Victor Ceballos is Creating Beautiful Spaces of Celebration

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I met Victor Ceballos while volunteering at No More Deaths’ humanitarian aid camp along the US-Mexico border in 2014, but it wasn’t until recently that I had the opportunity to sit down with the gardener and community organizer to learn more about his work. Victor’s infectious enthusiasm for self-watering containers and vermicompost systems, coupled with his years working with Tucson-based organizations Tierra y Libertad and No More Deaths, made for an illuminating, often hopeful conversation. Victor spoke to me about the importance of building support structures in addition to fighting oppressive systems, the challenges of food justice organizing in neighborhoods where many are undocumented, and how some of the best community organizing efforts—just like the best fruits and vegetables—are homegrown, carefully tended, and take time to root and flourish.

Can you tell me about the food justice work you’ve done?

I moved to Tucson in 2007 from Chicago. I’m originally from Mexico City—my dad migrated to Chicago in 1968 and then a year later me and my mom joined him. We lived there pretty much all our lives and then just couldn’t handle the cold weather and [my wife and compañera Sara] and I were thinking of moving. We visited Tucson in 2005 and also found out that there were a lot of organizations there doing migrant justice work. That’s kind of what attracted us to Tucson. So we were like, “Hey, if we’re going to move anywhere, let’s move to Tucson.” And here we are.

I got involved with No More Deaths in 2007, and then through No More Deaths I met folks from Tierra y Libertad. They invited me over to their space in South Tucson and it was awesome. They had converted this backyard into a permaculture oasis. They had greenhouses, raised beds, sunken beds, they had fruit trees, they had water harvesting all kinds of different ways, and they were doing it all together as a community. So I was like, “Ah this is cool!” and I started getting involved with them in—I want to say it was 2009 or 2010, when we were organizing against SB1070. I’ve been involved with them ever since. It was really cool because it was very community-based, consensus-based.

That’s where I started doing more of the food justice work. We were working in the community and going to peoples’ houses and building sunken beds or transplanting trees or putting in fruit trees, installing gray water systems.

We did all kinds of really cool stuff—we said, “Hey we want to grow mushrooms.” So we found people that were like-minded who said, “Hey! I know how to grow mushrooms!” “Well, teach us!” “Yeah sure!” We’d organize a workshop and say, “Hey, who wants to come and learn how to grow mushrooms?” “We do!” It was just really cool that all these different folks could come together in a space and create stuff.

In those spaces we would talk about organizing--what we were going to do about the border, what we were going to do about Border Patrol rolling up here in the neighborhood. Tierra y Libertad started getting involved with the Protection Network and working with organizers and saying, “Alright, if you’re organizing, we’re going to develop an action plan if something happens.” So that was kind of cool, working with lawyers, working with organizers, working with activists, and building stuff. All in this small space, doing all those things.

You mentioned that you got involved in Tierra y Libertad around the time of SB1070, and that while working in gardens and installing gardens you were able to talk about other kinds of organizing. I’m curious about that!

During SB1070 there were a lot of people mobilizing for marches. And Tierra y Libertad was like, “Alright, cool. Yeah we’re gonna participate in the march, but after the march we’re gonna tell folks, ‘Hey! Come back to Tierra y Libertad. We’re going to do x, y, and z.’” I was like, “Oh what’s the purpose of that?” They were like, “Well, people are mobilizing, they’re upset, but we want to create spaces where we can build stuff. It’s cool to show our frustration, show our anger, but what else can we do with that energy?” And I was like, “Oh that’s pretty cool!”

There was a march going down Sixth Avenue and people were protesting SB1070. We were part of organizing the march and the organizers were like, “Alright, Tierra y Libertad, what are you guys gonna do?” And we said, “We’re here, we’re gonna support you, but we have a work day that day at Tierra y Libertad. So what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna be on Veterans and Sixth, and you folks are coming by, and we’re gonna cheer for you and then we’re gonna join the march and accompany you folks. Right after the march one of us is gonna stay there to speak, but the rest of us are gonna come to do work in the neighborhood.” Some of the organizers were like, “No, no, you should stay at the march with us from the beginning to the end.” So it was a little bit of a struggle with some of the other organizers that wanted numbers. “No, that’s cool,” we said, “But we got other responsibilities.” I thought that was pretty interesting, the way [Tierra y Libertad] said, “Yeah, we’re gonna support, but we still need to continue doing our work.”

Building community and infrastructure in addition to trying to change things through protest!

Yeah. We would encourage people to come [to our workday]. We were like, “Hey come, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna build gardens,” and at first some of the people were like, “We don’t see the connection.” So that’s when we’d talk about food justice and the lack of resources in the neighborhood, and about working collectively and what that means. We talked a little about capitalism and stuff like that. And so we had time in those spaces to discuss those issues and say, “Hey, we’re gonna have a teach-in, you’re welcome to come and we’re going to talk about power structures and how they are affecting us.” And people were like, “Okay!” But at that point we had a relationship with these folks and they felt comfortable because they saw us doing work, they saw us going to their neighborhood or going to their house and doing work, so there was more of what I call in Spanish confianza—there was confidence and this relationship. So it was cool, it was just very slow, slow work because it takes time to build relationships and to build trust.

[Tierra y Libertad] was involved in the We Reject Racism campaign that No More Deaths started. In South Tucson and the southside of Tucson I think we put up 4,000 signs. We went door to door with all these youth. We were like, “Alright, we’re going to do it these days of the week,” and the youth would come in the summer knocking on doors, “Hey, do you want to put one up?!” and passing out flyers.

And you continue to work with No More Deaths, right? Does that work tie into your food justice work? If so, how?

I think it ties in with Tierra y Libertad--there’s this connection that No More Deaths and Tierra y Libertad have. Before I got here, before 2007, there were relationships.

When we look at the Southside and we look at the advertisements, at the permits that are given for people to sell alcohol and stuff like that, we’re like, “What’s going on?” We do look at it as a social justice issue. We’re trying to figure out ways to create alternatives and a lot of the folks that participate in Tierra y Libertad--or many of the folks--are undocumented folks.

So they’re like, “Hey, yeah, we would like to participate but there’s these other issues.”

I’m like, “Oh, what are the other issues?”

“Well, you know, I’m worried about the raids. I’m worried about SB1070--these laws that are being implemented.”

Before SB1070 it was SB—oh, I forget the name of it, but basically it was legislation that wanted to ask everybody for their papers. Any service that they were receiving in schools, in hospitals. A lot of people had fear.

So we were like, “Yeah, it seems like they might pass this law. Okay, what can we do?” We started working in the community and with No More Deaths and with lawyers and other activists and doing know-your-rights workshops in the neighborhood and developing a plan and saying, “Okay, well if you end up getting deported, legally who’s going to have the right to go pick up your kids at school?”

We would help folks fill out the paperwork and inform the school and say, “Hey, these are the folks that have the legal right to come to school to pick up the children.” Or the children would get sick and the parents would be like, “Well, I’m undocumented. I’m fearful to go to the hospital, to take my kids to the clinic, because someone might report me.”

We’re like, “Alright, no problem. We’ll go with you.”

And people were like, “Yeah, we just want to stay at home.”

We’re like, “Well, maybe we can create spaces together where we can do stuff and build stuff and also figure out your immediate needs and our safety as a community.”

So that’s how it tied in to No More Deaths.

I feel like you’ve already addressed this but maybe you have other ideas--what does food justice mean within the context of the Arizona-Sonora borderlands?

Hm. Woah. Yeah, I touched it a little bit. There’s just … it’s amazing how people who are native to this land, how diseases are destroying [their health]. You’re talking about forty, fifty years ago that didn’t exist and as soon as all these cheap, affordable, sugar-based things started becoming prolific in the area, you see the rise of diabetes and you see the rise of obesity and all these other health issues. I think that’s on purpose. I think there’s solutions, but there’s a lot of money to be made out of those things.

Out of not finding solutions?

Yeah, and it just boggles me. I’m like, “Wait, let’s just get rid of sugar.” Obviously it’s a little bit more complicated than that.

Food justice for me is finding the solutions in the community. I think the community already has the solutions and a lot of the folks that we’ve been talking to say, “Well, let’s go back to the old ways of eating.” And we’re like, “Yeah, that’s kind of cool!”

So when we’re working with the community we are very sensitive and also very open to the community and talking to them about, like, “Hey, what can we do together to change what’s going on?”

Cuz it’s so easy for someone to go to the corner and buy a burger for a dollar. It’s so cheap and I guess delicious, you know? It’s very, very challenging. And even when we’ll have meetings, I’ll run down to Costco and I’ll get a bunch of pizzas. And I’m like, “I wish I could do something else!” but it’s also time. So I understand how it’s very, very difficult. To us it’s a very slow process.

What needs, in your opinion, have yet to be addressed? What could happen?

Wow, there’s so much stuff that could happen! There’s definitely a need for more resources. This past year it just seems a lot of organizers and activists, they’re doing so much that I think there are a lot of issues of capacity. I’ve seen a lot of organizers that I work with, and we’re like, “Hey, what’s going on?” “I got to prepare for this march.” And we’re like, “Alright, cool, but we said we’re going to do a work day.” And they’re like, “I don’t know if I have the capacity to do both.” Just in my opinion this past year’s been very, very difficult and there’s a lot of issues of capacity, a lot of burnout with activists and organizers.

Do you think part of that’s been the ramping up of attention on this region?

Yeah. I think there’s a lot more militarization. It’s always been there, but I think the rhetoric is more … you know. Past administrations organized the National Guard--Bush did it, Obama did it, and now Trump is doing it--but I think some of the things that Trump has said have hit a chord with white nationalists. [White nationalism has] always been here, but now it’s something that folks are a little bit more open and out about.

The need, I think, is to try and figure out how we can continue to struggle, work, but also celebrate. You know? How can we celebrate in a healthy way with the community and to kind of recharge.

I’m always like, “Alright, well, hey there’s a meeting going on, I’m gonna bring some food. I’m gonna go to Costco and bring some pizza, I know that’s not the healthiest thing, but I’ll bring some food so folks can at least be like, ‘Alright, my belly’s full, I’m not thinking of food, let’s focus on the meeting.’” I think that’s a big need in the community--health, mental health, especially with a lot of activists and organizers. And also moms and dads that are being directly affected by the current situation.

So you’ve talked about Tierra y Libertad, No More Deaths, some of these organizations. Are there other projects or organizations that are doing work to address these needs that you’ve found really inspiring or interesting?

Yes. So, the other folks that are doing a lot of good stuff … there’s the free skool, the free herbal skool. It’s here in Tucson! I believe it’s a collective of folks and they do free workshops.

Oh yeah, I know what you’re talking about!

Yeah, is it the free skool? The skool, they spell it s-k-o-o-l. I thought that was pretty cool that they’re organizing workshops.

The other folks who I admire are Flowers and Bullets. They’re out of Barrio Centro, which is just north of us on the other side of Aviation Highway. One of [Barrio Centro’s] grammar schools was closed I don’t know, twenty years ago? In order for the Air Force base to get a better grade, they closed the school, because the school was on the flight path of the Air Force so they received negative points for this.

It was one of the first schools that the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) closed. The school was gonna be sold to a business and they were gonna use the school to park semis. So Flowers and Bullets and some community members organized and they stopped the sale of the school to this business and they’re in negotiations with TUSD to buy the property. And they’re gonna turn it into a community space with garden. I think there’s a deal that they can buy the school and the property for a little under three-hundred-fifty thousand dollars. Which is not a lot, but for community members like that I think it is a lot of money. So they’re writing grants and they’re fundraising.

Other folks that are doing real cool stuff in town are--you’ve got Manzo Elementary. You have Changemaker High around the corner, we work with them. Changemaker’s pretty cool--they’ve got greenhouses, they’re working with Audubon Society and they’re changing the landscape in the neighborhood to capture water. There’s the folks at Las Milpitas, they’re part of the food bank. They’re doing a lot more community organizing through the food bank in their neighborhood.

What’s your favorite thing to grow?

Something that’s easy!

I like growing vegetables in self-watering containers. It’s pretty cool, it’s super efficient, you use the least amount of water in my opinion. In a traditional container, sometimes you have to water every day, so you lose a lot of the water, you lose the nutrients from your soil because you wash them out. In a self-watering container you lose less nutrients. In a self-watering container in the winter I might water it every ten to fifteen days. In the summer maybe every three to four days depending on where the container is. In the container you can grow chard, you can grow tomatoes—they don’t grow as well as they do in the ground, but they’ll still grow. If it gets too cold you move the self watering containers closer to your house, if it gets too hot in [a certain] area you move them.

I definitely like to experiment with containers. I’m growing pomegranates in containers and grapes in containers. These are bigger containers, they’re like thirty gallons. We live in the desert, and you know, we can definitely go back to native diet and do that, but I’ll miss my tomatoes and other things, so I’m trying to find ways to grow food in ways that are low tech and easy, and so far I think self-watering containers is one way to do it. So [my favorites are] mostly what I grow in my containers--chiles and the trees that I’m experimenting with.

When I asked Victor to send me a recipe or how-to to run with the interview, he sent along this anecdote about cooking for No More Deaths’ Desert Aid camp, which was raided by Border Patrol in June 2017:

I used to make spicy bean dips and salsas for camp in the summer.  It was either black beans or pinto beans with the salsa mixed in it.  I would not re-fry the beans. Instead I would cook the beans in a pressure cooker and then put them in a blender with the salsa – it’s fast and healthier than refried beans. I would make two to three kinds of salsa (hot and mild either jalapeno, serrano or chile japones). I would also make bean dip that had molé in it.  The volunteers and patients would put it on tostadas, chips or quesadillas. I miss cooking for camp. One of these days I will start cooking for camp again and maybe by using a solar oven.

He also shared instructions for creating self watering containers: