It’s 8:10 in the morning, and the air lands crisp and fresh on my face as I step off of the bus at the corner of De Los Indios and Avenida de los Constituyentes. The street is heavy with early morning traffic, and on the far side of the road stands a huge graffiti-covered cement wall that stretches as far as the eye can see. Fifty feet away I spot an entrance, a tuft of lush greenery peeking around the corner, urging me to step through the wall, away from the cars and the buses, the sprawling garbage and the broken sidewalks. A narrow road wends it’s way through thick green lawns dotted with patches of trees, a few buildings, and students stretched out or sitting, reading or playing guitar or talking and drinking mate. The sun dappled road draws me along, past the railroad tracks and down a small path to the right. In the hush of the tall grass and towering trees, the sounds of chirping crickets and birds fill my ears, and the smells that I left behind on the street, of garbage and urine, are replaced with freshly mowed grass and green leaves baking in the early morning sun. On my left I can see my destination, across long rows of hay and plants, a couple of green houses set well back from the path and the train tracks. After some mild confusion, I locate the rusty fence entryway, and pick my way along the edge of the farm toward the group of people gathered in front of a particularly worn-looking greenhouse.
I approach hesitantly and smile as I make sure I’m in the right place: “Esta es la huerta Pecohue?” “Sí, sí, bienvenidos!” A tiny woman with thick, dark curly hair steps forward to kiss my cheek and tell me her name. This is of course followed by the customary process of kissing every cheek and introducing myself to every person in the proximity, none of whose names I remember a moment after hearing them. An older woman with gray hair and a big toothy grin shoves a mate gourd in my hands before I even have a chance to put my backpack down, and I gulp down the sweetened mate, toasting my tongue in the process. Once I’ve had my mate and put my backpack down, I’m presented with two options – “pesado” (harder work) or not. Invigorated by the morning air, I choose the trabajo más pesado and am quickly rewarded with a small but heavy shovel and a thick pair of gloves. A small blonde woman who is also carrying a shovel and work gloves beckons me to follow her out into the field. There’s a small rectangle of broken ground, and she explains that we’re going to continue down the row, tearing up the grass, turning over the earth, breaking apart the clumps of dirt and extracting any roots that surface.
Work starts slowly here – a few digs of the shovel, and then a pause for more kisses and introductions as more people arrive, shovels in tow. A few more digs, and another pause to take some more sweet mate that the smiling older woman has come over to offer to us before she leaves. A couple more digs, and a pause to kiss her goodbye, hasta luego! And eventually, slowly, we get into a rhythm, using our feet to push the shovels deep into the earth, turning it over, stabbing at the clumps with the tip of the shovel, and we begin to talk. We’ve been joined by a couple of boys in their late teens, and they’re anxious to talk to the gringo. They take turns asking me questions about myself, trying to practice their English while I insist on responding in Spanish. One of them is studying literature at la UBA next year, and we talk about our favorite authors and genres. We’re all quickly bantering away, making jokes and helping each other with our respective second languages. They teach me some new phrases, “lunfardos” (Argentine slang) that I won’t learn from a class or a dictionary – toda piola (everything’s good), manzana (it’s obvious) and copado (cool). We’re chatting and digging through the earth together and two hours fly by before I even realize that the sun is beating down on the back of my neck and my arms are aching, beginning to strain under the weight of the shovel. Luckily these realizations hit just in time for our mate break. We gather together with the other group and everyone talks, laughs, drinks mate, eats snacks, and passes around whatever food or drink they have to offer. Another hour of watering and potting plants and my first day at the farm draws to close – I have class, and I can’t hide away in this secret garden any longer.
The ease of sliding into the routine at the farm and the comfort of being in the outdoors almost made me forget that there was another purpose besides helping out with the farm tasks. There are a few volunteers, but most of the others working at the farm are youths in vulnerable situations. The purpose of the work at the farm is largely socialization and integration for these 18 to 21-year-olds that struggle with labor and social integration. I come from a vastly different world from them, but hacking away at the same land under the heat of the midday sun seemed to make these differences interesting but trivial, fostering conversation rather than creating walls between us. The greatest thing is that these are people I would never have had the occasion to interact with outside of this organization, yet there we were, digging and cracking jokes side-by-side like old friends.
For more information on la Huerta Pecohue, click here.