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South Valley Farm Grows Connections Rooted In Culture

Hannah Colton / KUNM
Zia Martinez sits in the fondly named 'Cottonwood Clinic' at the start of her third summer working at Cornelio Candelaria Organics.

It’s summer, and that means many teenagers are headed to jobs, internships, volunteering – places where they meet adults besides their parents and teachers. The interactions can turn into mentorships that enrich the lives of the teens and the adults. This kind of synergy is thriving at a special plot of land in Albuquerque’s South Valley.

Anyone who thinks teenagers are only interested in shiny, new technology has never met Zia Martinez.

"I was called the acequia whisperer!" said Martinez, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate. This is her third summer at Cornelio Candelaria Organics. Sitting in the shade of a huge cottonwood tree, she held a sleeping orange tabby kitten in her lap as she described how to siphon water from the ditch to irrigate a field of corn.

"The education they’re getting is extensive," said Lorenzo Candelaria, 73, "and it includes the use and care for the acequia system, which has been in New Mexico for 500 years." Candelaria is the farmer here. His family’s been working this land in the Atrisco Valley for seven generations.

Martinez said she felt at home here right away.

"Every time I say goodbye, Lorenzo says, 'you’re beautiful for who you are.' And he never says anything physical about me, like 'I like your face, or I like your hair,'" she explained. "It’s always: 'you radiate positivity' or 'you radiate compassion.' It’s that kind of stuff that pumps you up and makes you confident in the internal part of you and not the cover."

Credit Hannah Colton / KUNM
Candelaria refers to the farm by an old Moorish term, almunia: "a place of relaxation and experimentation."

While he works with the interns, Candelaria makes a big effort to pass on his culture and language – partly because he knows what it feels like to have it taken away. He said he was in the 4th grade when his teacher backhanded him – in the classroom – for speaking Spanish.

The humiliation was horrific, the kind you never outgrow," said Candelaria. "So when my son was born, I chose never to teach him Spanish so he wouldn’t be humiliated like I was. To this very day, he admonishes me for not having taught him Spanish."

That language gap between generations is something Lorenzo and Martinez have in common. Martinez said her father faced discrimination as a kid for being Hispanic and Native American. She said he became ashamed of speaking Spanish, stopped using it, and never taught her.

"It really does take a toll, like, I don’t really have a sound relationship with my father just because of his experiences as a Hispanic. You can really see what oppression does to somebody, what all of that negative energy around what you could have been, can do to somebody."

Martinez sees that negativity in her generation as well. There’s pressure to talk and look and act a specific way. And if you reject those social norms, she said, there can be serious consequences. "Some of my friends, not naming names, they had to leave their families because they didn’t support who they wanted to be," she said.

The farm is different. Martinez said Candelaria never talks down to her or tells her how to be. Neither does his longtime assistant, Travis McKenzie.

"I think it’s a lot more powerful to listen than for me just to talk to them," McKenzie said. "And I’m always reiterating, 'if you need to talk about anything I’m here, we’re here.' Sometimes life comes up pretty strong and fierce, but if we can support each other in that struggle and laugh and have a good time and help each other out, I think that’s really what it’s all about."

After working with youth for years, McKenzie has found he doesn't buy into an idea of mentorship that is top-down. "I feel like it's different, it’s so reciprocal," he said. "In essence, you mentor each other."

Toward the end of their work day, Lorenzo surveyed a plot of land he wants to sow soon. I asked what they'll plant. "Oh, whatever strikes our fancy," he said. Martinez chimed in, "I want to grow carrots! Or shishito peppers, yeah."

Credit Hannah Colton / KUNM
Lorenzo Candelaria stands by a pomegranate tree near his farm in the Atrisco Valley.

At this point, Martinez has learned enough about operating farm equipment to know that she wants to get her welding certificate. She said she’ll use that to travel and see the world. Then she’ll come back and build a piece of equipment that Lorenzo could really use.

She said she's already got it designed in her head. "I'll just create a mobile trellis," she said, "so you can have two people pick it up, you move it, you till, and you put it back. And then you have a good support system for tomatoes and beans."

At the farm, Candelaria has created something he didn’t have as a kid -- a place to learn, experiment, and grow, where exactly who you are is enough. 


This story is part of our My Voice project that features stories driven by input from New Mexico students. Our media partners are New Mexico PBS and Generation Justice and funding for the project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Hannah served as news director at KUNM and reported on education, Albuquerque politics, and anything public health-related. She died in November 2020.
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