Updated: Feb 11, 2022
Sometime during the beginning of May, I visited the CATA Bridgeton office for the first time to sign the paperwork as a new employee. I met CATA’s General Coordinator, Jessica Culley, and Food Justice Program Coordinator, Kathia Ramirez, who welcomed me with great enthusiasm. After finishing the paperwork, I stood up to stretch my legs and poke around a bit. I saw a bookshelf with gardening and social justice books and classic novels written in Spanish, artistic posters with images of determined people of color advocating for human rights and a large sticky note post comparing the minimum wage of farmworkers with all the other employees overtime and revealing the unfortunate truth that the farmworkers pay rarely increased. This space had so many stories to tell: the good, the bad, and the in-between. I felt truly grateful and humbled to be part of a grassroots organization that would begin to tell me these stories.
Kathia gave me a tour of the garden that day. She explained that the garden focuses on growing “culturally appropriated produce,” a new term for me since I’ve mostly worked with tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and a lot of garlic at the Stockton University Sustainable Farm. I remember being in awe of the plant diversity: pear, plum, elderberry, fig, and pomegranate trees occupied the front and back of the garden. At that time of the season, the raised garden beds made of cinderblocks consisted of flowers, medicinal herbs like lemon balm, yarrow, and chamomile, to name a few, strawberries, onions, garlic, lettuce, and even purslane – yes purslane – often regarded as a “weed” but known by its fans as a nutrient-dense food that grows wildly in nature and served as a form of sustenance for people during the Great Depression.
Little did I know that we would have in total close to 57 different crops growing inside this 0.15-acre space throughout the year – a feat that didn’t seem possible before 2012, the year CATA officially gained ownership of the land. Prior to the beloved “Huerto Communtario,” the space had been an abandoned lot littered with trash and construction debris. As if sick and underappreciated, the land looked like it had no purpose other than to live up to the “stigma” of Bridgeton, a community made up of mostly people of color and often falsely labeled by outsiders as impoverished and crime-ridden. But thankfully, visionaries saw the complete opposite! A team of CATA staff and locals saw beyond the rubble and soda cans. They saw potential! From that moment, I knew there was no denying that with determination and some knowledge, ANYONE could grow ANYTHING in ANY SPACE!
I was nervous about meeting the three spring cohort interns. But when I shyly introduced myself and received relatively the same shyness back, I felt a little better. The first day we painted the front of the fence a bright highlighter yellow. As we painted, we engaged in some awkward small talk, but eventually, we began asking questions and getting to know each other. Truthfully, I was surprised to hear myself in their answers as they spoke to me about growing up in a Hispanic household and the pressure to succeed. They talked about having extracurricular activities and participating in after-school programs. Between the lines, I listened and connected to the high standards often placed upon first-generation Americans. It’s a stressful state that’s almost manageable with a type of hope that says hard work takes you far and guarantees you a “professional” job but not so far as to forget your roots and forsake the culture of your parents, often weakened by the perceived need to fit in as a high schooler.
But what I noticed from the Spring and the Summer cohort was this understanding of justice and a drive to do good for society. Nowhere was this level of awareness more apparent than during the outreach we did at the start of our weekly markets. As Kathia and I were planning for the Youth Food Justice Program, we wanted to find a way to advertise the market that we had in front of the garden. We thought that outreach would be a great approach to start reengaging with our neighbors and talk to them directly about the foods we had available and pass on information about CATA and any relevant services. And so, we prepared for the outreach with the youth beforehand by passing along the program information as well as information about the NJ Standard License Application campaign headed by Megan Hurley, CATA’s Policy and Advocacy Organizer that states how qualified New Jersey residents can register for a license regardless of their citizenship status.
Since our summer group consisted of 9 interns, most of who spoke Spanish, we split them into two groups. The first group would help with the market, and the other group would do outreach with either Kathia or me. I’ve been on cavasses in the past but never with youth. I was surprised that the youth were excited to go out and talk with their community. With each door my team and I visited, I could see their confidence grow. Despite some rejections here and there and some strange looks, the youth overall was fearless and bold. As a result, we reached over 100 homes!
Around the same time, I had the chance to attend the Community Volunteer Day, where we invited community members and volunteers and the youth interested in helping at the garden. Most of the youth showed up as well as some of our most dedicated garden volunteers who I regard as among the wisest, innovative, and radically kind, hardworking people I’ve had the fortune of meeting. I just had to take a moment to step back and appreciate the scene – high school youth and grade school children who were the grandkids of one of the volunteers working alongside two older Hispanic women, removing the dead foliage from the strawberry beds, and rearranging the plant spacing as other folks in the background removed weeds and harvested the remaining hot peppers, tomatoes, papalo, and pipicha.
In retrospect, I realized that what I saw was a glimpse of what the world ought to look like! A group of people from all kinds of backgrounds and identities coming together united and feeling connected to each other and the outdoors, enjoying a space free from a system that favors profit over people. I saw a force working towards the common good, a true village in the making! Near the end, a couple of the volunteers and Kathia as well as the mother and sister of one of the volunteers who was expecting a child, brought decorations, food, and cake in preparation for a surprise baby shower! The youth even helped by blowing up balloons and taping decorations onto the pavilion.
On October 24th, a couple of long-time volunteers came early in the morning to help Kathia and me set up for the Altar Building event. Using a ladder, string, and nails, they hung a tarp on one of the pavilion's sides to block off the wind and serve as a backdrop for the main altar. A little later, more people arrived with their families. By that time, we had tables set up in the middle part of the garden, where we had an assortment of activities for the children and adults outside of the altar decorating. Activities include coloring paper skull masks, searching for Día de Muertos-inspired words in a crossword puzzle, and decorating Calaveras with icing. In a couple of hours, we had finally finished adorning the altar with flowers, wax candles, blankets, and geometric tissue paper designs and laying down the ofrendas – food offerings for loved ones who have passed away. Then some volunteers sketched a cross with chalk on the concrete floor and surrounded the cross with dried-up Mexican Marigolds (cempasúchil) flower petals – legend has it that the sweet scent of this gorgeous flower helps guide the spirits back into the living world.
Afterward, we all gathered around the altar and learned about the meaning and importance of the Day of the Dead. We then took turns calling out the names of our beloved deceased into the air to invite them into the space we created. One of the volunteers brought up the name of the little girl, Dulce Maria Alavez, who went missing from the Bridgeton City Park in 2019 and has yet to be found – a heartbreaking tragedy for the people of Bridgeton but one that brought many community members together in a vigil for the young girl. Then, in respect of those we lost, we stood there in a brief moment of silence.
During mid-November, we held the annual Herbal Medicinal Exchange at the lovely Greenwich Lavender Farm, owned by Mary from the Dominican Republic. Since 2015, Richard Mandelbaum, an expert herbalist, and former CATA staff, as well as a couple of his students, come down to Bridgeton every year from the ArborVitae, a school in New York centered around traditional herbalism. He led the discussion with the students, CATA staff, and CATA members as we discussed the impact of COVID in our families and communities and the connection to traditional medicine. Afterward, we opened the floor to Mary, who taught us about goat yoga, explained the difference between llamas and alpacas, and then heard from Debby. She works with Mary, as she spoke about how lavender products are prepared using a distiller. We then had a couple of brave students demonstrate how to make homemade herbal remedies. We also had Patty, one of our long-time volunteers, present on her infused alcohol recipe that helps relieve body aches and muscle pain. Kathia taught us how to make a salve using the leftover marigold flower petals from the Altar Building event. At the end, Richard led a nature walk and encountered a friendly deer while some stayed inside to receive consultations from the students who put their knowledge into practice by giving recommendations to our members who had concerns regarding their health.
Despite the ongoing spread of COVID-19 in our communities in 2021, we developed a youth program, connected with local leaders, established weekly markets, and continued the community events that brought us closer to what really matters while growing more than 500 pounds of food – all accomplishments that would not have been possible without the contribution of our community members, interns, volunteers, donors, and supporters of CATA! We wish you all a safe and amazing 2022!!
So that's what a year for a Food Justice activist looks like. If you would like to volunteer at our garden, become a food activist, or donate, please visit: www.cata-farmworkers.org/food-justice
Your donations will help us grow our community garden this season, provide healthy and affordable fresh produce to our community members, and educate a new generation of food justice activists.
"Let us build societies that are able to coexist in a dignified way, in a way that protects life. Let us come together and remain hopeful as we defend and care for the blood of this Earth and of its spirits." - Berta Cáceres,