Lessons of the land: Patricia Lopez

Keeping an earthly connection: Patricia Lopez went from picking grapes for income to cultivating a small garden for fun
Sunday, August 17, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:27 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

In the San Joaquin Valley, Patricia Lopez worked off and on in the fields with the sun on her back. It was the hardest work she’s done. Now she, her husband, Javier Lopez, and their two children, Jasmine, 11, and Xavier, 4, spend their summers in a little garden they rent through Columbia’s Community Garden Coalition. They hope some day soon to have their own piece of earth.

What we used to do, we would get up early in the morning. We would cut the grapes from the vines and then we would put them in the sand and lay a piece of paper on the sand. Just spread them out so they would dry up to be raisins. I think I started doing this when I was about 6 or 7 years old. I think the hardest part was just being out — the fields where the sand is at, you’re talking about a hundred degrees temperature. It tires you out.

It was a very difficult thing to do, especially if you were a child. But it was a way of helping our parents. We were kind of low-income. And we did it sometimes just to buy our school clothes and just little stuff like that.

In a way, this work transformed the way Patricia felt about being outside.

I remember when (people) would say “summer school,” and I would think, “Oh my goodness, summer’s here.” We only worked three or four weeks out of the summer, picking the grapes. But those three or four weeks seemed like a year to us. My husband, when we worked the fields, we could barely break even. And I wasn’t going to take out my 3-year-old daughter at the time to pick over there. That job is why I believe my parents came down with a lot of illnesses, arthritis and all that, because you work your body hard.

Still, having her own garden is something entirely different.

To begin with, it’s a smaller type of garden (laughs), and I know it’s just for fun. You don’t have to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and say, “OK, I have to do this for a living.” You can be there for a half an hour.

We grow tomatoes — three different kinds — cucumbers, corn, chilies, sunflowers, cilantro, herbal stuff. Whatever my husband can grow. It’s very funny because the garden now, there’s more people in it and you get to chit-chat with everybody. We trade off our vegetables. You meet different types of cultures, also. I think some of them are from Cambodia. The other ones are French or Russians or something like that. It’s kind of like a socializing thing, too.

I believe that’s a really good time for the kids, too. They like to get into the dirt; they like to dig. They like to know that something’s coming out of what they planted. (Jasmine shows birdseed she planted in a foam cup.) She picks up habits from her daddy. That’s how dad starts planting. She’s learning.

They like to eat the vegetables, too. The cucumbers they just like to take the peel off, cut them in half and put on lemon and salt. The cilantro, we like to eat it in a salad. It smells pretty, too. Of course the chili, we make Mexican salsa out of it and that’s good. And believe me, Javier tries to plant the hottest ones he can find. There’s some itty-bitty ones he plants. They’re green, and I don’t dare eat one.

It’s very good therapy for us. It’s just: You have your mind on what you’re planting, just turning and flipping the dirt, pull weeds here and there. You’re interacting with all the nature stuff: water, the dirt, the sun, the wind. And it makes you relax. You’re able to talk to the kids. We play around. I’m afraid of worms so they try to — “Look mom, a worm!” — so they have me running and doing exercises, too.

Lessons of the land: The Kirk Family

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