The Squash Lady
By Lesley S. King
“He comes from the pinto beans and corn, and I come from the green chile and tomatoes,” says Evelyn Fernandez, bumping her hip against that of her husband, Octavio. We stand amid a bowl of greenery—a little oasis just off the busy road between Española and Chimayo at their farm El Valle de Chimayo. The place has the feel of traditional New Mexico with a crumbling irrigation ditch splitting it in two, a few house trailers scattered about, and meandering plant rows heavy with vegetables, all set against sun-burnished hills in the distance.
“When I’m hoeing,” Evelyn says with a smile, “he wants it his way. It comes to the point where I drop the hoe on the ground and go inside. He has to come in and be all nice.”
Octavio slings his arm over her shoulder, pulling her in, and it’s apparent to me that their friction, like many farmers working long hours, is a source of humor rather than frustration.
Octavio, raised on a pinto bean farm in Mexico—growing 40 tons of beans in a season—has his own way, while Evelyn, raised here in the high desert, has her own. They melded the practices into a quiet wisdom that’s prized at the market for many crops, but most notably summer squash.
“People often say, ‘Here comes the Squash Lady,’” she says.
At the market, their booth is all about the vegetables—no fancy promotion strategies here. Instead you see basket upon basket of green beans and a pile of them for those who want quantity. Tomatoes are stacked here and there, and among it all is the summer squash—zucchini and yellow—in piles on tables and in boxes below. Evelyn presides, her face alight with excitement as she shifts back and forth from English to Spanish, bartering and catching up on the latest news.
She shares a history with many northern New Mexico growers. When she was a child, her family farmed near here. “We used to go en medio—halfers—with the owner,” she says, meaning they would split the crop with the landowner. “We used to rent the land en cambio—in exchange—for crops,” she adds.
In the early 1960s, her mother bought this land that back then was completely rural. Today, however, Chimayo has grown in around it. For years, like many local farmers, they peddled the vegetables in local villages—Peñasco, Truchas and Chimayo, loading up the back of a pickup truck and knocking on doors. “They already knew you, so they expected you to come,” she says. “Today they ask, ‘Why don’t you bring your chile verde anymore?’”
The answer, of course, is that the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market takes much of their time. When they’re not irrigating or pulling weeds, they’re picking in preparation. Evelyn also works at Wal-Mart, to help support the farm and provide health insurance and retirement funds for herself and Octavio. Meanwhile, Octavio starts at 5 a.m. in summer irrigating and picking. “He does all this himself,” Evelyn says, modestly, waving her hand across the farm.
Watering from the Acequia de los Martinez, they grow lush chile plants and sturdy green beans that we step among now. Each season, in order to keep the soil healthy, they rotate the crops, as well as changing the direction of the rows. One of their biggest nuisances, she explains, is thieves. With a location so close to a main road, the land is prey to people coming in the night to pick the chiles and tomatoes. Another challenge is water. “In July we had good water from the acequia,” Evelyn says. “Then they didn’t release from Santa Cruz dam and it didn’t rain, so my squash plants were going down.” Soon after, the rains came.
“We had too much water—raining, raining, raining,” she adds. Now, she shrugs at the garden. “Usually it’s neat, but you can’t keep up with the weeds when it’s this wet.” She shakes her head. “Every year there’s something different.”
But then she gazes out across it all and a brightness comes to her eyes. “Doing this, it’s like a healing process to your soul. It’s good therapy. You don’t think about anything—family problems or nothing. The world shuts up—it’s a lot of peace.”