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Growing Hope: An Alumni Spotlight with Imelda Rodriguez and Cynthia Perez

From the outside of the multipurpose room at Sunrise Middle School, everything seems calm. But when you step closer to the window, every once in awhile you’ll hear the clang of a pan and the voice of a middle school student yell in excitement. The door cracks open and a student’s head pokes through the opening,

“Hi, I’m here to see Imelda.”

Sunrise Plaza, Sunrise Middle School’s student-run summer restaurant, is having their grand opening this evening. Two hours before the event, food prep is already well underway for the 40 guests they’re expecting. Imelda Rodriguez, Eastside Class of ‘12, has been here since 7:30am getting ready for the evening. At this point, she has already been at work for nine hours, but this event has been in the making for much longer.

Imelda grew up close to agriculture, seeing her father work in his garden, a garden he still has.  

"I call him more of a food engineer because he’s amazing. He inserts different tree types into one tree so he has an apple tree with multiple varieties of apples, he has a citrus tree with different citruses like limes and lemons. And I say to him, ‘Dad, did you know people literally study this for four years?? Pay $60,000 for them to learn this and you just have it in your head? That’s amazing.’”

After graduating from Eastside, Imelda picked up her roots and replanted them at Syracuse University in New York. It was there that she realized more deeply her interest in food education and equality. She declared Food Studies as her major, became active in the department, and started a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) chapter on her campus. The CSA chapter served as a liaison between local farmers and faculty and students at the university and got the farmer’s produce into the hands and kitchens of the community members. The group’s goal was to raise awareness about food and where it comes from as well as to make it easier for people to buy and eat quality food.

Realizing her work was not yet done, she stayed on the East Coast after graduating and participated in the FoodCorps branch of AmeriCorps at Edible Schoolyard in Brooklyn. At Edible Schoolyard, she learned about curriculum and lesson planning and gained invaluable experience in the food education sector. Shortly after her year in Brooklyn, she felt she should return to California, to her community, to take what she had learned and put it to use, “This is my community. I want to make the change here.”

That change is coming in the form of a program similar to Edible Schoolyard, but with an added element of being catered to the cultures of the students that are being taught. The result of her and her collaborators’ efforts? Cosecha a Mesa or Harvest to Table.

“[Farm to Fork] was just so, in a way, [the term] is so whitewashed. And I said, ‘I think we need to create something that caters to these communities, something that they feel comfortable with.’”

Cosecha a Mesa is a year-round program that offers an elective class where students try their hand at cooking, gardening and meditation as well as short lessons that are integrated into the other curriculum at Sunrise. For example, in English class, the students read a book called Seedfolks together. After, they learn about the vocabulary and seeds written about in the book and cook a meal using the new information they learned. In math class, students learn more about dividing and fractions by cutting loaves of bread. Ideally, Imelda would like to have this curriculum more integrated into each classroom to make it a part of students’ daily lives. This year, when her supervisor approached her and asked if she wanted to do anything in the summer, her immediate response was, “I would love to open a restaurant if that’s okay with you,” and so the planning for a student-run restaurant began. However, Imelda knew she would need help to run a summer program and open a restaurant with ten middle schoolers, so she reached out to Eastside’s principal, Chris Bischof, and the alumni team to find another alum who could be the program’s coordinator. In the end, Cynthia Perez, Class of 2017, joined Cosecha a Mesa and started collaborating with Imelda immediately.

Once Cynthia’s artist talents were discovered, she and Imelda worked together to create a logo for Cosecha a Mesa. They wanted something that would embody the work they were doing as well as the community they were a part of.

“Cynthia, our Designer in Chief, was a huge part of molding our program’s name and logo. As we sat down, we both agreed that the nopal (Spanish for cactus) is an essential and iconic image within the Latinx community. The nopal is one of the fundamental symbols of Mexico and many other Spanish-speaking countries. It is considered la planta de vida (life-giving plant) as it seems to never die. To this day we use the phrase, “tienes la cara de nopal” (you have a cactus face). It describes that one’s indigenous ancestry is evident. The nopal is the rudimental foundation of the people and most importantly reflects the culture of the students we serve in San Jose. 
Additionally, inspired by artist Favianna Rodriguez’s Migration is Beautiful, we added the monarch butterfly above the nopal’s flower. Because of the monarch butterfly’s migration patterns between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, the butterfly represents the transcendence of border. It represents the truth that there is no limit to migration and that migration is an organic flow of life. As for the two faces displayed on either side of the image: the left face has no gender designation and represents the life of un granjero/a – a farmworker.
As for the womxn on the right, she is the feminine embodiment of the strength, the courageousness and the perseverance necessary to survive and thrive in this capitalistic society. The braid is a representation of her commitment to her community and her people. Like the braid, when we intertwine multiple elements of our community into what we produce, it creates one powerful and strong cord.
Finally, the Dahlia flower represents dignity and elegance and has been revered as a symbol of an unbreakable bond. Dahlias are extremely special because in the Aztec and Mayan civilization they would have gardens filled with these flowers. We put it in the center because the flower ties all these elements together to create one huge positive impact.”

Cynthia was especially excited to combine her interests in the environment, sustainability, and art. “[Using art in this space] is empowering. We’re just working together, feeding off of each other. I loved working on the logo, putting symbolism into it based on the community we’re serving,” she commented while stirring a huge frying pan of curried vegetables. Although at first skeptical about working with middle school students, Cynthia has found working with them enjoyable and rewarding, “They’re really funny and do a lot of crazy stuff. But they really care about what we’re doing.” As if on cue, one of the students cutting zucchini interrupted our interview at that moment,

“Miss Cynthia, why are you nervous?”
“Because I’m being interviewed.”
“I don’t get nervous. I got interviewed in front of the whole school, and I was fine!”

Immediately after confirming his bravery, the student went back to cutting zucchini. Cynthia just shook her head, “These children are funny.” And if anyone would be qualified to say that, it would be her. She’s spent the last five weeks with these students while they brainstormed and worked hard to learn about what running a restaurant takes, designing a table layout, making handmade menus and decorations, and picking food items from menu options Imelda and Cynthia came up with.

I had the privilege of seeing all their hard work come together on opening night. Before the guests arrived, the head chef gave me a tour of the kitchen, table layout, and garden, fully explaining the reasoning behind each decision about table orientation and every person’s role for the evening. As another student joined the garden tour, one of the sous chefs for the evening, the head chef pointed to the fake stones located in the student-painted planters. Each stone was stamped with the word “hope” or “joy”.

“We put them in the planters so that they would grow,” he pointed out.
“So that what would grow?” I asked, confused, only seeing a planter full of plants that, of course, would be put in planters to grow. “The plants?”
“No, the rocks. So that hope would grow here.”

And that’s exactly what is happening at Cosecha a Mesa. Many of the students participating in the program have experienced trauma in their lives, and they’re learning how to cultivate healing in themselves by planting, gardening, and cooking.

“[Normal school food programs are] not teaching them to be mindful or caring [of or for themselves]. Some of these kids hold a lot of trauma. So not only are we offering good food, but we’re also offering them mentorship that if you’re able to grow a seed and watch it grow, you’re able to relate to that seed and you’re going to grow as well. A lot of kids have been able to open up in that space through gardening, through cooking, if not through meditation outside among the plants.”

One student in particular identified closely with the plants,

“‘I see myself, Miss Imelda, with that plant and just the way it grows. I don’t know why mine grows so fast!’ and I told him, ‘it’s all the love and the care and the consistency you give it. And it’s the same thing with you. If you put love and consistency with your body, you’re going to grow just as fast.’ It’s literally using that same education to promote self-growth.”

A chorus of “MISS IMELDA” rings out again as guests start to arrive. When they come through the door, they are greeted by the host for the evening and promptly seated at their tables. Imelda, Cynthia, and the students are still preparing the food in the kitchen, now feeling the pressure as more and more guests arrive. Servers rush around as quickly as safely possible bringing water glasses to the guests. Other students chop. Still others make sure guests are being welcomed at the door. And in the midst of this small chaos, instead of tension and worry rising, laughter drifts out from the kitchen. Joy is growing.

In addition to the meal, students had prepared presentations to share with the guests about homelessness in San Jose and possible solutions to the housing crisis. Students continue to prepare the appetizers in the kitchen while the presentations are given. Eventually, bruschetta and fruit salad, the appetizers for the evening, started leaving the kitchen.

Main courses of sweet potato flautas and stir-fry vegetables with sides of steamed vegetables, guacamole, and Mexican roasted zucchini follow the appetizers out of the kitchen. The last course out is dessert and includes churros, mangonadas, and fruta picada. Guests file out satisfied, some lingering, waiting for their students to finish cleaning up their restaurant. The evening comes to a close, but closing is the last thing on Imelda’s mind. Instead, she thinks of this as more of an opening.

“What we’d really want is a conversation to be started, to be started in the Silicon Valley. The Silicon Valley as of right now is one of the wealthiest areas currently in the states and probably in the world. And to still have food deserts within communities like San Jose and specifically East Palo Alto? It’s very sad that there’s still no conversation about it…. I want to really spread this message out that what we’re doing is something not only for ourselves but for the whole community of Silicon Valley. This is something that should be talked about. Now.”

What Imelda, Cynthia, and their students have worked on all summer is just the beginning. Hope is still growing, and there is still work to be done. 

For more information or to join in the conversation, check out @Cosechamesa on Instagram as well as the video below.

📷Imelda, Cynthia, and their Sunrise Plaza students

Video by Sergio Flores, DFFRNT Brand.

Article written by Marie Goerger, Alumni Services Program Coordinator


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