A Communal Farm for People from Mexico. Uh, Did You Ask Them About This?

A reader who is a better student of Mexican history than me (not hard to be, frankly) called with a caveat about plans for a community farm in Mexican-American West Dallas. The idea, cheerfully trumpeted yesterday in a Dallas Morning News editorial, is for some kind of communal farm to be created in La Bajada, the neighborhood at the foot of that new bridge over the Trinity River.

The editorial said, "The farm would have a lot of models and expertise to draw upon, including New Orleans' Grow Dat Youth Farm, a partnership with Tulane University's School of Architecture, and of course, Paul Quinn College in southern Dallas."

My caller suggested it would also be important to consult some Mexicans. A community farm can be a grand adventure for people to whom it is a foreign and exotic idea in the first place, but my caller said he thought a good percentage of the residents of La Bajada are probably all too familiar. Before plunging ahead, it might be a good idea to check and see how many of them are in La Bajada in the first place, in fact, because they are escapees from communal farms.

Half of Mexico's arable land is still held in the form of communal farms or ejidos, most of which were created during and after the administration of President Lazaro Cardenas (1934-1940). In the early 1990s President Carlos Salinas de Gortari struggled to find ways to make the ejido system compatible with the NAFTA free trade framework. Since then the solution has been mainly to convert them to private property and sell them off.

Ejidos were one of those great concepts that failed to engage the facts on the ground. Agriculture has always been about borrowing money; you can't use some kind of non-private non-public sort-of-whatever land as collateral; the people who worked the communal farms, called ejidatarios, more often than not found themselves trapped in perennial penury, unable to borrow money for new tractors, unable to save enough to get out.

After that new bridge got built, speculators rushed into La Bajada hoping to buffalo people out of their homes and turn the whole area into just what we really need, more brewpubs, web-page design offices and cheese-ball apartment buildings. The residents of La Bajada carried out a long and courageous fight to save their community and, amazingly enough, they pretty much won. A year ago the City Council granted them about as much protection from real estate exploitation as anybody in this wretched city can hope for.

See also: Bridge to Somewhere

But the fact that they didn't want their neighborhood totally overrun, supplanted and expunged in favor of crapola apartment complexes and brewpubs doesn't mean they're all dying to become ejidatarios again. We all see this stuff very differently depending on our own cultural narratives.

I know exactly how my own grandfather, the German immigrant, felt about farms. He had worked on a farm in Missouri as a child before running off to St. Louis in the 1890s, where he worked his way through high school carrying pig iron in a basket on his back and finally became a successful small businessman. I was sent to visit my grandparents as a child and asked my grandfather one day to take me to a see farm.

"Oh, Jimmy," he said, "you must never leave the city. There is nothing on farms but dirt."

I think my caller has a point. Before City Hall goes all bananas about an ejido for La Bajada, somebody needs to tour around La Bajada and try out the Grow-Dat idea on people. The response might be yeah, stuff dat, too.

NOTE: commenters below are interested in origin of ejido concept for La Bajada neighborhood. The Dallas Morning News editorial credits the idea to architecture students at UTA and an outfit called West Dallas Community Centers. Most recent IRS 9990 for West Dallas Community Centers shows it is a publicly supported nonprofit with total revenue in 2010 of $645,140, of which it spent $381,793 on salaries and wages in 2010, including $96,222 to associate executive director Hannah Marsh and $27,877 to Cheryl Mayo, executive director (??), with total expenses of $711,207 including $95,452 for contract labor. Its mission is to "help youth excel through community involvement, social development, group and social adjustment programs."

West Dallas Community Centers 2010 990 by Schutze

note to note: my callow comment below, "poverty is theft," was posted 13 hours before I posted the 990 and is not related.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze