My tamales must be getting cold. Almost as soon as the thought strikes me, it’s whisked away on the breeze passing through the boat. Other tajineras drift by us. They float lazily in the river like driftwood. A woman with a silver braid inches closer in her ramshackle tajinera. Virgins of Guadalupe, medallions, and bundles of cilantro are piled up beside her. This very scene could have been taking place decades ago, even a century ago. Before the influx of zinc-nosed, safari hatted-gringos with our penchant for street tacos and Che Guevara t-shirts. What was Xochimilco like before us? I stare at the woman, looking for an answer. Did I have a right to be here? I get so caught up in my thoughts that I forget all about the tamales.
The next tajinera to pass by is loaded down with bouquets of mango florets. Dark red peels are shaved off in a single flourish. The bright orange flesh that remains is transformed into a blossom with the tip of a knife. Juicy petals glisten in the sun. For the coup de grâce, a skewer is inserted at the base with a torero’s precision. Each mango is baptized with chile, salt, and lime before it is passed from boat to boat until it reaches its new owner.
Ten pesos later and I’m holding my own mango flower. I pluck off the first petals and turn to one of my dining companions. “How old d’you think the guy rowing this boat is?”
“Mmm. Maybe 15,” Axidi says.
I’m hoping this is just a summer job at that the boy is going back to school in the fall. I think about bringing this up, but reason that labor politics isn’t the most appropriate subject of conversation for a relaxing boat ride.
Little waves lapping the bow of the boat eat up the silence between us. The remnants of my mango flower are withering on my empty plate. We spot a patch of land ahead with what appears to be a dock jutting out into water. This is a chinampa, a floating garden. Designed by the Olmecs 2,000 years ago, each chinampa is host to a milpa. Food is grown on the milpas in a polycrop system, which makes it a fully sustainable farm. Someone once told me the chinampas could feed all 20 million inhabitants of Mexico City, if utilized properly. But people buy their groceries at Walmart instead.
“My dad sold corn in the D.F. when he was a kid.” Axidi isn’t looking at me. Her eyes are focused on the chinampa ahead, but I know she’s talking to me.
“Yeah, from the time he was six until high school. On the streets, you know? My parents didn’t have a lot of money growing up. I guess that’s why they went to the U.S. Anyway, I just mean, when you asked that, it made me think about how that could have been my dad. Or if we had stayed in Mexico, it could have been my brother.” She adjusts her sunglasses and fusses with the straw in her agua de jamaica.
“That must be a lot to think about.”
“Yeah, like, my dad sold corn on the street right here and now I go to boarding school and study abroad and shit. My parents can’t even come back here in case they got caught. They don’t have their papers, you know?”
“Yeah.” We stare at the cold tamales between us.
“My mom told me all the girls go on the pill before they leave Mexico because everyone gets raped before the border. Did you know that?” Her eyes meet mine. I shake my head.
“I don’t know why I told you that,” she continues. “It’s just so weird. I’m here and they’re back in California. I’ve just been thinking about it a lot. It’s like coming home, but it’s not your home. You know?”
Clouds roll in and the umbrellas come out. I want to say something that lets her know I care, but that I’m not assuming I know what it’s like to be the child of Mexican immigrants in Trump’s America. I want to close the space between us somehow. I want to tell her that I’ve been looking for my home for a long, long time. I stay quiet.
“Painting reminds me of him,” Axidi calls back to me as we file out of the boat and onto the chinampa. “He started a painting and construction business back in the U.S. Isn’t that such a stereotype?” She laughs.
I know she’s referring to the volunteer work we’ve been doing back in Guanajuato. We’re painting an albergue, a shelter, for families who have loved ones in the hospital nearby. Each day, after we put on the final coat, we wear our paint stains out the door like medals. We want to feel that we have done something good and lasting. When we go home to our host families at night, we reluctantly peel the mustard yellow splotches off our skin. “Hoy fue duro. Pero hicimos mucho,” we announce at the dinner table. Today was hard. But we got a lot done.
The paint is already starting to chip by the time we finish the service project.
My fingers wrap around a scythe. It’s the first time I’ve ever held one. I test the weight in my hand. Light.
Our backs are bent low over the rows and rows of plants. Hands pass me a bundle of fresh-cut lavender. I remove the stems below the flowers and pass it on to other hands, which will tie it with twine. A bee lands on my sleeve. I stop snapping the stems and steady my breathing to hear it buzz.
I think back to the last time I had my hands in the dirt. Before college, surely. Most likely before high school. I remember our 8th grade class adopting a highway and plucking weeds from the medians. My small fists clamped around dandelions. I remember summer camp by the lake, covered in algae after a swim. I remember killing tomatoes, onions, and chives the summer I decided to become self-sufficient, to live off the land.
But everything about this is different. My body feels strong and right next to so many others under the sun.
“Tomemos un descanso,” a voice calls out.
For our break, we crowd into someone’s kitchen, waiting to try our hand at making tortillas. The comal sizzles with each slab of masa. Mine comes out a little lopsided, but I like it. I put a pumpkin flower inside and eat it so hot that it burns my mouth.
The woman who is teaching us how to make tortillas is named Señora Simona. She has 22 children.
“We started the community 34 years ago,” she begins her charla. “We left the old ranch because they treated us badly. When we got here, we had no water, no food, no nothing.”
“Where did you sleep?” someone asks.
“Wherever we could. They beat us bad those first few days. But we stayed.” She slaps another tortilla onto the comal. “Y, pues, eso.” And that’s that.
From talking to one of her children, I piece together this narrative:
The farmers were promised the land they worked on back at their old ranch, but the government decided to give it to another patrón instead. So the workers chose to leave and to found their own community instead of remaining on that land and continuing to be indentured servants.
Years later, they started the Lavender Project to help solve the emigration crisis. The idea was to provide jobs to community members so they wouldn’t have to cross the border into the U.S. in search of steady work. They chose lavender because it does well in the market and the plants can survive without a lot of water, which is one thing they don’t have. The community doesn’t have any potable water and the water they do have is contaminated with arsenic. A decade ago, eight women built cisterns for every family in the community that wanted one. Now they can collect rainwater to drink. The only problem is that with climate change, it’s been raining less and less, so now they’re facing another challenge.
I taste the sweat on my lips as I take a swig of my Dasani.
After the talk, we’re taken to the shed where lavender oil is produced from the dried bundles hanging above us. We are led through the lavender’s life cycle – planting, harvesting, and distillation. We learn about the different types of lavender. Lavanda dulce is for the kitchen while lavanda de groso is destined for perfumes and soaps.
Our volunteer work for the afternoon consists of making lavender soap. When we cut the bars of soap in the backroom, our hands work in unison. One hand holds a knife to cut the large blocks as another shaves off the rough edges, while still other hands work the leftover shavings into shining globes. The air is heady with the scent of lavender and rosemary. We take deep breaths and puff our bellies out on the inhale. We smile at each other. We are proud of our sore muscles and our sunburns.
When we get back to the U.S., we will write about this moment on résumés and in travel blogs. We will talk about the month we spent volunteering in Mexico on dates and during interviews. We will forget Sra. Simona’s name. We will think about starting a fundraiser to buy more cisterns for her community, but we will forget about it over the ensuing weeks. We will forget how to make tortillas and how to hold a scythe. We will forget what it’s like to run out of drinking water for the day. But we will remember the sticky feeling of lavender on our sunburnt skin.
After we finish with the soap, we log how many bars we made into the book and clean up our work stations. We turn off the lights and take off our purple-stained aprons. We go back to our homestays and pack our bags to leave in the morning. Today was hard, we think. But we got a lot done.