said.
(Editor’s Note: The following story was made possible in part by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation. It is another piece in Frontera NorteSur)
Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico
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