In the middle of Española, Beata Tsosie-Peña has gravel blooming.
Beside the town's public library, on a site that for years was just a rocky hill, walking paths now cut through a leafy, terraced garden. This is the Española Healing Foods Oasis, a project designed to reconnect people in the area to their land-based cultural histories—while providing them with medicine, food and dyes.
The plants in the garden have produced those things locally for centuries. For Tsosie-Peña, though, defining the plants that way risks tautology. "We say 'edible medicinal plant,' but that's just like saying 'plant plant plant,'" she tells SFR at a community workday in late April, wearing a brown T-shirt emblazoned with "Protect Bears Ears." "Because every plant has a use. Either those, or it benefits the soil, or it's a companion plant, or nitrogen-fixing.
"Even all these things they're pulling out?" she adds, pointing to the volunteers weeding in the dye-and-fibers section of the garden. "Those are edible."
In 2012, Tsosie-Peña took a course in permaculture with the Traditional Native American Farmers Association on Tesuque Pueblo. Newly equipped with an eye for sustainable systems, she saw that during rainstorms—a rare event in a city that receives just 11 inches a year—the water washed from the parking lot over the hill and pooled in the park below.
"I had just learned about all these dryland farming agricultural techniques," Tsosie-Peña says, "so I was aware of how much water wasn't being caught off of that slope."
So Tsosie-Peña began kicking around ideas about how to put that water to use with Tewa Women United, a Native-led intertribal group of activists from Española, whose environmental justice efforts Tsosie-Peña heads. The group broke ground on the project in 2016, landscaping the slope and sowing its first seeds. Four years later, with walking paths and rails, piñons and amaranth, the garden stretches nearly two acres. It is multi-use and open, available for use as community members see fit.
Anyone may come and pick off some produce to use—the group asks only that harvesters first seek a plant's permission.
That emphasis on consent keeps with a larger emphasis of the group: the connection of environmental justice with reproductive and gender justice. Indigenous women are killed, according to the US Department of Justice, at a rate 10 times higher than the rest of the population in some areas—and even that figure may be a gross undercount, as nobody really knows just how many Indigenous women have gone missing in recent years. Kathy Sanchez, a founding elder of the group, recalls that she and her co-founders conceived Tewa Women United as a way "to provide safe spaces for women to recover our innate strengths that we have within us." To do so, they decided, meant also providing safety for Mother Earth, that oldest of Native women.
Certain programming makes explicit the connection between reproductive and environmental health. As TWU was planning the garden, the group contacted local doulas to inquire about which plants might be helpful in their work with expectant mothers. Now, the students in the group's doula training program can access those plants downtown.
It's all part of "changing the narrative," says Maia Duerr, the group's generosity facilitator and volunteer coordinator. "Let's give Española something to be really proud of."
Española has a legacy of tragedy. Its home county, Rio Arriba, spent much of the past two-plus decades with the nation's highest rate of heroin overdose deaths, giving it a hard-luck reputation in New Mexico. Tsosie-Peña hopes the Healing Foods Oasis, and other projects aimed at community-building, will receive more attention instead. "It's really awful that the surrounding communities continue to feed that negative narrative instead of looking at all the positive things happening in the community," she says. "They're just contributing to the harm, instead of healing."
The county, with large Indigenous and Hispanic populations, wears its colonial history heavily. Tsosie-Peña sees that history reflected in the environmental degradation the community is experiencing today.
"The colonial impacts have never lessened, they've just changed forms," she says. "So now it's more on the environment, and not a direct physical assault."
She worries particularly about contamination of the local water system by a chemical called hexavalent chromium leaking from nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory. To that end, TWU is experimenting with bricks laden with oyster mushrooms, whose mycelium—a sort of underground network of tendrils—sucks up toxins from the surrounding earth.
At the garden, the group hopes to protect the plants from any chemicals in the parking lot at the top of the hill. Eventually, Tsosie-Peña hopes that such "mycoremediation" can be deployed on a wider scale to decontaminate area aquifers.
This year, the garden is growing. Emily Arasim, 25, who grew up in Tesuque, is leading a new seed library initiative out of the book library across the way, where farmers or laymen will be able to come from the surrounding community for envelopes of seeds. The gallery of plants fronting the library, Arisim says, will make it a "living seed library; a really beautiful one."
Tsosie-Peña thinks of the garden and its offshoots as a connection to the land and the Native people who have lived here for many centuries.
"The city of Española is ancestral Tewa land," she says. "The more we can recognize our responsibility as caregivers of that place, we're able to recognize our land-based strengths, to where we're feeding that ancestral spiritual energy and not any of the negative narratives that are out there."
TWU hopes to pass that energy down: The original group of elders is still around, but a younger crowd is in charge of day-to-day operations.
Kathy Sanchez' daughter Corinne is now the group's executive director. And Autumn Gomez, 32, is in charge of interfacing with yet another generation. She first encountered TWU through her doula work, and now she is the group's coordinator of youth outreach. At her weekly meetings with youngsters, she focuses on self-care strategies and community-building, and sees the same themes at work in the Healing Foods Oasis.
As she spoke with SFR at the community workday in April, two kids jog up to her with a dead caterpillar. "This poor thing died!" one blurts out.
"Oh no!" Gomez tells her. "What are you going to do for it?"
The girl looks down and considers. "We're going to give it a proper burial."
"Well," Gomez replies, "just do it in a place where you can be safe."
Nodding, the kids run back off into the garden.
Editor's note: Emily Arasim and Kathy Sanchez' names were misspelled in an earlier version of this story. SFR regrets the error.