Meet farmer Oscar Orozco Garcia, radical spiritual libertarian.
To prepare to have his photo taken after an interview, farmer Oscar Orozco Garcia runs through the rain to his truck and grabs a serape, a corked drinking gourd, and a homemade axe with a handle he carved from an oak branch. A tall, handsome man, he doesn’t allow himself a smile as he stands under a tree in a Roseland shopping strip outside of a Starbucks.
He simply glows.
Garcia has just spent the better part of two hours telling a stranger how he came from a small village outside of Guadalajara with no electricity or running water, trained to become a priest, repeatedly sneaked into the U.S. illegally before getting his papers, and ended up as a mentor for the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers program at Shone Farm. A lot of his story has to do with reverence; none of it is concerned with fear.
Garcia, 52, entered the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers program, funded by a grant through the Sonoma County UCCE, when it started in 2011. He was in the first class of some 30 people who were granted admission to learn under the aegis of volunteer mentors.
But Garcia didn’t need to learn how to farm. He had grown up farming as, he says, do most people he knows from Mexico. What he needed was to gain technological skills. He already had a farm, the Cielo Azul collective that he started five years ago on a patch of land owned by a local church at the corner of Occidental and Fulton roads in Santa Rosa. Funded in part from a grant from St. Joseph’s Health System, Cielo Azul is worked by four or five families, depending on who has the time and energy that year to do the labor.
Some of the food is sold and some is donated to the Redwood Empire Food Bank, but the majority of it is kept by the families who till the plots. Farm markets and CSAs hold little appeal for Garcia, who is dismissive of the paperwork and the run-arounds such programs can involve. Who has the time? He certainly doesn’t. As a result of his training with the Beginning Farmers and Ranches program, he now works for Shone Farm three days a week while running his own business from his truck, which is adorned with a sign simply saying, “How Can I Help You?”
Things run deep for Garcia, and small irritants don’t sit well. Perhaps he is too radical to have become a priest. But he’s probably not a communist, which is what the local cardinal deemed him when he kicked him out of seminary school some 20 years ago.
“I really had a vocation to be a priest,” Garcia says. “I was just following what they taught us. Liberation theology and liberation philosophy, working to change the lives of people so that they can have power. If you talk about God and you don’t talk about changing the lives of people, man, you’re not helping them.”
It's very spiritual. Organic is everything. It's the world. Oscar Garcia
The fact that the dismissing cardinal was murdered the next year by a drug cartel doesn’t particularly delight Garcia; the fact that Pope Francis shares his theological philosophy certainly does.
Garcia’s spirituality may also be too large for just one church—even one as large as the Catholic Church. Take his definition of “organic,” for example.
“We always think about organic vegetables or fruit. No. Living is organic,” Garcia says. “We have to come back to that. It’s very spiritual. Organic is everything. It’s the world.”
He laughs. “Americans pay attention only to the food. But for me, it’s everything together. When you go to the field and your brain is hooked up on the organic way, your life is already changed. The way that you act, the way that you feel, the way that you are with other people—it’s organic. Your life has got to be organic first. Some people grow organic vegetables, but they keep their life the other way. If you’re really organic, and you go to the store and they want to put your food in a plastic bag, you say, ‘Keep your bag. I will take my food with my hands.’”
After being forced from the seminary, Garcia didn’t know what to do. His family and community were horrified at his loss and blamed him. “I felt like there was no place for me,” he says. He had always wanted to visit the U.S., mostly because it affects life in Mexico so deeply. He wanted to know the beast. “I felt like the United States was an unhealthy influence on the life of the people, and I didn’t like it,” he says. “I thought, to fully understand my people, I had to go there.”
He hired a coyote and crossed illegally.
Wasn’t that scary? He grins. “I liked it! It was very fun!” In fact, he liked it so much that he sneaked back over four more times during the ensuing two decades. “I liked it,” he repeats. “Because it’s life.”
Garcia was doing farm work in the Central Valley when the recession hit. His marriage fell apart and he lost his house. He decided to move north, landing in San Rafael, where he joined other day laborers on corners hoping to be picked up for work. And don’t fool yourself that it’s just itinerant Mexicans crowding those corners.
“You can find doctors there,” Garcia asserts. “You can find teachers there. Even in the United States, when people have trouble with work, you can find citizens of the United States looking for a job there. Everybody was on the corner. Not just Latino people. Some people cry. Some people kill themselves. And some people say, ‘This is life.’”
Garcia has clearly chosen the latter. Befriending a contractor who picked him up for day work and eventually offered him a room in his home to live, Garcia moved up to Santa Rosa five years ago. Here, he became involved with the Fulton Day Labor Center, soon becoming a jobs coordinator. Through that, he learned of the St. Joseph grant, obtained access to the Cielo Azul lot, entered the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers program, and we’ve come full circle.
Garcia is now a legally documented resident, but don’t expect any hosannas.
“I do have papers, but I don’t like it,” he says. “I had a better life before I had papers. When you have a Social Security number, they’re going to hit you harder for money and won’t allow you to do anything. You’re not a person, you’re a number. I am Oscar! When I didn’t have a Social Security number, I didn’t have any problems. My only problem was being sent back to Mexico. And I was like, ‘Hey! A free vacation!’”
He chuckles. “I love it. It is life.”