a farm for my mother, a farm for meme

My eighty-two-year-old mother’s grey hair has grown out from her usual short cut and she has it pulled into two ponytails at the top of her head. I notice her ’do as she shuffles out of her bedroom, down our short hallway, and into the living room. Our blinds let the mid-afternoon August sun stream in from the tall windows. We live in Texas, and it’s hot outside. My mother looks tiny and girlish as she sits in the orange armchair in front of the television.

My laptop airplays to the flatscreen. We’re watching a short play by Virginia Grise, a farm for meme, put on by allgo and Cara Mía Theatre, performed via livestream on HowlRound, and directed by Elena Araoz. I’m excited to share Chicanx theatre, one of my passions, with my mother. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this play is being performed remotely, and I admire the way the playwright, director, and producers build on the strengths that this challenge makes possible.

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a farm for meme by Virginia Grise

The “farm” of the title is the South Central Farm in Los Angeles, a fourteen-acre urban garden created in an empty lot by the locals to provide subsistence in the form of fresh fruit, herbs, and vegetables as well as to sustain community. The narrator describes the activism surrounding the South Central Farm during the early 2000s when the developer-owner of the lot threatened to bulldoze the farm. We witness how the narrator’s lines blend with archival footage of the demonstrations. The narrator is actor Marlene Beltran, and she speaks straight into the camera and from different locations in her home, which she describes as full of poets, rappers, DJs, and queer “made-from-scratch” family love. She lives with her partner Vanessa, known as “V”; V’s three children, Li’l Man, Emannuel or “Meme,” and Baby; and their friends/extended family Hailstorm, Love, and Foxy. The narrator makes us feel like we’re visiting her and having a heart-to-heart chat, but the stream also fades to scenes from the past that invite us to experience a broader sense of place.

The director employs a split screen to feature puppets that mimic the planting and watering of seeds, the growth of vines, and the swaying of cornstalks in the breeze. The puppets, created by Princeton’s Innovations in Socially Distant Performance and presented by puppeteers BT Hayes, Minjae Kim, and Katharine Matthias, lend a whimsical feel to the play, briefly complementing the narrator and giving the audience a chance to visualize the rudiments of gardening. We get to value the simple artistry of the craft, as well. The puppets are made from items found in any home: paper and cardboard, light and shadow. They add to our spirit of making do and overcoming constraints during the pandemic.

a farm for meme also makes itself linguistically accessible. Its short length (twenty-eight minutes) facilitates its presentation in different languages, and they are streamed one right after the other: first in English and then in Spanish. Both offer American Sign Language in a box set into the corner of the screen, giving the audience yet another layer of rich visuals. On this afternoon, my mother and I watch both streams, one after the other. I can only begin to imagine the kinds of conversations the play inspires in homes across the globe. I miss the communion and intimacy of sitting in a theatre with an audience, but I am also buoyed by the idea that many who might not otherwise share this experience are watching with us.

These plants bloom mostly in our imaginations, as described by the narrator, and with a little help from the puppeteers. The shadow puppets of growing cornstalks especially capture my imagination.

The play opens with the words “a farm for meme” written across the screen decorated in bright yellow, purple, and pink. The sound of rhythmic, upbeat, musical clapping begins as the title screen fades to the pink paper puppet hands clapping with the music. We watch the hands pick up the sunflower seeds neatly arranged on the garden and set them into the blue paper water before planting them through the fingerhole of the Dole pineapple box that serves as the garden base. The puppets perform their tasks with precision and care. Then the play transitions to a video recording of a child (Maceo Edwards playing Meme) sitting at a low desk, markers all around, concentrating on greening cornstalks that spread across the page. (Coloring books, illustrated by Mel Dominguez and based on the play, are being distributed along with seed packets in different locations through grassroots community centers and food bank initiatives.) With so many families quarantining with youngsters in close quarters, this is a familiar scene. I watch my mother watch. I wonder if she thinks back to her own childhood.

My mother is from Northern México, outside Matamoros, Tamaulipas. She didn’t know coloring books or crayons. Instead, she lit the wood-burning stove during pre-dawn hours, set the pintos to boil, and started amasando la harina for the flour tortillas, Norteño-style. She and her great-aunt bustled around the dirt-floor kitchen long before the rest of the household stirred. They cooked not only breakfast but also lunches for everyone heading out into the labores for the day to cultivate their cash crop, cotton. My mother’s family had a made-from-scratch element like Meme’s. My mother’s mother had abandoned the family after my mother was born, and my mother’s father was killed when she was one year old. She was raised by her father’s tía, along with her brother and other local orphans.

My mother grew up on a communal farm at el ejido La Venada, an agricultural collective born out of the Mexican Revolution, which ended in 1920. She was born just eighteen years later, in 1938. Her family raised chickens, killed cerdos to make pork tamales for celebrations, made fresh cow’s milk cheeses, and even ran a little store. I thought my mom might enjoy Grise’s play because it was about a farm, too.

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a farm for meme by Virginia Grise

The farm in the play flourished with cornstalks, hierbas, and fruit trees. But these plants bloom mostly in our imaginations, as described by the narrator, and with a little help from the puppeteers. The shadow puppets of growing cornstalks especially capture my imagination. Grise’s focus on the South Central Farm in Los Angeles strikes me as about as different a farm from my mother’s as you can get. Yet in other ways, the resonances run deep. The South Central Farm was the largest urban farm in the United States from 1994 to 2006. It, too, was a revolutionary collective born from the people’s struggle for access to soil and sustenance. In contrast to the rural setting of my mother’s childhood, the South Central Farm grew in an industrial area of a city famous for films, not food.

In 1994, South Central was piecing itself together again after the uprisings that followed the acquittal of four LA police officers caught on tape in 1992 brutally beating Rodney King, an African American man. Black and Brown people showed their disgust with this injustice, taking to the streets, upturning patrol cars, lighting fires. Looking back now, what might have seemed a throwback to mid-twentieth century civil rights demonstrations becomes prescient of contemporary protests—against Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson in 2014, which inspired #BlackLivesMatter, and summer 2020’s weekslong vigils for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Darius Tarver, and too many others. Looking back now, the so-called LA riots arose from the many demonstrations that came before and their spirit flows into all the others that follow.

a farm for meme helps us stay attuned to those energies that stir for justice as they move through the land itself and take shape in the foods we grow and eat. In the aftermath of the Rodney King protests, a small group of people, some of them immigrants from México, noticed an empty lot. They set out to plant corn, beans, and squash—the three sisters. They also planted fruit trees and healing herbs. (For a powerful one-woman show that documents the 1992 rebellion in Los Angeles, see Ana Deveare Smith’s Twilight.)

Grise reminds us that even the children know a world that plows under verdant community farms isn’t right—and it ultimately will not win out.

The narrator’s eyes light up as she looks into the camera and describes the maíz, but also the yerba buena, legumes, romero, and green amaranth. She recalls the butterflies in the walnut tree. She recounts all the things “we didn’t learn ... in school: how to turn a guayaba leaf into medicine, what day to plant the hierba mora.” The scene cuts to archival video of a woman grinding corn at a metate, the stone tool that dates back to pre-Columbian days. The corn captures my mother’s attention. She purses her lips and spits out a tsk before smiling and saying “¡Así no se hace!” She laughs, shaking her head, and tells me she’s skeptical that anything’s getting ground on that rock. It looks legit to me; I’m not inclined to question the viejita onscreen who’s older than I am but, yes, she’s younger than my mother.

Grise’s play, though, isn’t about the elders. She writes about Meme, V’s three-year-old middle child. It’s Meme who tells us: “When you pull something out of the ground, it grows back. Don’t worry. We’re going to plant more things.” He says this because the fourteen-acre beauty of South Central Farm was ground under the tracks of bulldozers in 2006. Meme, V, Li’l Man, and Baby camped out with others at the South Central Farm as long as possible, providing a human shield against the destruction. But eventually the farm succumbed to higher powers. The owner had other plans for the farm, and he chose to run out the families and their food.

Meme reassures us from his child’s perspective of resilience and joy. He enacts hope in the way that United States Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reminds us to do it: as a verb, as an everyday creation, and not as something we sit around waiting to arrive. To me, it’s no coincidence this play emerges in the middle of a global pandemic, amidst uprisings for racial justice across the United States and around the world. It creates community in defiance of the violence against the land and the people—both in the case of the bulldozing of the South Central Farm as much as in regard to the ongoing assaults on Black, Indigenous, and people of color in this country. Grise reminds us that even the children know a world that plows under verdant community farms isn’t right—and it ultimately will not win out. “We’re going to plant more things,” advises Meme. (For an update on South Central Farm’s ongoing activism, see this news article.)

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a farm for meme by Virginia Grise

My mother, with her heart still firmly rooted in the soil of La Venada, agrees with Meme. She instructs me to donate our old molino and metate to Cara Mía Theatre, because she wants us to start a new community farm in Dallas, and we’ll be needing those corn-grinding tools. In the talkback that follows the first streaming of the play, Grise mentions that she would like to find an empty lot in Dallas as part of her three-year residency with Cara Mía Theatre. She wants to bring the theatre to the community and to the land itself. Like in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, South Georgia, and Louisville, we have heartache to heal here, too: in Dallas’ Little Mexico in 1973, just two months before I was born in a nearby hospital, twelve-year-old Santos Rodriguez was murdered by Dallas police officer Darrell Cain. In the backseat of a patrol car, Cain had interrogated the handcuffed Santos by holding his .357 Magnum to the boy’s head, spinning the chamber, and clicking the trigger. Cain claims to have emptied his gun of its bullets, but several rounds were found in it after Santos lay bleeding in the back of the patrol car, killed instantly. His thirteen-year-old brother David was handcuffed next to him, Santos’ blood pooling at his feet. Santos was murdered over suspicion of committing a petty theft at a Fina gas station. Cain was sentenced to five-years in prison, but only served two-and-a-half.

My mother tells me to hurry up and help them to start the new farm in Dallas. She wants to be around to show them how to use our tools, the right way. I feel the urgency to learn more from her about how to be on the land and in relation to one another.

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