It Begins With Food

Food. The It of All Things. My center. 

I wrote my first story about Athens' Hispanic immigrant community in 2009. But immigrants, really, weren't who I'd set out to write about, though the people I met reporting back then have become friends and sources, helping me write some of my best work. 

I first went to Pinewood, a mobile home park in north Athens, to write about food, of course, specifically about growing it. There I met Humberto Mendoza and Aida Quinones, a mechanic and librarian, respectively, who advocated, among other things, for the working people of Pinewood. Its residents live in the shadows—undocumented—with most of the city closed off to them due to language barriers. Only school-aged children speak English in Pinewood. Travel outside is very limited, kept to nearby shopping trips or to the weekend flea market. Often, only the head of the household drives, and then only to work and back.

In 2009, Beto and Aida had been thrown together in an effort to build a community garden funded by an in-town land trust, the thinking being it would provide fresh food and an outdoor community space for the neighborhood. The garden was a non-starter. Most Pinewood people already gardened some, many raised their own chickens, and there was the Catholic mission or their front yards for hanging out. 

But getting to know Aida and Beto gave me more than enough reasons to return to Pinewood to write about Beto's fight against anti-immigrant forces in Georgia and Aida's amazing cultural work with the youth of Pinewood. (Those stories are lost to eternity. The magazine that published them was hacked in 2011, so I've no digital record of them.) I spent about two month's worth of Fridays in September/October 2010 with Aida and her students in the library, learning dances like "El Baile de los Viejitos" and "Rebozo." That winter, I played Santa Claus for the library's Christmas party.

I also learned about the pleasures of drying chile peppers, the pull of family and the disconnection found in strange places from Petra, a grandmother to an energetic group of kids.

More recently, I've gone back to Pinewood to cook with some of the women there. They were working with a food scientist, Gabi Sanchez-Brambila, and exploring ways to prepare traditional Mexican foods with an eye towards health—which mostly meant doing without lard. These women have turned up the community garden soil again, using the space for a bit of green-thumbed exercise and source of fresh vegetables.

Despite the long stretches between visits—and there are a few more stories I haven't linked to here, many without a digital trace—Pinewood is always on my mind. 

A tragedy brought about my last visit. During an intense wind storm that gusted upwards of 50 mph, a man named Pedro Gorosquieta was crushed by a tree felled in the wind. I didn't recognize the name, but once I saw his picture, I remembered meeting him during those early garden days. His eldest son, Sergio, was around, too, during my time with Aida, learning about Hispanic heritage along with her student charges. My bosses dispatched me to write about Pedro's death, resulting in this story. Again I met the somewhat grown children I used to videotape performing traditional Mexican dances. They were teens now, inching toward adulthood.

I sat at a picnic bench beside Pedro's house, just across from the newly refurbished community garden, and talked with his wife's brother and his good friend, the in-law he smoked nightly cigarettes with, his only vice. (Pedro's wife and sisters were busy cleaning their trailer. They were half-way through moving out into their own home.) They started telling me about what Pedro had been up to, speaking as Pedro's chickens and quail squawked and clucked in upside down milk crates nearby. Growing food had never left Pedro's habits: At the family's new home, where they hadn't yet moved, Pedro had already planted a full garden of tomatoes, cucumbers, chiles, watermelon and more. Details like these connect me to Pedro; I would've certainly done the same thing, eager to make a new home my own. So would many of us. Growing food is about self-sustenance; a plant's roots symbolized Pedro's goals here in Athens. Freedom. A bit of control in a harried world. A safe place to raise a family. For people who never met Pedro, who will never set foot in a place like Pinewood, such details make him like a friend, but also make his death feel even more tragic.

Whenever you don't share a language or a backstory with a person, look to food to create a link. It's always there. In Pedro's case, writing about his gardening, his soil-making, made him not a faceless immigrant living in a mobile home park, but a father and a husband, a man no different from ourselves. It's been nothing short of awesome seeing my city come out to support Pedro's family, paying for the funeral and fixing up their new home. As a school counsellor told me on the phone this week, "I tell the kids that this is what community looks like."