AVOCADO HOMELANDS

BY JILLIAN STEINBERGER

Emilio and Cris with avocados from several East Bay trees, and a ceramic pig for tamales, at East Bay Wild Nursery in the Fruitvale District.

Emilio and Cris with avocados from several East Bay trees, and a ceramic pig for tamales, at East Bay Wild Nursery in the Fruitvale District.

Crisantos Lopez works at East Bay Wilds, a native plant nursery in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, and he lives nearby with his wife and two sons, and a daughter. His family owns a rancho in the town of Ario de Rosales in the state of Michoacán, Mexico. There they have six horses, 20 cows, four calves, lots of chickens, and three dogs. They also have 465 Hass avocado trees, which his father planted 15 years ago. If you look 270 miles east to Coxcatlán, there’s evidence of avocado use in a cave that dates to around 10,000 BC.

One of 11 siblings, Cris has six sisters and four brothers. His brothers and nephews grow and harvest the fruit, and sell to a broker for export to the United States. They don’t grow organically since they don’t have access to the information, says Cris. But their trees are allowed to drop their leaves and form a thick mulch on the grove floor.

Regarding health benefits, Cris says, “Since there is no TV we go to bed early. There is nothing to do. That’s why I have so many brothers and sisters! The avocado helps you be strong in ‘that’ area,” he laughs, pointing down.

Emilio Sanchez Jimenez also does horticulture work in Oakland. He is from the world-famous coffee-growing region of Huehuetenango in the highlands of Northwest Guatemala near the border with Chiapas. Until recently, his hometown of Santiago Chimaltenango was accessible only by foot trails or a rough jeep trail. Many of the Guatemalans living in East Oakland are Maya people who come from Emilio’s region.

Emilio’s mother grows coffee under the shade of tall trees on the plot that she inherited from her family. She harvests about 500 pounds of organic beans annually, which she sells to a broker. She also grows white, black, and yellow corn, and makes fresh tortillas daily from her own massa. Like all the women in Santiago, she wears traditional woven clothes in red and black. She sent Emilio and his brother to school, and they are literate.

In the Mayan Mam language, avocado is called och. Emilio has a belly laugh over the idea of planting och trees in his hometown. “They just grow, like tree tomatoes or weeds! We don’t grow them like we grow corn or beans!” He has another good laugh at the idea of buying them. “They are free! We get them from my grandmother’s house, or we walk 30 minutes to the mountains and we pick it up!”

Emilio says they find at least four types. One is the size of a walnut: “Just the squirrels eat it.” One is medium, one is regular and black with bumpy skin, and one is about two pounds. It is customary to eat them only at lunch because they are too cold for breakfast and they might give you indigestion at night. Salt is the typical accompaniment, and Emilio says he only learned about guacamole when he came to the U.S.

Children are forbidden from throwing avocado pits into the fire or playing with them like balls. “Our mothers say it will give us boils on our face.” Did he ever test this? No, he says, “I listen to my mother!” Indeed, according to the California Avocado Commission’s website, “the seed of an avocado contains elements that are not intended for human consumption.” In other words, some seeds are toxic. ♣

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