The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Art & Design is spotlighting the work of MCISD students with the agriculture-based FARMER Program. Until October 15, community members can visit the Charles and Dorothy Clark Gallery in Edinburg to view personal stories from Mission and Veterans Memorial High School students.
Student-produced photographs adorn the gallery with posters of personal testimonies and prose printed in green, teal, pink, orange, and red colors.
Even though the gallery is spacious, the personal stories of growth, connection, aspiration, and self-discovery from students in the MCISD FARMER program fill the space.
The FARMER Program, which began in January 2021, encourages students of all ages to get outside and learn agriculture firsthand, such as greenhouse production, irrigation, harvesting, and ecology.
“Just from the moment when COVID hit to when we provided our first class in trying to transition back, pretty quickly, it was very supportive,” said Horticulture teacher Jose Escamilla of Mission High School.
The program provides two greenhouses on both high school campuses, funded by a $50K grant. Student-grown produce is sold at farmer’s markets or given to local nonprofits such as Amigos Del Valle.
Escamilla hopes that with the FARMER’s expansion, members can provide produce to other students and staff through the Child Nutrition Program.
Veterans Memorial High School Horticulture teacher Esther is happy to see students taking the initiative to learn about agriculture and documenting their learning process.
“As the students have been going through the FARMER program, at least in the secondary level, the students take a lot of photos of the garden,” said Mendez, wanting students to see the bigger picture of things and how agriculture influenced their lives. “We decided to take it a step further and having them write about their experiences.”
Creating the exhibit
After the district agreed to print out the Photos Voices, it caught the interest of UTRGV’s School of Art and Design.
Jesmil Maldonado Rodriguez, a lecturer at the School of Art & Design and UTRGV Gallery Director, said the collaboration began after she’d received an email from the School’s Dean, Dr. Jeffrey Ward.
“He emailed me if I was interested or if there was a possibility to exhibit a series of posters from the school, specifically from their FARMER program,” said Maldonado.
Maldonado then spoke to Mendez to discuss artwork and gallery layout.
“Not only are we teaching them technical skills, you know, setting up a garden,” Mendez said. “We wanted them to grow and develop their voices through their photos, through their artworks, and also through their narratives.”
Student narratives and testimonies
Aleyna Villarreal, a junior at Mission High School, joined the FARMER program after seeing a friend doing gardening in the Greenhouse Production class. It inspired her to change her class schedule to join the class.
“Prior to joining the class and everything, I always wanted to be in gardening,” said Villarreal, stating her grandfather gardened as she was a child.
Gardening became therapeutic for Villarreal since she’s in AP classes and other extracurricular activities.
“I know that on Wednesday, whenever we go to the Environmental Club, or I get to work with the plants, I know that’s something I can take my time with,” said Villarreal. “It’s just like a getaway from it [the stress].”
Her piece, Mending My Self-Love, highlights how the simple task of watching a seedling grow into a flower and produce fruit helped her mental health.
“Sometimes things like this irrigation pipe need to be mended,” Villarreal said in her Photovoice. “But it doesn’t make them weaker, only that much more unique and stronger.”
Veterans Memorial High School senior Linda Esquivel expressed the importance of friendships and memories she made. Her silhouetted face is part of Amber Guiterrez’s ‘Finding Friends in the Garden’ artwork.
“Her picture was me holding a spoon, and in that spoon was a [praying mantis],” Esquivel explained. “In the background, there’s another student…and we’re laughing about that.”
Esquivel enjoyed that the photos weren’t professional and showed the raw moments and emotions of students being themselves in a natural environment.
“They’re just normal pictures of high school students being in a garden and being part of the program,” she said.
Mission High School junior Marcos Cano said the FARMER program and Greenhouse class changed his life, with his poster reflecting just that.
“Before I joined Greenhouse and started working…I was not popular in school, and every now and then, I would get bullied,” Cano said, turning from shy to outgoing.
“Joining the FARMER’s program, I was able to spread my wings,” he said. “I stopped being scared of talking to people, [and] I made a whole new group of friends. And as the title of the piece is, I grew roots in an unexpected place.”