By Alicia Inez Guzmán
Josh Jasso stood among mounds of greenery in an otherwise parched expanse, squinting at the fields of La Semilla Community Farm. “We’re feeling smaller and smaller in our fractured landscape,” said Jasso, the farm manager at La Semilla, which is located on a stretch of highway in Anthony, New México, a speck in the Chihuahuan Desert along the Texas state line.
Its 14 acres are hemmed in by a railyard owned by an El Paso-based gravel company, a young pecan farm and fields of alfalfa.
Roughly 24 miles to the south, a rumble of semitrucks crosses the U.S.-Mexico border, carrying tons of freight from one side to the other. And to the west lies the ailing Rio Grande, a river desiccated by years of drought.
At La Semilla, a small farm dedicated to sustainability and food justice, there is always something to be wary of: pollutants from the train line, pesticide use on neighboring farms, the rise of invasive species — or the toll of the pandemic on local farmworkers. Adding to the nonprofit’s worries, irrigation officials recently allotted a historically low amount of water to the farm from Elephant Butte Reservoir. With so little rain and snowfall over the past year, Jasso had worried they wouldn’t get any water at all.
Farming is a precarious business in the desert. But in a small border community like Anthony, much else is precarious, too. Residents here are not only witnessing the effects of climate change — and a future of hotter and drier weather — but also struggling with grinding poverty, a dearth of public health services and the dire impacts of COVID-19.
In a city of 9,239 residents, at least 2,568 have tested positive for the disease to date — more than 1 out of 4 people, according to Doña Ana County. Advocates, however, believe the actual number is even higher than state officials have acknowledged.
At one point, the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Doña Ana county were in ZIP codes that bordered Texas, a state where public-health restrictions were lax and infections soared last spring and summer. In Anthony, where 98 percent of residents are Hispanic or Latino — and nearly half live under the poverty line — the pandemic’s casualties were particularly severe.
“I was tormented by that,” said former mayor Ramon S. Gonzalez, a native of Anthony. “I kept wondering, How can this happen?”
For migrant workers who provide essential labor at the region’s major agricultural operations, the pandemic has taken a singularly harsh toll. Here and across the country, unsafe conditions at large-scale farms and dairies left workers at risk of contracting the coronavirus. Due to their uncertain immigration status, many were reluctant to seek medical help when they got ill. Others quietly died at home, whether that was in Anthony or with family across the U.S.-Mexico border. In those instances, their deaths were seldom disclosed beyond their circle of family and friends, said Carlos Marentes, executive director of the El Paso-based Centro De Los Trabajadores Agricolas Fronterizos (Border Farmworkers Center).
Networks of mutual aid emerged where social systems in Doña Ana County fell short. Food pantries, vaccination drives, rental assistance and emergency funds all became part of the community’s response. Yet for all the efforts to triage the needs of the most vulnerable, the pandemic has both illuminated and exacerbated what it means to live on the margins in this and other small towns along New Mexico’s southern border. And it has pried open a dialogue about what sustainability — for the land, the town and its people — will look like moving forward.
History on the line
Just north of the city proper, swaths of farmland follow the course of the Rio Grande, the lifeblood of the Mesilla Valley. Dusty plots eventually give way to a recently built walking path, rows of middle-class housing and strip malls where insurance agencies, one-stop payday loans and clinics have set up shop.
Today’s residents are a combination of recent immigrants, migrant and seasonal workers, and families whose grandparents and great-grandparents crossed the border in earlier waves of immigration. Many people continue to lead transnational lives, traveling to Juárez, Palomas and elsewhere in Mexico to visit relatives, seek medical care or go shopping.
On a recent walk, longtime Anthony resident Sarah G. Holguin, a Spanish-language interpreter and chair of the city’s planning and zoning commission, stood on a bleached-out downtown sidewalk. One foot was in New Mexico and the other in Texas, thanks to yet another border that defines Anthony, N.M.: It is a stone’s throw from “the other Anthony,” a town with the same name, except that it’s in the Lone Star state. The boundary would be imperceptible if not for a small street sign that reads, “New Mexico State Line.”
The City’s needs were “forgotten” during the pandemic, Holguin felt. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, she said, “has no idea we’re here.”
The governor, to Holguin’s irritation, issued multiple shelter-in-place orders that instructed New Mexicans to stay in the state — in other words, to avoid going to places like Texas. “Our city has no grocery stores, so we have to go to Texas,” Holguin said. La Feria, a supermarket in Texas, was but a block away from where she stood. To shop for groceries in New Mexico would mean driving to Las Cruces — 34 miles away.
Holguin lives with her 7-year-old son in a trailer she fixed up on one acre of land. During the pandemic, she bought chickens and built a coop and is now getting ready to start planting squash, her own small way of becoming less dependent on the local supermarket.
Moving deftly between English and Spanish, Holguin recalled arriving in Anthony with her father, an auto mechanic, from Mexico City when she was a child. Her grandmother already lived here, having arrived decades before to “pick cebollas and chiles” from El Paso to Las Cruces as a participant in the Bracero Program. Launched in 1942, the program offered temporary visas to Mexican farmworkers, purportedly in exchange for fair working conditions. In truth, braceros most often subsisted within a shadow economy, laboring under harrowing circumstances and for very little money.
Though the agricultural legacy has remained strong in the Mesilla Valley, Anthony itself hasn’t thrived for decades. Even before COVID-19, the city’s per capita income was $11,058, one of the lowest in the state.
When her work as an interpreter dried up as a result of the pandemic, Holguin was grateful she owned her own home. “If I didn’t, I’d be homeless,” she said wryly.
Ever since the tomato and onion canneries left Anthony, Texas, in the early 2000s, residents have had to commute even farther for the good jobs, said Gonzalez, who after his tenure as mayor served as a Doña Ana County commissioner, until losing the seat in the 2020 elections.
“We don’t have that many businesses or jobs, really.”
Bereavement and barriers
After 44 years of teaching in local schools, and having himself attended them, Gonzales knew many in town who fell ill or died of COVID-19. Yet the vaccine for months was largely only available in Las Cruces or El Paso. For some residents, especially those who don’t have cars, the vaccination sites were virtually inaccessible.
“The last thing I did as county commissioner was partner with the Doña Ana County department of health and human services to bring the vaccine to La Clínica de Familia,” Gonzalez said, referring to one of the town’s only health centers.
Farmworkers, however, still had little access to testing or shots.
Before the pandemic, “farmworkers were already marginalized,” said Marentes, who advocates for workers across the Rio Grande region. “The pandemic only made conditions worse.”
There is no way to access a drive-through testing center without a vehicle, which many farmworkers don’t have. And many laborers are unwilling — or unable — to take the day off from work to get tested. Some farm owners around the country have threatened to fire workers who get a positive test, another major disincentive, news stories and advocacy groups report.
The barriers to getting vaccinated have proven almost insurmountable, including the complicated online registration process, the fear of losing work, fears over documentation status and lack of faith in the American health-care system.
To address the problems, a coalition of farmworker advocates began to organize their own vaccination drives, including one at Tierra del Sol Housing Corporation, a nonprofit affordable housing complex in Anthony where many farmworkers live.
Still, Marentes continues to hear stories of workers dying at home, unaccounted for by government officials. “A farmworker recently died in La Mesa,” a community 11 miles north of Anthony, he said in May. “We only knew because her family told us.”
“Nobody,” he added, “can tell you the number of farmworkers who have died in southern New Mexico.”
For now, he is partnering with other local nonprofits to raise money for a cash-assistance fund to help farmworkers, a majority of whom were excluded from public and federal assistance programs; undocumented workers can’t collect unemployment and didn’t receive CARES Act stimulus checks. The assistance fund will help people pay for rent and utilities, or even take a day or two off work to get the vaccine, said Marentes, who’s been making food deliveries to people’s homes.
“These,” he said, “are the times of solidarity. And the most urgent gesture of solidarity is to support the men, women and children working in the fields.”
On the northern edge of Anthony, a freshly painted mural presides over La Semilla Community Farm’s sunbaked landscape. Across the facade of an old storage container, two adobe-colored hands roll corn masa for tortillas, each flanked by stalks of vibrant, lapis-colored blue corn.
La Semilla Food Center was founded in 2010 in response to the need for sustainable farming, with a mission of building an equitable food system and providing access to fresh produce in the entire Paso del Norte region. The small community farm was a natural outgrowth of that project — a demonstration farm where students and the public could learn how to grow food in southern New Mexico’s water-stressed landscape.
At La Semilla, Jasso said, “we want to be in the best situation to continue with agriculture and to include foods the desert can sustain.” The farm currently grows produce such as kale, broccoli and winter squash, and is looking forward to planting nopales and mesquite.
Water, of course, is critical for any crop. And southern New Mexico is in particularly short supply. This year, water won’t be released from Elephant Butte Reservoir into the Mesilla Valley’s stretch of the Rio Grande until June, several months later than usual. When it does arrive, surface water will remain “really tight this season,” said Stephanie Walker, a vegetable specialist at New Mexico State University and professional development coordinator of the Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program.
The global food production and distribution system was “garbage and exploitative to begin with,” as Jasso put it. The coronavirus only revealed the depths of the crisis: Here, in one of New Mexico’s most agriculturally productive regions, and in a county that is third in the state for the number of farms and ranches, food insecurity is among the gravest concerns. In Doña Ana County, at least one in six people have gone hungry.
This is not a food desert, said Michelle Carreon, who gathers community stories about food justice at La Semilla: “It’s food apartheid.”
When the coronavirus arrived, La Semilla responded by ramping up its Farm Fresh Mobile Market into a full-fledged, affordable grocery-delivery service operating from the back of two transport vans. Before the pandemic, it had distributed produce to Las Cruces and Gadsden schools and sold it at farmers markets. Now, staffers bore boxes of blue corn, honey and local produce to the doorsteps of residents in Anthony, Las Cruces and El Paso.
Since March 2020, La Semilla has distributed 1,162 food boxes from its farm and 23 others in the region, most of them smaller than an acre. Anything leftover gets donated to the food pantry at the Women’s Intercultural Center, a nonprofit community hub near downtown Anthony.
“In Latin America,” said Mary Carter, the center’s executive director, “people give to the church. Here, they give to each other.”
Carter oversees the food pantry every Thursday morning. Everyone is welcome to pick up a box, including residents from both Anthonys and the surrounding small towns. The pandemic forced the center’s many other programs to go dormant, except for appointment-only help for immigrants who need legal advice or support with paperwork to maintain their legal-residency status.
Painted by El Paso-born artist Christin Apodoca, the mural was inspired by a virtual event held by La Semilla last year, in which many participants shared memories of watching their mothers and grandmothers make corn tortillas. Corn, to many, was a symbol of what the long view could hold — of food traditions once lost and now reviving.
The pandemic, Jasso said, “slowed everything down,” and in the process laid bare the breaches in the food system. The land, he believes, holds a blueprint for a future of sustenance. It just needs tending.
Alicia Inez Guzmán is a Reporter with Searchlight New Mexico, a non-partisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.
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