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Breaking Down Cultural Stereotypes via Front Yard Gardening

I speak Spanish.  My degree is in International Business with a minor in Spanish.  I went to University in Granada, Spain and worked (on a cruise ship) in Venezuela.  I love the culture, traditions, and the phonetics of the language.

We live in a town that relies heavily on Mexican labor in the vineyards.  Our state is 51% Mexican (historically, before it became part of the USA - it belonged to Mexico - but that is a longer story).  I am from Washington State, where the various ethnicity's are almost at an equal ratio.  It was odd to move to California and discover so much racial/cultural tension between Whites and Mexicans (forgive my political incorrectness).  And that so many incorrect stereotypes are still in play.

My ability to communicate in Spanish has helped tremendously.

We moved back to down town Napa - to an 1885 Victorian in the Historical Part of Old Town Napa.  Lots of foot traffic.  Because we don't have much of a back yard (and the sun is blocked by the building to the West of us), we chose to plant a vegetable "garden" in 6 half wine barrels in our front driveway.   Our "Ode to Michael Pollen and the Omnivore's Dilemma".

"PLANT FOOD, NOT GRASS".  Reads a banner in uber-Eco Santa Cruz.

This urban, front-yard wine barrel garden is not only pretty, it provides our family with herbs and vegetables throughout the year.

My 5 year old and I also spent a lot of time prepping the soil, planting, and weeding.  We were out front a lot.  This is how we became friends with our neighbors.

One particular Mexican family comes to mind.  Maricella and her son Hugo always passed by on their way to visit her mom who lives next door.  We struck up a conversation.  Thus began a front-yard relationship that began to break down the cultural barriers and stereotypes.

A few months later, Maricella was returning from work at McDonalds to pick up her son from her mother's house.  I was tending the garden.  Cameron and Hugo began running around and playing together.  Neither spoke the others language.   Maricella expressed her surprise that Cam offered Hugo tomatoes from the vine.  Cam ate it like an apple.  I asked her why she was surprised and here were her answers:
  1. Working at McDonald's, she didn't think Americans ate vegetables or cooked for themselves.
  2. She didn't think Americans knew how to grow their own food.
  3. She thought that the Americans despised the Mexicans in CA and preferred to keep to themselves.
  4. She didn't think an American would speak Spanish so well.
Thus began our front yard relationship.  Over the next few months, I expressed my interest in learning how to cook authentic Mexican food.  We planned a date.  We went to the local Mexican market (food is MUCH less expensive there, FYI) in her car.  Oh the stares.  What was a white doing in a Latino Market?  What was that contraption in which she carried her baby (ERGO carrier)?  Why did this person speak Spanish and why was she speaking to her child in Spanish, quizzing him on the Spanish words for various vegetables?

Maricella was worried.  You could tell.  She wanted to do a good job.  Her mom came over to supervise her effort.  All three women in a 10x10 kitchen speaking Spanish, all 4 burners cooking something.  The blender out.  Knives.  Chopping boards.  Chaos.   And a feeling of solidarity.  After all, we were women preparing a meal for our families.

And the conversation...did I plan to have more children? (NO).  But you are such a good mother, a natural, you are not too old, raising children is the best thing I've done...and lastly, it's God's will.  Do you believe in God?  Will you come to Mass with us sometime?  What Religion are you teaching your children (Spirituality - a blend of Buddhism (learning this now), Christianity, Judaism, to be a good, loving person - basically.  Without judging others' choices).

My mom picked up Cameron from preschool and brought him back to our house.  Maricella left to pick up Hugo from preschool and bring him back.  The two older boys played in the front yard together.  We prepared the table on the front porch.  Then Maricella and her mother surprised me by announcing they were going home.  Why, I asked.  Because my husband was coming home and they didn't want to invade his space.  Are you kidding me?!  He was so excited that I was learning how to cook authentic Mexican food and that he was coming home to a nice, Mexican meal (chicken enchilidas dipped in red sauce made with boiled dried chiles and topped with salsa verde - cilantro, garlic, jalepenos, tomatillos).

I convinced them to stay.  Cameron and Hugo continued to play and eat.  No need for formal words.  My mom (who doesn't speak Spanish) communicated with Maricella's mom with gestures and a few words and laughter.  I translated for all.  What a nice, memorable meal.

Phil didn't get home in time to enjoy the meal with us, but expressed his gratitude in full-mouthed YUMS, and MMMMss later.  He also mentioned that he loved that, because of our front-yard garden, we were breaking down cultural stereotypes one family at a time.

In the months that followed, we've traded home made chocolate chip cookies and tamales.  Handfuls of chiles grown in our garden.  Basil and tomatoes with a recipe for italian pasta.  Authentic Mexican coconut candy from a trip back to Mexico for Christmas...

When a foundation is food - language in unnecessary.  We can "communicate" and share of ourselves over a meal of home-grown and hand-prepared food.

Cameron has been bugging me to get our garden going again this year.  He knows what to plant in which season.  Time to plant peas, lettuce, swiss chard.  The strawberries are blooming and fruit has set.  The Meyer Lemons are ready to harvest.  The Rosemary, Thyme, Oregano, Parsley, Tarragon and Sage made is through the Winter.  The roses were deadheaded (Cam knows this word!), pruned, and mulched around the roots.  The paperwhites have blossomed and died back already.  The Hyacinths have emerged, the Geraniums are filling out, and the Day Lily's are growing back.

Grow a garden this Spring.  Get to know your neighbors.  Teach your children to love food fresh out of the ground.  Teach them how to care for and nurture the plants and people in our World.


  1. What a lovely story about connecting through gardening and eating together! Bravo.

  2. Thank you Nate. In this age of convenience food and obesity - one of the best things that we can do as parents is to teach our children where and how our food grows. Simple recipes. Simple ingredients. Appreciation for the intricate balance of life.
    And how wonderful to weave in a lesson about people of different backgrounds and cultures. We are all human!


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