My hiking boots sink into the freshly tilled dirt and my camera is secured to my back with a rebozo shawl. In the Mexican village of San Francisco Uricho, I’m working the earth with a hoe and pulling up weeds. It is already late afternoon.
The woman next to me straightens up and looks at the sky. The San Diego T-shirt under her apron is streaked with sweat. “Here comes the rain,” she says. “We should go in.” The men and women of the Flower Growing Association put down their hoes and walk toward shelter.
Seventeen people are part of the Flower Growing Association. One year ago, Doña Angelina went to Ayuda Mutua, or Mutual Help, to ask about small-business loans. When told that such loans were for groups of at least a dozen people, she gathered her neighbors and friends to see who was interested. Many were, and the group I’m with today was formed.
With the loan, they bought their first plants: marigolds, roses, poinsettias, gladiolas and more. An engineer from a neighboring village agreed to work with the group for two months. Under his guidance, the Flower Growing Association has learned to prepare the earth, do transplants and grow seedlings. Every day they meet at Doña Angelina’s from 3 to 9 p.m. to till, plant and tend their crop of blossoms. Come December, the field will be full of flowers that they can sell.
The Flower Growing Association, mainly women, spans four generations, from the 16-year-old Carmen to Angelina’s 73-year-old father, Francisco. When I first met the group, I thought that they had been working together for years, not months. Their relationships are close and comfortable. Family and community are very important in this indigenous village; all have known each other since birth.
For two weeks, I live at Doña Angelina’s house, sharing a bedroom with her two daughters. Each day I teach two intensive English classes in town. Many people in Uricho are already bilingual – speaking Spanish as well as Purhépechan, the indigenous language. In the morning I teach young children and in the afternoons, the adults and teenagers. After classes, I roll up my sleeves and work with the members of the Flower Growing Association.
We gather in Doña Angelina’s house just as the skies open up and it pours. Thunder, lightning and even hail come out of a sky that was blue just an hour ago. We cluster together and watch it from Angelina’s large windows.
It is the rainy season, and it will pour like this for one hour every afternoon. Tomorrow we will finish the transplants – the seedlings are just big enough, and this rain will help the soil.
Someone puts a large urn on the stove, and pretty soon we are drinking steaming mugs of atole, a warm rice and milk drink with plenty of sugar and cinnamon. Folding chairs are opened and the group takes a well-deserved break. “Here, maestra,” someone says, handing me a mug. Though they all know my name, most simply call me by the Spanish word for teacher.
This flower-growing project is so remarkable because it is sustainable – the loan will be paid back within a year. The knowledge and experience the association has gained will allow them, if all goes well, to maintain a reproducing crop they can sell every year.
“These flowers are freedom,” says Raquel, summing up what they all feel. The group’s president, Raquel, has three daughters who all have gone to the United States to work because of lack of jobs here -a reality that projects like the Flower Growing Association are trying to remedy. At least one person from every family in Uricho has been forced, by extreme poverty and lack of employment, to leave the village.
Rosa bounces her 3-year-old son on her knee; her husband has left Uricho to find work and will not be able to return for two years. Angelina’s oldest children have been forced to leave Mexico to make a living. She has not seen her son in nine years. But these flowers could be the economic security that will enable these 17 people to stay together in Uricho. “With the flowers, we are free,” says Raquel.
It is a different kind of freedom: the freedom to stay.
I drink my atole slowly, savoring its warmth. “How do you like our work, maestra?” someone asks me from across the room, in a temporary lull. They all look at me expectantly.
Can I explain to them how inspiring their hope and determination are? “I will have to come back,” is what I say, earnest and grave, “to see your flowers in bloom.”
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures and to e-mail questions to her, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com