For thousands of years across the entire North American continent, from the Iroquois nation of the northeastern United States to the native people of Mexico, farmers planted corn, beans, and squash together. For the Iroquois, these were the “Three Sisters,” who provided the tribe with food all winter long. The three sisters grow perfectly together. The tall corn supports the beans that use the stalks like a pole. The beans provide important nitrogen to the soil, and the squash helps keep weeds and insects away. Although all three plants could survive if they were planted alone, it would take a lot more work to keep them alive. The relationship between the corn, beans, and squash show how all living (biotic) and nonliving (abiotic) parts of an ecosystem are connected. When the ecosystem of the garden or farm goes out of balance, it affects not only the plants, but all of the people and other animals who depend on the garden for food and shelter.
In my work as an environmental scientist, I explore what happens to both the environment and people when traditional methods of farming are no longer used. For example, during the last 50 years in Mexico, farming practices have changed greatly. Instead of planting beans, corn, and squash together, farmers began planting a monoculture—only one crop at a time. Farmers started growing a single crop for a variety of reasons. In the 1950s, new types of seeds, pesticides, and herbicides were developed, which allowed farmers to grow large quantities of one crop instead of smaller quantities of many. The new seeds often produced more food per acre, and the new chemicals helped control pests and weeds, but there were also drawbacks. The new way of farming used more water and chemicals, and it also affected the health of butterflies, bees, birds, and people. It also changed the economy, because instead of lots of small farms growing many different crops, the farms became larger with fewer people working the land. Because of trade policies, Mexican subsistence farmers could no longer support their families by growing the corn, bean, and squash intercrop. Many were forced to leave their native villages and search for work in the United States.
It is this work of looking at both people and the environment that gives us a clear understanding of cause and effect, and a way of coming up with realistic solutions. It also gives me a way to help the natural world, a world that I have loved since I was a little girl. I grew up in the 1950s in San Bernadino, California, when it was still just a small town surrounded by miles of hills and wilderness. I used to run wild in those hills! My love of the outdoors was an early clue about my love of science. After I graduated from high school, I majored in biology at the University of California, Riverside, and then got my master’s degree in biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In 1969, I was hired as a biology instructor at San José City College. I became the first woman biologist of Mexican descent to teach college in California.
Although teaching helps students on an individual level, I wanted to do something to help on a community level. I decided to combine my love of science with a desire to help the Mexican farm workers both in Mexico and the United States by getting a Ph.D. in environmental studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 2002, I became the first American Latina to graduate with a Ph.D. in the field of environmental studies, and the first person in my family to earn a Ph.D. With my degree, I hope to continue my research and promote the creation of healthier farms and safer working conditions for the people who work the land.