“life is much simpler. My family rides horses to get from one place to another and bathes in the river to conserve water. It makes you really appreciate the beauty of nature and everything it has to offer.” ------Guillermo Quezada
Story Collected by Zainab Shirazi
I recently spoke with Guillermo Quezada, a young man in his early twenties, about his Mexican heritage and the familial practices that have defined who he is as an individual. Guillermo has grown up with many struggles—one of the greatest being his family’s immigration from Mexico to the United States years before he was even born. While his father had spent a majority of his life traveling back and forth from Mexico, his mother had only come to America a year before Guillermo was born. Growing up with a closely-knit family, he was often surrounded by comfort in a foreign world that proved completely different from life back in Mexico. He has grown up feeling a sense of responsibility to provide for his family as well as preserve his cultural background despite a completely urbanized American society tempting him to do otherwise.
Guillermo has been back to visit the Mexican town of Michoacán four times since he was born; each time he is reminded of the immense differences between his daily life in Chicago and the typical practices back in Mexico. He told me of the miles and miles of vast land that have been passed through his family for generations. The land is used to grow vegetables that they harvest for themselves as well as sell to local stores, allowing them to live a humble life. “Back in Mexico”, Guillermo remembered, “life is much simpler. My family rides horses to get from one place to another and bathes in the river to conserve water. It makes you really appreciate the beauty of nature and everything it has to offer.” There are very few roads, and the communities are small, which forces the people to share materials and food amongst each other. No materials would ever be wasted, because his family would make daily trips to the market, only buying as much as was needed for that day. Cheap resources such as flour are used often because it is one of the most economically stable materials. Everything would be harvested by hand because the machines could not mount the steep hills where the produce grew, eliminating the harmful effects of pollution. As his story unfolded, it became clear to me that Guillermo’s true home was, and always would be, Mexico because of the rich cultural practices that have shaped who he is as an individual, as well as how he contributes to society.
A few years ago, in his Chicago home, Guillermo’s mother maintained a small, but beautiful, garden in which she would plant basil, tomatoes, chilies, mint, and most abundantly—bush upon bush of red roses. He shared with me the religious meaning behind these roses: his mother was a firm believer in St. Juan Diego, who is characterized as having a cloak full of beautiful red roses. I believe that these roses serve as a symbol for the significance of cultural practice in environmental sustainability even in the urbanized city of Chicago. Guillermo then told me of the reason that this garden no longer existed; people in his neighborhood would destroy the garden by ruining the vegetables and pulling the roses off the bushes. This ultimately opened my eyes to the struggles that we will encounter as we strive to raise awareness about environmental significance in a society that represents the epitome of industry and urbanization.
As I listened to Guillermo reflect on his past experiences, I realized that there is so much depth and meaning behind the memories that he shared with me. As he reflected on how his cultural practices in Mexico represent such an environmentally sustainable lifestyle, I began to realize that we choose to live the harmful lifestyles that we do merely for the purpose of convenience or even, at times, laziness. But it is only ignorance that can prevent us from gaining appreciation for the environment that surrounds us, and educating ourselves with cultural backgrounds such as Guillermo’s can inspire us to take action in our own daily lives.
Occasionally we were permitted to pick the vegetables in my Grandmother’s presence. Prior to that, I thought flowers grew beautifully in the ground on its own without any assistance. I was truly wrong.
Story collected by Victoria McClain
As a child I remember growing up seeing my mother watering her potted plants in the apartment. I never thought anything of it at the time. I knew I wanted to help but I was too young to carry the water. Then one day I was at my Grandmother’s house visiting with my brother and my cousin, when my Grandmother requested our help in her garden. My grandmother’s garden consisted of beautiful rose bushes that aligned the sidewalk of her home; some planters of various exotic flowers, and a small vegetable garden on the side of her home. We were only permitted to go to her flower garden to pick the weeds and water the grass. The vegetable garden was off limits; my Grandmother was afraid we would damage the vegetables. Occasionally we were permitted to pick the vegetables in my Grandmother’s presence. Prior to that, I thought flowers grew beautifully in the ground on its own without any assistance. I was truly wrong.
Working in a garden or yard is hard work. After that experience in the yard I never wanted to help again. My Grandmother did not care that we did not like gardening. We all had to help, including my Grandmother’s adult children. You see, my Grandmother was raised on a farm where they grew various crops and slaughtered cows and pigs. My Grandmother, Alice Askew, was born to sharecroppers in Columbus, Mississippi in 1931. During the “Great Migration” my Grandmother came to Chicago and settled on the westside of Chicago in the Austin Community.
Growing up I would spend many summers at my Grandmother’s home; helping her in the garden planting seeds, pulling weeds, and watering her plants. My mother told me that my Grandmother has always had a garden, since she could remember. My Mother also said that this why she has to have potted plants; it reminds her of her mother’s garden and her grandmother’s garden. After my great mother stopped sharecropping, she moved to Memphis and had a garden in her yard. My mother would go in the yard with her “Big Ma” and pick vegetables from her garden to be cooked for dinner. I remember the summer of 2009 before my Grandmother past; she told me to go get some vegetables out of her garden. I picked some of the sweetest green tomatoes I had ever had.
I have always had an affinity for plants and being sustainable. I think that has a lot to do with being raised around plants and gardens. I remember watching my Mother and Grandmother love their plants with sunshine and water. Also they would hold conversations with them. It is funny how children repeat what they see as adults; I now find myself talking to plants whenever I am gardening.
Collected by Razan Lillie
Sharing with the beautiful phenomena the political/spiritual nurturing rupturance, Krupa---
Krupa: i started doing graffiti because of mehndi, but that's a different story
in india, my mom, grandma, and my aunt would grow a ton of desi plants in the small plot we had left after the new neoliberal government stole our land and my grandma had to sell the rest because she was a single mother.
mehndi is a funny plant. it stains your fingers as soon as you grab it from the plant. in gujarati, the word for plant/scrub is "choaud" which also means "release it." me and my family would harvest the leaves, dry them under suraj-dada (grandpa sun). then grind them to a powder, add some tea (cha) and water. there was a time that we put on mehndi the traditional way -- with twigs -- but the new neoliberal government was giving us this new object called plastic, so we later stared rolling up plastic, paper, and tape cylinders to pour the paste onto our bodies.
i have been blessed with having met so many arabs, desis, and even burmese relatives who i have been able to re/member our relationships to the other herb...
my relationship with mehdni has always been inherently social. and that's been the intention of the creator for putting both mehndi and people in the same time-space together. its not really one i want to describe in words because it's a feeling that is only understood through community. i am deeply grateful for it. and it's funny because none of what i learned about mehndi came through books. it didnt even come to me through my family, though they played a huge role. what allowed me to create new meaning with mehndi as being around people in the struggle. becca talks about how she feels alive in the struggle with community. gabe talked about his philipino friends who were intentional about their identity when they were in a white town. i share many sentiments from their reflections...
Razan: Krupa’s wild stories paint regenerative protective ink on my own skin, soul and mind. Her gardens weave themselves and unravel within me---:
In another world, our hands collide as we reach to pluck the same mehndi leaf.
Dragon and fish we dance into fires and oceans, soothing hysteria and burning death.
We dance in the same body. Tracing revolution with a burning grace.
In another world, we give birth to our descendants.
Gathering silk to cover our skins.
Stargazing every night side by side. Our kohled eyes giving belief to the supernatural mystics that come out at night to sing and dance our protection.
In another world, I braid her long, strong mehndi dyed hair.
I am just another depth of her being. The strong curling roots of her hair.
In another world, we collect healing charms in abundance.
Our divine manifestation always breathing.
Our souls never knowing the fear of robbery.
In another world, our marriage is celebrated.
Prayer precedes existence.
And we are metal pots. Drop us on the floor inviting us to be shined once again.
In another world, we are mehndi leaves growing side by side.
A young gurl and her sisters invite us into their homes.
We stain their fingers with our agency as they pluck us.
Preparing ourselves to enter their cores.
With Krupa, all comes to be. our dances shake all confusion into charm
if our momentum in this life is a preparation for anything i hope its too lift us into another world---
Maria was raised among eleven brothers and sisters, and healthcare and food access was always limited. Maria shares that part of the healing process requires believing in what you do, trusting the wisdom and love of those caring for you and not just as an alternative to western medicinal practices.
Collected by Lulu Martinez
Maria de Lourdes Martinez is a 50 year old Mexican immigrant who has lived in Chicago for the last twenty years. As a young girl, she watched her mother use home remedies to nurture her, her siblings and neighborhood friends and family back to health. Home remedies were used in combination with prayer and mutual faith and trust in relationships as well as in divine intervention. Divine intervention was thought of to manifest itself through ordinary conversations, interactions and dreams. Miracles and wisdom bestowed on oneself were seldom questioned.
Maria was raised among eleven brothers and sisters, and healthcare and food access was always limited. Maria shares that part of the healing process requires believing in what you do, trusting the wisdom and love of those caring for you and not just as an alternative to western medicinal practices. She explains how these practices used to come naturally because a person in the family/community was recognized as a healer and holder of a special truth. Over time, Maria’s mother gained the trust of her family and community although she never identified herself as a curandera, a role traditionally given to cultural/spiritual healers in Mexico. Because she lived in multiple-unit apartment buildings, one knew which neighbor to go to for any specific household product--te de manzanilla for stomach aches, hoja de laurel for headaches, eggs for una limpia.
Among the home remedies that Maria and her mother used, los tomates, tomatoes were considered to hold curative abilities. Tomates were used for resfriados (colds), bronquitis (bronchitis), and toz (coughing). A tomato is cut in half and roasted lightly. Each half is placed on the bottom of one’s feet and wrapped to keep them in place and then covered with socks to maintain the feet warm. This must be done only if and once the individual has planned to stay in for the rest of the night so as not to be exposed to water (rain/shower) or cold. In the morning, the tomatoes are removed, and this method is repeated as necessary.
Maria explains that there is no scientific understanding added to shared conversations about how specific plants and herbs work that legitimizes these cultural practices to a stranger.
“Well, we know that the genetic and chemical makeup of the plant, its nutrients can be curative. That wasn’t part of the knowledge that was passed down, however, we just know and believe that it works, and it does. It’s the pharmaceutical companies that don’t want you to have access to that kind of knowledge.” [translated from Spanish]
It’s been years since the passing of Maria’s mother, and the geographical distance has taken a toll on the cultural practices that once were more prevalent when Maria first migrated to the U.S.
“It’s difficult to maintain these practices. We are not as close to our neighbors and my family has had different types of access to food and health care. We don’t ask each other about our individual wisdom as much anymore, or we use them in addition to bottled-medicine.”[translated from Spanish]
Maria raised her children on cultural and herbal healing practices. She continues to believe in them, however, she now consults elders she is referred to for these knowledges. Maria believes in the healing energies of plants and that it is important to maintain a healthy relationship to our bodies by respecting the earth and all of its children including plants, trees, and animals.
Neha’s mom has plants all around her house and she treats them like her little babies. She would walk around the house watering them and talking to them.
Collected by Esha Kher
My friend Neha Kumar, who’s also my floor-mate at Commons North dorms, shared a story about her mother and her plants. I went over to her room one day, and I saw a potted Aloe Vera cactus in there. As a dormer, it was the first time that I saw someone have an actual plant in their room. This started the conversation between us when she shared about how this plant makes her room more ‘homely’ and is a constant reminder of her mom.
Neha’s mom has plants all around her house and she treats them like her little babies. She would walk around the house watering them and talking to them. Her mom’s favorite are the money plants. Neha talked about a big money plant that sits at her door (whose leaves she said were twice the size of my face) and it’s become so deep rooted in the walls that it kind of scares her that it would take over the house (hehe). But it’s there because it’s her mom’s favorite. The money plant is considered to bring financial prosperity to a household in many different cultures, including the Indian culture to which Neha’s family belongs.
Her dad is also a fan of gardening and thus for Neha and her family, gardening is a family ritual that helps strengthen their bond. Her parents were both born and raised in India and back home they both had gardens that they maintained. And now, they share all their knowledge and passion for gardening with Neha and her brother. Neha remembers most of her summers helping out her parents in the garden, planting new flowers and veggies for the season. The sunflowers she planted are her favorite and it fascinated her how some seeds she planted grew into such a big plant.
Neha’s family backyard is filled with vegetables and herbs. One of the plants that they plant the most is the mint. In the India culture, mint is used to make a typical Indian sauce that goes with almost all Indian dishes. It’s called the ‘pudina chutney’. There is one thing that you’ll always find at Neha’s house, and that’s Pudina Chutney. I have to admit, I’m very tempted to go over to her place and get some. Being an Indian myself, I love Pudina Chutney. Neha also likes experimenting different drinks by adding mint to them (reminds me of a good virgin mojito). Her family also has tomatoes and chillies growing in their backyard. They tried planting squash, but the Chicago climate wasn’t appropriate for it, so unfortunately the plant died. They also grow fenugreek, or ‘methi’ as it’s called in India. Fenugreek is a slightly bitter tasting green leafy vegetable that is very popular in Indian dishes. Neha’s favorites (and mine too) are ‘methi parathas’ made with fresh methi from her garden.
Her family also tries to play a part in environmental sustainability, and so instead of using planters, they use old recycling bins to plant all their garden veggies.
It was a pleasure for me to collect this story from my friend, Neha. I realized how well connected she is with her family and culture even though she has been born and raised in the US. Having being born and raised in India myself, I connected with Neha like just any other member of my culture. She has all the family values to her like every other Indian. It pleasures me to see her share a close bond with her family just like I share with my own.
Collected by Sarah Hernandez
When I first started gardening, I had created this recipe from my own resources and what was in my garden at the time. It ended up being one of my favorite creations! Every time I make this, I get so many compliments on the wonderful smell.
- Spaghetti pasta
- Hot curry powder (I like to use Jamaican curry powder)
- Garam masala spice
1. Set a pot of water to boil for the pasta. Cook the pasta on the side and when it’s done set it aside.
2. Sautee the onion and garlic until soft and brown.
3. Add the hot curry powder and a dash of garam masala – cook for about 5-10 more minutes until fragrant and delicious smelling.
4. Add the kale to the onion and garlic and mix in every 5 minutes until cooked down (usually takes 10 minutes max). Add salt and pepper to taste.
5. Add the veggies as a topping to the pasta. Add parmesan cheese to taste.
Feel free to tweak this recipe and the spices to your taste.
If you also have mustard greens to add to the kale, it makes this dish even more delicious!