I was born and raised in Napa Valley, California. I was so grateful for the childhood I had. I got to run through the vineyards with my dad who worked for two large wineries—Opus One and Robert Mondavi. I spent a lot of time with him as a little girl as well as these other Spanish faces like my dad’s, like the workers who would grill their tortillas on a comal out in the field. I also spent a lot of time with my mom and her parents who own a ranch near Wooden Valley just over the hill from Napa with 230 acres of oak woodland. So I spent a lot of my childhood running through this beautiful riparian area.
I was raised in a mixed race household with my dad being Mexican-American and my mom being White. As I grew up older in Napa Valley I could see the dichotomy that existed in that community, which was you either owned the vineyards and sold the wine and made a lot of money or you worked in the field like my dad.
I knew that agriculture and growing up in that environment was important to me so I went to Cal Poly to major in Agriculture. I Had no idea of what I was doing. But, I went to my first animal husbandry class to the dairy barn and learned about calves and the milking system and came back to the dorms smelling awful and I was so happy.
Fast forward a couple of years and I had the chance to intern at Swanton Pacific Ranch which is a ranch owned by Cal Poly as an educational laboratory with a 1,000 acres of rangeland, 1,000 acres of holistically managed forest, and 1,000 acres of cropland. I was the livestock intern. I was under the tutelage of Gordon Claussen who was a huge Holistic Management buff. Really that was my first introduction of what it meant to be out on the land and working with livestock, and what stockmanship and stewardship really meant.
Then I bounced around in the Bay area for a year working for farmer’s markets and community outreach, writing, and farmer’s market’s education. Then that big pull came and I couldn’t stop thinking about that time out in Swanton. So I took a big leap in March of 2017 and I went to work for a small ranching family in southern Colorado in Antonito in the beautiful San Luis Valley. It was a big catalyst for this journey. It was in that place and in that space that I got to meet so many wonderful people. I learned what it meant to be in a landscape with a community of people and really feel altered by it.
Then I became a NAP (New Agrarian Program) apprentice with Round River Resource Management on the Brett Gray Ranch which is a 56,000-acre ranch owned by the Nature Conservancy and managed by Louis Martin, one hour east of Colorado Springs. I spent another eight months there honing in on stockmanship skills. For someone who came from a densely populated area and then coming to a place where all you can see is sky was really terrifying to start with. To see how that relationship progressed over the months was a really amazing thing.
Then I moved back to California to take care of my family and I was hired as an intern and then as an apprentice at TomKat Ranch in Pescadero. I currently manage their grassfed beef business. I get to work the cows a few times a month with the cows. I am also working with a local non-profit on food security issues.
For those of us that have not come from an agricultural background and who have chosen to look at agricultural opportunities, one the scariest things to think about is what will be there for me if I go, when I go, and how will I manage if it isn’t there. I think one of the most beautiful things about this lifestyle and being in love with this kind of work, is that wherever you go, there are people there who are pursuing the same thing. So whether it’s fate or whatever crazy design, you are put in contact with people who will intimately change your life. That has definitely been my experience for the past couple of years, whether it was working for a family in southern Colorado whom I had never met before but who had roots in that community going hundreds of year back which I really couldn’t understand. In the San Luis Valley things can be really, really hard and to see the strength of those connections really opened my eyes to what can be built and how it can change your life for the better so that you can, in turn, strengthen those relationships.
For me an even greater test was the NAP apprenticeship which was an hour down a dirt road. When you are there living and working with four other people day in and day out you really learn what it means to depend on people. For me, that idea of community really began to flesh itself out. On the day to day that looked like someone roping a calf so I could tag it or watching my co-worker, Laura, face off with a very, very angry mother cow who was definitely not bluffing and feeling like we were going to die, and then finishing a day of work and saying, “Hey, do you want to have a cup of tea and watch ‘Game of Thrones’ with me?” That was intimate community for me.
So taking those experiences and coming back to California was quite different. Pescadero is an hour south of the Bay Area and close to Half Moon Bay and Palo Alto, so we are surrounded by this very populated and vibrant area so I had to relearn how to fit into that kind of space. So in the past year one of the things that I have learned is to tap into the community led by the non-profit, Puente de la Costa Sur, that does healthcare, childcare, tutoring for students, and food distribution.
For any rural space I’ve been in before it’s been really segregated, there is no other way to put it. Puente de la Costa Sur has put in the work to connect so many facets of the community here. Through their leadership I’ve really been able to connect with people who live and work here. That’s been something that’s been a big blessing in my life.
And for me personally, a big concern I have always felt living in rural spaces, I have a deep attachment to the Latinx community. I have a fear when I go into a rural community for work or to do outreach, I fear that loss of that culture and my lived experience, like somehow that’s not going to be seen. In this place, I’ve had the realization that there are these connections that I can’t see and I had to have a little bit of faith. I feel really blessed. I feel like my concept of community has shifted each place I have gone and it is still forming. I carry it all with me.
It was a scary thought to just plop myself into whatever situation and say I’m just going to go from here. I think that’s what happens and depending on where you are spiritually and emotionally, that’s a big piece of it. I know for me, I was really scared, but I was able to make those connections that I did because I recognized that I was scared and I was able to say, “What next?” That’s a really big piece and it’s not an easy thing to do. I don’t want to speak about that lightly. I don’t want to make it seem like it was chump change, because it does take some personal work to put yourself in that space mentally.
This topic for me has remained a really difficult one to work through. I don’t foresee it becoming any easier to grapple with. I think I’ve come to the point that I have to accept that. For me it’s complicated and a lot of nuance with my life experiences and my experiences in ag. When I spoke earlier about being raised in Napa, and having one half of my family be brown, and the other half be white, I look back at some of those family exchanges and I think “Oh, God.” I mean, Thanksgiving was really interesting.
On a deeper level for someone like me who is both Latina and White, understanding what it means to be mixed race, and how it has fed this feeling I hold, I don’t feel like I fit in one space or the other, and I’m constantly bouncing back and forth. And within the context of ag, it plays itself out. 96% of our workforce in ag is Latino, and the whole slew of abuses and exploitation that comes with that dynamic at the hands of white landowners, white farmers and white ranchers. That is hard for me to understand. I have a roommate who is an apprentice on this ranch here who put it into words very beautifully for me last year. “This is a part of your journey. The blood memory that you carry. Coming from backgrounds of being exploited and being the conquered and the conqueror.” These [experiences] are very complex things.
On a personal level, my dad passed away last year of cancer, and he spent the majority of his life working in the vineyard. It doesn’t take a scientist to know what is used and what gets sprayed in production ag, and what the people who work in it are exposed to. And so that is a piece that really hurts me. I don’t know what made my dad sick, but ultimately, I could make a very good educated guess as to what did. And so, with all of that context and nuance in mind, moving forward in these spaces I consider what are the pieces I can heal within myself from these experiences? What is the trauma that I carry that is mine? What is the trauma that I carry that isn’t mine that is passed down from generation to generation? What space can I fill that doesn’t overtake space that is meant for others?
I’ve come to recognize that I feel my role in ag is to uplift others, particularly communities of color, who have been the mothers of agriculture since the beginning of time. I know that those communities are looking for self-agency and there is no need for “saviorism” of any kind. There is a need for advocacy and for understanding and for empathy. There has to be room for nuance and things that are complex.
One of the big things I’ve taken away from Holistic Management, in particular, is the difference between complex and complicated systems. We are complex. We are not complicated. There is not a “plug this in and everything will work fine.” Absolutely not.
And so for me, presently, particularly in the context of this movement for Black lives, the massive upheaval we’ve seen from communities who have been clamoring for justice, I’ve really shifted my lens of where does my energy need to go. I think agriculture represents a beautiful opportunity for that healing. If those energies are not focused on that kind of healing, connecting those pieces and those communities, and righting those wrongs, it will just continue to do harm, whether we intend to or not.
I have a really hard time of this whole concept of when you see something you don’t agree with what can you say and how can you say it? Or if you don’t, why you don’t. Power systems are very hard to change. So one of the things for me as an apprentice as I’ve gone through multiple internships and apprenticeships over the past few years, there is not really very good awareness of the power dynamics that exist within those environments. It’s been really difficult for me as someone who is at the bottom rung of the ladder in a certain environment, to be asked, “What is your opinion on this?” And then A. share it; B. not really be heard; and C. (in some situations) have retribution happen for that sharing. I’m not in a situation where I feel like I can put my livelihood at risk. Like so many others in this space and in this environment I have student loans and I take care of my family.
Given all these things that people have to deal with, I think there needs to be a mindfulness of the power dynamics that exist. And when we look at gatekeepers and the status quo, I think that people fear losing power, whether or not they really have an understanding of what that means. So when people fear losing their power, they put fences up. I’ve seen that in small interactions of my own and also played out at a national level.
I’ve been in a situation in the past as an apprentice, as someone with a Latino last name and someone with perhaps a different lived experience, where I’m tokenized and criticized and put on a pedestal and told “We want to do these things.” But, there is no safe space for me to land when I do that (tell the truth) and it makes me very, very hesitant to engage in those ways [honestly].
This has been a hard year (2020) for me with the political climate and the environmental climate and COVID and more recently the fires on the coast here. It has felt like wave after wave after wave. For me, coupled with deeply personal healing that still needs to happen, and the spaces that exist for me outside of work has been really, really hard. The reminders for me are more like little glimpses.
For example, the past couple of months I haven’t really had a chance to work with the cows because I’ve been so wrapped up in how Google sheets works and how to manage inventory for a bunch of meat (which are good skills to have even if they aren’t my deepest passions to have). But the other day I got to go out to one of our leased properties and work cows with a couple of the other apprentices and the ranching coordinator. To share that space with the other women and to be helpful, I found myself at the end of the day feeling so good about what I had done and the space I had been in. It’s those pieces that remind me “This is where you feel good. Pay attention to this. It means something. “ So for me, it’s collecting those pieces and taking those pieces and figuring out how do I puzzle piece them to the life I want to have?
To be able to recognize this is my skill set, this is what I do well. This is what I can bring to the table and having people appreciate that.
Marianna was born and raised in the Napa Valley, where growing up she spent much of her time following her Dad in the vineyards, or running through creeks on her Grandparents’ small ranch. As she grew older she began to recognize the disparities that existed in these two worlds, many of them reflected through her own experience as a mixed race self-identified Chicanx. With a desire to learn more about her own heritage, and the intersection of agriculture and food justice, Marianna has since earned a degree in Agriculture, dabbled as a writer and educator for farmer’s markets throughout the Bay Area, and has worked on several ranches in California and Colorado (and is a former New Agrarian Program Apprentice). Marianna is currently an apprentice at TomKat Ranch in Pescadero, California, where her time is spent managing the ranch’s grass-fed beef business, and working with local community members to better understand and address food security needs in the area. She currently works for the Contra Costa RCD as Agriculture Conservation Coordinator.