Barrio Sustainability

Giving back to the ‘hood and to the Earth.

November 11, 2016

FeaturesIssue 21: November/December 2016

Seeds represent hope, survival, and resistance. They represent a healthier future for our barrios, for our pueblo. Seeds affirm that nothing is too small to make significant change. They teach us that nurturing something as small as a bean in a pod can lead to the growth of a great mesquite tree: a habitat for many forms of life and the source of future seeds. Seeds teach us that the harvest can nurture a whole community, as well as the next generations.

Since 2001, Tierra y Libertad Organization (TYLO) has invested in generations of leaders who work within their communities to create more sustainable barrios to fight poverty, violence, deportation, poor health, and gentrification. TYLO strives to save, plant, and nurture seeds for healthy, empowered barrios, self-determination, and autonomy for our people. Since Tucson was designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy last year, that work has become more complex and more important. This is a story about our contribution to the food justice fight on the south side of Tucson.


A colorful mosaic scene in South Tucson.

In 2001, a group of educators, health workers, activists, and artists came together to organize, protect, and build our communities in Barrio Chicano at Sixth Avenue and Ajo. The need to spread community-organizing practices stemmed from the vast economic, health, and political injustices faced by our people in the barrios. Today’s educational systems do not teach our youth and young adults how to heal and build our communities, so we responded to create a healthier narrative for our people.

TYLO came from many manifestations and programs. The first was a health education program named Omeyocan (a Mexican ideology of a place based in duality) Youth Empowerment and Sexuality. Youth from this program formed Movement Achieving Youth Activism (MAYA) to create more autonomy and build a stronger youth movement. In 2005, the group became Tierra y Libertad Organization. This transformation came about by responding to the community’s needs and the urgency for community-based solutions with a strong focus on sustainability and migrant rights.

From there, TYLO created a summer youth program called Freedom Summer where we trained more than 150 youth in community organizing, health, and sustainability in the barrio. We tackled issues of border militarization and the rapid increase of deportations during a swell of mass anti-immigrant sentiment that culminated in the proposal of federal legislation that criminalized not only the entry of undocumented people into the United States but also the assistance given to any undocumented individual by U.S. citizens. TYLO members used their skills in community organizing to help focus a message of resistance; over time, that message developed into community action. We partnered with other organizations to create the We Reject Racism Campaign, as well as Know Your Rights workshops given by barrio promotoras (community health promoters), and established a protection network known as Comite del Barrio, composed of neighborhood moms.

Claudio Rodriguez (left) and Nelda Ruiz plant seedlings in a Barrio Sustainability Project demonstration garden.

Claudio Rodriguez (left) and Nelda Ruiz plant seedlings in a Barrio Sustainability Project demonstration garden.

In 2006, members wanted to create a model that could be replicated in other barrios by addressing the needs of the community. These needs included increasing access to affordable, healthy foods; establishing programs for neighborhood kids; planting trees for shade; food; and habitat, capturing positive images that truly reflected our communities and building a place where value was given to its residents.

Based out of Barrio Chicano, TYLO members were able to create a safe space for barrio residents by investing in and buying property in the ’hood. The space was the beginning of new growth, a new seed planted. This home in the barrio was converted from a brothel to a living space and a demonstration site where indigenous land management practices were retaught to the community through regenerative food systems. Barrio Sustainability Project emerged from this effort. Barrio Sustainability was our first step to achieving autonomy in an urban setting that addressed and taught environmental justice, social justice, and economic development.

Barrio Sustainability began to break down barriers and create a bridge for communities that have often been ignored to gain access to quality services and resources. Through Barrio Sustainability, we disproved the notion that poor people of color do not care about the environment, and that “green living” is a “white people thing.” We reclaimed our ancestral practices, plot-by-plot, block-by-block, starting in one ’hood and expanding into others. Reclaiming our ancestral practices came with the responsibility to share our skills and empower others in our barrio. We introduced and trained more than 50 youth and adults in intensive Barrio Sustainability practices through water-harvesting, seed saving, composting, medicinal herbs, food production, and political education.

A mural on Fourth Ave. and 29th Street brings beauty to the streets of South Tucson.

A mural on Fourth Ave. and 29th Street brings beauty to the streets of South Tucson.

The seeds we had planted were growing and we began to receive recognition. Our work and intentions were now “validated” to the point that people and politicians uninvolved in the south side were now offering us a seat at the table. By creating these spaces we facilitated the process for other organizations to create equitable partnerships. Barrio Sustainability is just like a seed, with different phases and transformations, and with the ability to be replicated in many places.

After years of work in Barrio Chicano, Barrio Sustainability began replicating in other barrios around Tucson. We began to create satellite groups in the barrios we lived in, creating regenerative food systems all over the south side. Today, we face the next chapter in our journey—gentrification, a method of modern colonization.

In December, Tucson was designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, making our communities even more susceptible to gentrification. Tucson’s downtown expansion will soon expand deeper into South Tucson; indeed, it has already begun. This expansion creates an opportunity for some but a misfortune for many more. When higher-income people invest in the barrio by purchasing low-value property, they inflate property values, which often leads to urban renewal projects that in turn lead to rent and tax increases, making it unaffordable for residents to live there. Whatever the reason, one outcome of this movement is the displacement of low-income people and erasure of the history and culture of a neighborhood, continuing the same destructive cycle of the last 500 years wherein Mexicano/Chicano families lose their land.

We hope the City of Gastronomy designation brings creation into our barrio instead of out of it. What do we hope to create? A hub for business incubators, for one, and related opportunities for people who do not currently have the resources to start a business. Those could include training programs about how to start a food business or lessons on safe food handling and how to obtain important licenses. Most important, we seek admission and support for the actual people preparing and picking foods and crops, and an acknowledgment of Mexican and Tohono O’odham people for preserving their foods, and recognition of the displacement that has happened here, on these lands that we call home. The designation can bring many opportunities if navigated properly by organizing at the community level. It risks being exclusive when so many people in our community have no idea what the designation is or that there was even one to begin with.

As a community, we propose to fight gentrification by building our own power through education, beautifying our ‘hoods, and producing our own foods, in order to have ownership of our lives. We cannot, and will not, wait for someone to save us. Our communities were systemically designed so that many resources are inaccessible. We live in someone else’s model and through our work we challenge these social constructs to create a reality we want to see and leave for our future generations. As warriors for Mother Earth we will continue to share our knowledge; our work will continue to grow and expand in many different manifestations. We will continue planting seeds wherever we go.

For us, Barrio Sustainability is a way to build communities, to reconnect with abuelas, to connect to the stories that the barrio holds, and to spotlight the inequalities that have been experienced, from the militarization of our barrios to the effects of systemic injustices, to the beautiful seeds that have been passed down from our ancestors. Our work is a seed that belongs to everyone; it is always growing, connecting the past, present, and future. ✜

Nelda Ruiz is a South Tucson resident originally from Ambos Nogales. She started organizing with Tierra y Libertad in 2010 and continues to cause desmadre (ruckus). Claudio Rodriguez is a South Tucson resident from Sonora, Mexico. He’s been organizing with Tierra y Libertad since 2007. An ex-gang member, Claudio found himself while working with Mother Earth; he now farms and is an educator who shares his skills working with Tucson youth.

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