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Chamomile

Story by Jonny Villaseñor, Summer 2018

Growing up in a Latino household, I quickly learned to appreciate the wonders that are provided by Manzanilla, or chamomile. The word Manzanilla actually means “little apple” in Spanish, due to the similarities in this plant’s fragrance to a sliced apple. I have memories of my mom taking me to our backyard garden to help her pluck flower heads; she taught me which flowers were ready for plucking and which ones were to be kept on the plant a little longer. My mom has appreciated chamomile ever since I was a young boy. She would swear by a cup of chamomile tea in providing quick relief for an upset stomach. However, this wasn’t all that we expected from our Manzanilla plant. We also used chamomile tea as a soothing relaxer when in need of de-stressing, suffering from insomnia, and for trying to curb hunger. The Roman variety of chamomile, commonly referred to as garden chamomile, was the type that my family would grow for its medicinal properties. According to my mom, the latter variety should be avoided for consumption by pregnant women due to the possibility of causing a miscarriage, attributed to chamomile-induced uterine contractions. Despite this, chamomile tea is still revered in our household as a favorite for treating various minor symptoms!


When growing chamomile at home, we had our fair share of difficulties. Aphids have a natural affinity towards chamomile, as the flowers often attract them. To remove aphids, my family would use natural remedies such as hosing off the aphids in areas on the chamomile plants that have been affected, removing affected plants, companion planting the chamomile plants with allium plants like onion and garlic, or even spraying aphids directly with a concoction of tomato leaf, pepper, garlic, and water. When trying the first treatment, one must be careful to only spray in the morning. This allows sufficient time for the chamomile plants to dry off when exposed to the hot midday sun. Another common issue that my family experienced is how rapidly the chamomile plant reproduced and covered a plot of land due to how easily the seeds spread in the wind. The photo shown above is a local example of what can happen to a garden site when chamomile is planted without keeping a watchful eye on new chamomile sprouts. In my family’s case, we often planted chamomile in a pot instead of in the garden to avoid it “spreading like wildfire.”

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St. John's Wort

Story by Alex Smith, Summer 2018

St. John’s Wort is known to have antidepressant properties when consumed, often in tea or capsules. As an individual who struggles with depression and anxiety, I am warmed by the idea that nature has provided something for people when facing such as hard time.

This perennial herb grows in two stages: a fall/winter shrub stage and a spring/summer flowering stage. It is often considered a weed due to the way it looks and grows. One could say that this plant has a brand of stigma attached to it, in a similar vein to how mental disorders are often stigmatized. However, come individuals keep St. John’s Wort in their gardens because of its medicinal uses as well as for the environmental benefits of attracting many species of pollinating insects. The notion that this plant is a weed remains and some individuals want to rid their gardens of this plant; similarly, people who experience a mental disorder may be left out in certain social situations because of the stigma placed on mental health. Yet, in the same way St. John’s Wort persists based on what it has to offer, people falling victim to the stigma of mental health still persist with what they have to offer. The plant blooms flowers in the spring and summer, during mental health awareness month, and these yellow flowers also represent one of the colors of mental health awareness.

For me, St. John’s wort is a symbol of hope, progress, and treatment. It is a medicinal gift from nature and also a beautiful plant. I grow St. John’s Wort in my garden in order to reap the medicinal benefits, challenge the idea that it is a weed, and to help spread the good that St. John’s Wort can do.

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Cucumber

Story by Nour Ghalyoun, Summer 2018

You could say it started on that Ramadan morning, when the half-light of the unrisen sun filled the dark corners of the house, and my mother handed me a sliced cucumber. This was one thing she knew would help us stay hydrated and fill our bellies, even if we did not think it was enough. I asked my mother to make me some food during suhoor, and she reached into the fridge and pulled out a cucumber. After she washed and cut it, the cucumber finally ended up in my grubby little hands. I didn’t actually want a cucumber. I craved a Toaster Strudel, Pop-Tart, or an omelette - something that would hold me over until we broke our fast. But a cucumber? I felt betrayed. How could she just give me a raw cucumber? I wanted to cry. I never knew my mother cared so little for my needs. My mother’s eyes sliced to mine, and I knew what she was going to say without needing to hear it. There are Syrian children that would kill to have this food. You better not think about not eating it. I didn’t want to be scolded so early in the morning, so I ate the cucumber.

You could also say that it all started when my mother would place a smaller plate of sliced raw vegetables as a side to all our rice and meat dishes. This small plate was heaping with bell peppers, radishes, and of course, cucumber. It would be passed around to everyone on the table.  Simple foods are sometimes the best for us - when did food need to be so complicated when nature itself gives us everything that we need? Maybe that is what my ancestors and my long-forgotten family members thought as they washed and cut peppers, green onions, radishes, and any other vegetable to eat alongside our meals. Perhaps they knew the health benefits that came with eating these simple and raw foods.

Sharing these foods is also a big part of my family’s tradition around food. My mother never gave me simple foods like the cucumbers just for me - the small plate was meant to be passed around and shared with others. Even when my mother would slice up a cucumber, she would cut two vertical lines, making four long strips, so that my five other siblings had a chance to break off a piece for themselves. These simple foods, in my family’s eyes, were something to be shared, something that should not be kept to one person. My mother’s love for simple foods gave me my love for cucumbers.

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Ginger Root

Story by Mechiya Jamison, Summer 2018

My family often relies on and praises ginger root for its healing power and dietary benefits. It’s often used as an effective remedy for colds and fever symptoms such as sore throat, coughing, and overall nausea. It can be utilized to soothe stomach pain as well as improve the digestive system. In addition to healing, ginger’s rich, refreshing, and spicy flavor is the perfect accent to any dish. It has become a staple household item for my family.

Ginger root has always been present in my household, and it’s one of the first medicinal plants that has been introduced to me, and I’ve learned how to interact with it more as the years have passed. When it’s sliced and boiled, the water it’s boiled in can be used as a healing tea or for everyday use. When I have a sore throat, I take a bite out of ginger root and focus my swallowing in the area that is the most sore and the crushed ginger comforts my throat instantly.

Culturally speaking, there is little to no deep ties between African-American culture and ginger root. Most African-American home remedies stem from natural products that have already been processed, such as apple cider vinegar. Personally, ginger root has served as a gateway to other cultures and natural remedies. My family and I stumbled upon an Asian ginger root tea, which led us to inquire about other international remedies. We found that there are many useful cross cultural remedies; ginger root has essentially provided my family and I with a sense of cultural fluidity. This is important because although African-Americans have created our own culture, much of my experience as an African-American has consisted of observing and not understanding other American cultures. African-American culture has been historically invalidated and chalked up to pop culture. My own cultural disconnect was being reflected onto other cultures, but ginger root has helped bridge cultural gaps and mend cultural ties through the way it transcends cultures.

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Money Plant

Story by Umair Naseem, Summer 2018

The money plant — also known as Devil’s Ivy — has always been the go-to plant in my family. When I was in Pakistan, money plants were planted all over my house. Its name used to make me think that money grew on it, but I was unfortunately wrong. Money plants used to grow naturally in our house and made me feel as if it was a native plant. My aunt and mom took care of it like they were their babies, and never let anyone touch them. My aunt would dedicate some time out of her day to cut the dead leaves off the plants to give them a refreshing look. Her passion for gardening initiated my interest in it as well. I remember seeing her using a trowel to plant the roots of the money plant, which made me want to use it and help her plant something as well. Money plants were all over the walls; I realized that this is the plant that brings comfort and unity in our family. It seemed second nature to us. The money plant brought comfort to our eyes and kept us united. It gave us a reason to come together as a family and cherish the blessings.  I feel lonely and off-put without the plant that I grew up with. Money plant gave us something to talk about everyday, and despite its simplicity, it managed to carve in a way through to our hearts.

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Hyacinth (Sonbol - سنبل)

Story by Kayla Toulabi, Summer 2018

The hyacinth flower (or sonbol in Farsi) is native to Iran. Iran is a country that is most often noted for its politics over its beautiful traditions. One which is the Persian New Year that celebrates the first day of spring. My mom uses hyacinth to decorate the customary table that we set up for the holiday. A Persian New Year table (haftsin) has seven symbolic items on it that all tie back to the central theme of a fresh start and welcoming spring. Many people decorate their table with family pictures and other cherished items. This flower can be spotted on most displays and its heavy aroma puts everyone in a positive spirit. The presence of sonbol on tables in different households depicts just how significant it is to Iranians. Even though my family has moved to the United States, when I smell or see this flower, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of connection to my culture. I think about my ancestors and heritage, and realize that generations across generations are connected by a single flower.

Iran is a majority Shia nation, yet there are other religious minorities that make up the population, such as Christianity, Judaism, and Bahaism. Regardless of religious or political identities, all Iranians come together to celebrate the Persian New Year. It reminds us that we are united in our Persian heritage and it is a tradition that we have been able to hold on to despite all the nation’s political transitions. Celebrating this holiday makes me proud of my culture, and reminds me to embrace life and everything in it. Although this is just a flower to most, it represents the beauty and strength of my culture. It excites me about life, and when I see it blossoming in the spring it reminds me to welcome change and look forward to a new beginning.

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Olive Tree

Story by Samar Khrawish, Summer 2018

Olive trees and their produce have always been a part of my identity. Olive trees, olives, and olive oil have been incorporated in my life on many different levels, but all for similar purposes. The theme of healing is recurring in my cultural practices and family stories surrounding olive trees. The plant itself is often associated with healing, identity, and peace. Some of its healing properties have been supported by science while others have yet to be scientifically proven. For instance, a story that has been told in my family that signifies this pseudoscience is when someone has a cut, they should tie a string around the bark of an olive tree to encourage the cut to heal properly.

The oil that comes from olive trees is one of the most widely used healing elements in my family. It is used to strengthen, lengthen, and heal hair. It can be massaged onto any part of the body that aches or is sore to aide in the process of healing. It is also used as a syrup to soothe a sore throat and as a balm to smooth out the digestive system. Even when healthy, people in my culture will still use olive oil in any of these ways as a preventive measure.

The sacredness of the olive tree is something that has been ingrained in me since I was a child. One memory opened my eyes to the sacredness my family bestows on the olive tree. In the summer of 2004 in Palestine, I was seven and my brother was five. We had a field of olive, fig, and almond trees in our backyard that we would climb on and play around in. At some point, we began picking the olives off of the tree and threw them at one another. A few minutes into it, my mother came out, saw the olives on the ground and, of course, reprimanded us. I remember how upset she was and she proceeded to explain how much damage we caused with our actions. In that moment I began to comprehend just how important the olive tree was to our identities and culture.

Truth be told, all these healing elements seemed very mythical to me at a young age. I think my skepticism came from the fact that I grew up in Chicago but spent only some of my summers in Palestine, which created a gap between my identities. However, the olive tree’s benefits, produce, and sacredness were all constant in my life across these different spaces and identities. The uses of this plant and all of its components is knowledge I know I will carry for the rest of my life.

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Parsley

Story by Abigail Olsen, Summer 2018

In my family, parsley is the most popular garnish. My Italian grandmother sprinkles fresh cut parsley on almost everything she cooks, including chicken, spaghetti, and cooked vegetables. She loves how it adds just a bit of extra flavor to all of her dishes, but her favorite part is that she loves the way it looks. Parsley has been important on my grandmother’s side of the family going back to her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. She always keeps parsley and other herbs, such as basil and thyme, growing on her patio. Whenever she wants to use fresh parsley, she goes outside and cuts what she needs. She insists on growing her own because the fresh taste is noticeable to her.

Parsley is not only beloved in my family, but in different parts of the world. Parsley is native to the central Mediterranean region and is a biennial plant, meaning that it takes two years to grow to its full potential. During the first year, parsley grows leaves, stems, and roots; the stems are very short, and the leaves form rosettes with leaflets close to the ground. In the second year, parsley stems elongate and the plant flowers. It is grown as an herb, spice, and vegetable in different parts of Europe.

Parsley is used in different parts of the world, such as in European, Middle Eastern, Brazilian, and American cooking. In Europe and parts of Asia, parsley is used to garnish many dishes. In Brazil, parsley is the main ingredient for an herb seasoning, cheiro-verde, used to season many traditional Brazilian dishes, including meats, vegetables, and soups. In the Middle East, parsley is used for salads and it is mixed with chickpeas or fava beans when making falafel. In Italy, parsley is the main ingredient in salsa verde, a condiment made with parsley, anchovies, capers, and garlic soaked in vinegar. Parsley connects cultures that span the globe.

I remember going over to my grandmother’s house as a kid to help her make lunch. When cooking was complete, we would place the food in serving dishes and set them on the table. Then, she would walk outside and come back with parsley leaves. She would finely chop it and walk over to the table, sprinkle as much as she felt was necessary on the dishes, and then say “now it is ready to eat.” I never understood why because the parsley was so small, and it wasn’t the main part of the dish, so why is it that sprinkling a tiny bit makes a difference? It is not until you taste the dish with the parsley that you can understand why parsley is so important and widely used in many cultures and families, including mine.

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Bitter Melon

Story by Tran Hyunh, Summer 2018

Bitter melon is called khổ qua in Southern Vietnam. “Khổ” means suffering or distress and “qua” means pass; thus, the name is roughly translated to “suffering will pass.” I thought the fruit was named like this because eating a bitter melon is difficult due to its bitterness, and the suffering will soon pass while the person will gain its medicinal benefits. This is similar to how we gain life experience and lessons from an obstacle or challenge. However, after doing research, I learned that the name khổ qua did not originate from Vietnam. It is actually derived from the fruit’s name in Chinese, 苦瓜 (kǔguā), in which 苦 means bitter and 瓜 means gourd or melon; therefore, 苦瓜 or khổ qua literally means bitter gourd.

Bitter melon is a type of fruit-pod that grows from a vine. Similar to tomatoes, bitter melon is considered a vegetable. It is native to India and widely used in East Asian, South Asian, and Southeast Asian cuisine. Because of its bitterness, this fruit is consumed raw or cooked and used to make tea as well as medicine to prevent and treat diabetes, boost the immune system, detoxify the body, and regulate hypertension. The fruit is most often eaten green and has a texture similar to a cucumber or a bell pepper. Different from an unripe bitter melon, which has white seeds and crunchy green flesh, a ripe bitter melon has red seeds and tender yellow flesh.

Bitter melon is widely used in Vietnamese cuisine. There are two common ways to cook bitter melon. One way is to cut it into thin wedges and stir fry it with eggs or beef. Another way to prepare it is to make a stew. For the stew, the first step is to create a vertical slit on the bitter melon to open it up and take out the seeds. A mixture of ground pork, glass noodles, and rehydrated wood ear mushroom is then stuffed in the melon. Green onions or garlic chives are usually used to tie around the melon to close the cut. The stuffed melons are then cooked in water or broth. Both stir fried and stew bitter melon are served with rice. I am a fan of bitter melon stew but not its intense bitterness. I remember my mom used to boil the melons in water several times before stuffing them to remove some of the bitterness, because it was the only way she could get me to eat it. I also remember having bitter melon during Tết, or Vietnamese New Year. It was a reminder of all the unpleasant or painful experiences in the past and hope for all the obstacles and how suffering in the future will pass by smoothly.

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Limón

Story by Zuleyma Morales, Summer 2018

A lime tree is something sweet and sour to life. It's common to have limes in Mexican cuisine, as it’s used on dishes, fruits, beverages, etc. Each summer, my father would come home dehydrated from working out in the sun, so my sister and I would make him Agua de Limon, or limeade. His dehydration lessened with the sweet limeade. Lime can be delicious but painful as well. If I get injured and there isn’t a first aid kit, my family likes to cut a lime and squirt it on my injury to disinfect the wound. Lime leaves are used for tea because of its benefits for the body. My abuelita uses the leaves for tea and drinks them before she goes to bed, and together, we would tell stories to each other about our childhoods.

Limes are accessible to us in the U.S. at supermarkets but the price can range from a good deal to pricy deal. Fifteen limes for a dollar is a good price for my parents but if limes are five for one dollar we hesitate to buy them. We should question why a couple of limes are priced for a dollar. Where do the limes come from? Limes are imported from Mexico because the land crops have good conditions for harvesting. The U.S. doesn’t have a lime industry so the country depends on Mexico for the limes. The lime industry in Mexico changed when the products were held hostage by drug cartels, and due to the reduction of limes shipped to the U.S, the prices spiked. These drug cartels targeted vegetables and fruits shipped to the U.S. to increase their business. Exporters and farmers involved with limes are targeted by the Knight Templar, a drug cartel. In Michoacan, locals have been battling against violence from the Knight Templar.  Beyond violence, limes have created a health risk for children in Ecuador. My friend traveled to Ecuador as volunteer where she was given the task of cleaning teeth for children who didn’t have access to healthcare, and she observed that many children had rotten teeth from excessively eating limes. These different stories demonstrate the value of limes and their contribution to a sweet and sour life.

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Herbibuena: The Peppermint Plant

Story by Edith Mendez, Summer 2018

When my mother was little, my grandmother used to grow a lot of hierbabuena (spearmint) in her garden back in Mexico; her vibrantly painted house in Michoacán smelled fresh and sweet, even when the scent wasn’t floating on the breeze coming from Lake Cuitzeo. My mother remembers being able to tell hierbabuena apart from the many other plants that were around the house by the little purple and white flowers that it blooms. The mint leaves were used almost every day in her childhood home, whether it was in a hot tea to cure a stomach ache, blended and mixed with sugar and water to make a refreshing drink on hot days, or simply to chew on when there was no gum.

This sweet and aromatic herb is beneficial to the body as it heals and replenishes, and acts as a natural antidepressant and anti-inflammatory. It can also be enjoyed in culinary aspects, as it adds flavor to dishes and desserts such as albondigas (meatball soup), or in more common candies like chocolate. After learning these practices from my mother and grandmother when visiting Mexico and then sharing mints uses with my friends, I discovered that it wasn’t just a family inheritance of information but rather was something that all of the Latinx community shares through each generation. This tradition of passing down information orally is unique -  these horticultural practices continue to live on by each generation’s choice to value their ancestors’ incorporation of the natural world within their everyday lives.

After doing some research about the mint plant, I was shocked to find out that hierbabuena is actually native to Europe, not Mexico or any other Latin American country. These home remedies and recipes of hierbabuena have been present in all the lives of the women in my family for generations, stemming back further than my grandmother can remember. It is strange to think how something that I believed to be so native and embedded in my culture and roots is, in fact, a product of something introduced during the colonization and conquest of Mexico. This newfound separation and distinction of cultures intermingling centuries back changed my view of a plant that has found its way into my garden at home. Hierbabuena now stands as an important symbol of migration and immigration as it continues to connect various regions and cultures of the world together.  

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Voices from inside the North Lawndale neighborhood

The neighborhood I live in is the north Lawndale community. This neighborhood is the third worst neighborhood in Chicago. There is always violence and deaths.  Growing up and living in this area doesn’t bring positivity often. To experience good opportunities in the area is rare. There needs to be some form of change to the neighborhood, but it’s up to the residents to force the change.

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The family recipes

"If any dish can play the part of humble immigrant food, it’s the pupusa, the savory masa cake from El Salvador that practically feeds the nation morning, noon and night."            ----Tim Carman

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Environmental Justice and the Mexican Heritage

Her tía used to make blue-corn sweet bread to sell to sustain the family. She shares that when she was five years old she would sleep over at their house and whenever she woke up in the middle of the night the room was full of the blue-corn aroma. Carolina confesses that though that’s one of her favorite memories growing up, she finally realized what blue corn looked like when she had the opportunity to travel to New Mexico and experienced cultivating it. 

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Portland's sustainable practices

Waste in Portland is only picked up every other week, trash cans are much smaller, and composting is mandatory. I thought it was an interesting way in which policy can have major positive environmental impact. A limited waste system made it so the people of Portland were much more conscious of what can be recycled or composted. 

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Mexican American in Indonesia

Debbie conducted her research in the cities Bali and Yogyakarta, and it was painfully awkward to make her way into the activist community. The Indonesians saw her as an outsider; however, with the study abroad group being composed of mostly white students, Debbie’s skin color and ethnic background differentiated her from the stereotypical American tourist.

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The Polish family heritage

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The Polish family heritage

I interviewed my mom about the past “eco-friendly” activities that we used to practice in Poland. Because we lived in a village, most of the food we either grew ourselves or got from the farms animals, such as milk, cheese, and eggs. Since gardening and farming were the two primary professions in my little village, many people grew flowers, vegetables, and other produce. 

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Burma's farming story

Vung was born in a poor and large family. She explained that they lived in a small village close to a jungle and mountains. Farming was not only the way for the villagers to put food on the table, but also is a part of their culture. Almost everyone, including women, elders, and children, participated in farming. 

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Sustainable living back in Mexico

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Sustainable living back in Mexico

My mother and her nine brothers and sisters grew up with very little resources and often had to find creative ways to reuse items and share among the siblings. She brought over many of the practices she learned and did over in Mexico to the United States.

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Turning Old Clothing into Arts

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Turning Old Clothing into Arts

There are many ways to recycle clothing, and one of them is to do a DIY project. Doing a DIY project allows me to express my creativity and practice my art skills. They became the unique items as the conversation starters and representation of myself.

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