By Grayson Hester
Maria knows, perhaps better than most, that for things to grow, there must be patience. For things to flourish one needs resilience and humility, a willingness both to get hands dirty and to let go.
Having moved from the mountains of Guatemala to Immokalee, Fla., 22 years ago, Maria understands the necessity of hard work in cultivating something, whether it be a verdant garden or a new life.
She is one of thousands of immigrant workers in this South Florida agricultural community who, regrettably, have learned that a place at the table will most likely not be offered to them. If they want it, they must take it themselves.
Quite simply, there is no alternative.
“I made a decision to come here to help my children get ahead,” Maria said.
Her story echoes those of scores of immigrant workers who traverse oceans of water or sand to secure a better life for their families. The vast majority do not cross our borders out of malignance; they do so out of desperation.
In Maria’s case, her choice was really no choice at all. She left behind her children to work in Florida because, following the death of her husband, she did what she had to do to feed them and make available for them more options than she had.
“My husband passed away and left me with three children,” she said. “I was a week away from giving birth to her when he died.”
Immokalee provides the United States with the bulk of its winter tomato crop, serving as a breadbasket of sorts for the rest of the nation. It is on the backs of immigrant workers like Maria that this work is accomplished. Our trip to the grocery stores is their livelihood, our convenience is their necessity.
These workers are often underpaid, malnourished, and as is the case for innumerable migrants of color in this country, scorned for their presence while reliant on their labor.
Simply put, they would not choose to endure these injustices if they had other options. They would not leave behind their families unless it were paramount.
“My daughter, the youngest, is four years old, I left her and since then I have not seen her, I have not met them. It is a pain to leave my young children to come and work in this place, so that they can study, so that they can have,” Maria said. “That is why I made the decision to come here.”
It is the story of many a minoritized community in the Western world. This resilience under injustice and this insistence upon dignity in a deeply indignant society. Even under oppression as heavy as the Florida heat, Maria has pressed on, building a life in a new, and not always hospitable, place.
She serves as a partner gardener with Cultivate Abundance and Misión Peniel, making sure, whether through gardening or collecting shared produce, that fresh food is always available for Friday distribution.
“Maria is a force of nature,” said Rick Burnette, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel, who, along with his wife, Ellen, co-founded Cultivate Abundance. “She knows everything that’s going on in Immokalee. If there is food that’s available somewhere, she will be able to clue people in.”
A key tenet of Cultivate Abundance’s work is providing people with culturally appropriate foods, nourishing in their nutritional and spiritual contents alike. Maria plays an indispensable role in making sure this happens.
“She will find produce of the types we’re looking for. I don’t know how she does it, but she finds it and she brings it,” Rick said. “As a recipient, she’s also a donor.”
Over the two decades she’s lived in the United States, Maria has developed quite the green thumb, planting such Latin American staples as chipilín. It’s a staple in her native Guatemala and resembles spinach, albeit with a vastly different flavor profile.
Working with the soil provides purpose as well as sustenance, community in addition to a crop.
“I feel part of the garden and I feel like I am also there just to help them,” Maria said. “But to think that I am not just wasting time, no. I am learning different things, and we also teach people what is in the garden and what is done in the garden.”
No stranger to new life, Maria has also grown her family even while distant from many of its members.
Most of her children are now grown. Since arriving in the United States, however, she’s given birth to a boy named Marco who recently turned six.
Soon after his birth, he was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. This added unforeseen difficulty to the already-trying task of raising a child away from one’s native land and family.
But that hasn’t stopped Maria and her son from bringing light to their community.
“Everyone loves Marco,” Rick said.
Like fertile soil, Marco has helped Maria with growing her life here, building connections in unexpected—and therefore miraculous—ways.
“Now my life is more different, because I am meeting many people through Marco, through our garden, many people come to the garden,” she said. “But I’m glad to be there with them, I’m very satisfied.”
A place at the table was never guaranteed to Maria. Yet, with tireless faith, the presence of a Christ who was himself a refugee, and her fair share of dirt under nails, she insisted upon a place there all the same.
Of course, in God’s economy, it was her table all along.
“A place at the table means that we are all ready or prepared to have food on the table,” she said. “And for me, from the garden, it means helping them to maintain, to have the produce for the people who are in need.”
This article first appeared in the Spring 2023 edition of fellowship! magazine. Read online at https://cbf.net/fellowship-magazine