Careful cruisers in the Swan Park area will notice something a little different these days: a handful of new plant species beginning their lives in the Southside open space. Give it a decade or so, and the change will be complete, with a handful of Austrian pine trees stretching 40 to 50 feet skyward.
The planting came courtesy of area youths.
“My first year out of high school, I had this internship and we were talking about the Southside and how it was kind of bland in places,” says Rodolfo “Rudy” Quiñonez, 18, who, until somewhat recently was living in a series of motel rooms while he and his brother struggled financially. “I’m glad I got to help make it nicer.”
Quiñonez was one of about 10 at-risk young people whom John Paul Granillo, a youth mentor with the Santa Fe nonprofit YouthWorks, assembled for the sustainable beautification effort. Youthworks secured a $3,400 grant from Tierra Contenta for supplies, Granillo tells SFR, and another $4,475 for wages from New Mexico Conservation Corps.
The work began about three weeks ago, when Granillo linked up with the City of Santa Fe’s Planning and Land Use Department to identify the proper plants for the project—nearly all of them native to the area and each species designed to thrive in the low-water high desert. Lawrence Rivera, a compliance officer with the department, helped flag locations, then came out to the park on Nov. 17 along with Granillo and others to get the kids ready to dig.
“I’m used to working with landscaping contractors, so this was different because they were kids,” Rivera tells SFR. “I gave them a little lesson on the plants and what kind of growth we would see. They were interested and respectful. It was pretty cool—most of them had never planted a plant before and had no idea how technical it could be.”
Granillo chose the planters intentionally: One had recently totaled his car, others have experienced homelessness, and one had been struggling with his brother’s suicide. But Granillo, a longtime advocate for focusing on community building on the Southside, is interested in what young people can be, not what’s held them back.
“When we talk about the kind of youth I’m working with, we tend to always see things as broken,” he says. “There’s no idea of hope. And a lot of the work I do with them is things like pulling weeds: break, pull; break, pull; break pull. For this project, I thought, why don’t we plant hope—something they’re going to have to take care of, something they’re going to have to love?”
Granillo and Rivera chose the plants carefully, and it’s an impressive list: nine three-leaf sumacs, six Apache plums, nine red yuccas, three mountain mahoganies, four lance bark elms, the Austrian pines and more. Rivera says they stuck to the native-plant theme except in the case of those pine trees, which are capable of standing up against the piñon and juniper beetle infestations that have troubled Santa Fe the last three years.
“The plants had a lot of weird names,” Quiñonez tells SFR with a laugh.
Granillo’s was a perfect project for the Antony, NM native. He’s never cared for working in cramped office spaces and already had some experience with landscaping. Plus, Quiñonez is an artist, as is Granillo, so the two have more in common than sinking seedlings into the earth.
Quiñonez paints in acrylics and oils, and he describes his aesthetic as dark. Painting helped him move out of the “bad zone” as a kid, and the tree-planting project functioned as an extension of that.
“I’m really glad to be a part of it,” he says. “I’ve lived in spaces for so long where there’s really nothing, and I wanted to take all these skills and make it look more beautiful on the Southside.”
Granillo hopes to extend the project into next year, with more planting and trail restoration work. Once the ground thaws, there’ll be chances to teach the youth about drip irrigation and more. The work could begin in May or June, he says, and he’s already got his eye on a few more spots on the Southside for additional plantings.
The work, Granillo says, is about fostering a family vibe and teaching young people who are struggling how to rely on one another.
“The easiest thing to do with these kids is ask for trouble: ‘Fuck it, let’s go smoke some weed or whatever,’” he says. “The hardest thing to do is to ask for help.”