As a regular volunteer with The Chow Train, and a new volunteer at the gardens at Catholic Worker House, I’ve often tried to explain the allure of feeding the homeless, hungry, and working poor of San Antonio, or why I would help grow food for someone else to eat. In some ways, the motivations are wholly selfish.
The experiences have been, for me, the greatest personal evidence of neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain can create new neural pathways to adapt as it needs. In the late autumn of my years, I am drawn inexorably now to this concept and also to this work.
The goal is only to serve up a plate of food to the next person in line, or to plant, weed, and water in the sun-lit spacious backyard of a house on the Eastside on Nolan Street — there with my small family, feeling perfectly comfortable and at home. These are the only moments in my week when I don’t think about petty personalities — those times when my brain and my resolve have shrunk back to deal with chronic, miasmic, and mean tendencies of the workplace, never-ending traffic snarls and perpetual road construction, the bureaucratic woes and hamster wheels of adult life.
My mother was a migrant worker in the 1950s. I think about her, too — a lot — when I’m out on Tuesdays with the Chow Train or on those weekends at the Catholic Worker House community garden. One of eight children to a single mother, she picked cotton here in Texas and then went to el Norte to fields and groves and orchards in Washington, Michigan, and other states.
On one trip back home to Laredo, the family stopped to gas up the borrowed truck they’d used to travel to and from their northern destinations. They needed the gasoline, but they were very hungry. The service station served hamburgers, fries and soft drinks at a lunch counter. When they went up to place their order, they were promptly asked to leave the premises, as Mexicans were not served there. My mother and her family were sent away — hungry. That happened in Pearsall, Texas. The irony of it, of course, is that my mom and her family, like other migrant workers still today, did the fine-fingered work that helps feed the world. The pisca can only be done by human beings. Sometimes they are citizens of the United States of America. Mexican-Americans.
I often wonder if when she was out in those fields, my mother had that single-minded focus I get to experience, that neuroplasticity zone when my brain adapts and I think of nothing else but the task at hand. Maybe she felt hungry. Maybe she was cold and tired.
My Granny wrangled all eight of her children in those strange, unfamiliar spaces and made each place like a home, even when they had to cook their meals outside en el campo. My mom shares the stories and recalls the “pechuga de ángel.” That’s the name of an actual dish, but it’s also a way to describe the most delectable meal in the world — meager rations, out there, exposed to the elements, after a long day in the fields.
March 31 marks the national commemorative holiday that celebrates the birth of Cesar Chavez and his legacy of fighting for civil rights and social justice. The big Cesar Chavez March happened again last Saturday, March 26. They had good early spring weather for it — partly cloudy, not too hot. Those are the kinds of details people who work exposed to the elements consider.
Chavez organized the storied grape workers’ strike in 1965. It’s believed by most that he fought for social justice. Although that seems largely the case, it would also seem that his belief that “No one in battle has ever won anything by being on the defensive,” would show objectives born of pragmatism and not of any noble-mindedness. But the inveterate Chavez was driven and focused. There’s that neuroplasticity again? Maybe.
Chavez waged many battles, his well-documented, protracted fight against agribusiness among them. When field workers demanded improved working conditions and wages, they were also helping to promote the United Farm Workers. Concomitant to that recognition would be political authority of this group that had endured decades of marginalization — for most, in their own home country, as happened to my mom in Pearsall. As happens to many of us in myriad ways, all the time.
It was Chavez’s battle with the grape growers that ultimately highlighted most effectively the need for improved compensation and labor conditions. He never moved away from the tact of nonviolence in his organizing, picketing, and boycotting efforts.
Later, he also brought national attention to the dangers of pesticides on the health of farm workers. Perhaps best known (and idolized) for his hunger strikes, it’s widely believed that the physical punishment of these measures eventually led to his death in 1993.
I’m always struck by this fact — that hunger, starvation, won again. Le ganó. Le venció el hambre. Again, the cruel irony.
There are all kinds of hunger. Cesar Chavez was insatiable in his quest for social justice. How can such appetites be quelled, particularly now, in 2016. I don’t know if Chavez could have persisted in the current climate of hatred and bigotry in our country. All these decades later, the plight of the migrant farm worker is not much different than it was in those earlier decades. Megalomaniacal presidential candidates and their legions of supporters have set back the clock for all marginalized people and continue, incredibly, to air their racist vitriol and violence with impunity.
There are all kinds of hunger out in the street on that Chow Train, too. Addiction and mental illness are the cross for many of those men and women in the line.
On one Tuesday night, a long-haired man wearing an over-sized camo jacket kept saying he had fought in Vietnam. Even through his weatherworn visage made leathery from years of smoking, I could still see he was not old enough to have been in Vietnam. Maybe Desert Storm, but he insisted it was Vietnam. I’d seen him earlier across the street from our second stop downing a tallboy. As I handed him a plate of food, slurring his words, he asked, “Are you a Mexican or something?” I nodded, too intent on getting the next plate of food to the next person in line. “I fought in Vietnam for America, not Mexico,” he spat.
“Thank you for your service,” I said, inured, looking through him and then past him at the next person in line, one of our regulars who took the plate from me with a “God bless you.”
The man in the camo jacket ate his plate of food and came back for seconds. He was hungry.
I didn’t think about the exchange at all for the rest of the night. In the zone, all you care about is getting to each next stop, donning new gloves, and catching the rhythm of the serving line to be as efficient as possible.
Get the next plate of food to the next person. That’s what I’m hungry for. That’s when hunger wins.
*Top image: A cup of soup is given to a community member. Photo by Scott Ball.