MEET THE BOARD: Ulum Pixan Athohil Suk’il
Who are you and what kind of work do you do?
I am Ulum. I’m a grandma. I’m a farmer. I am a happy person. I am an immigrant- actually I’m a migrant. I have been trying to train myself.to say migrant instead of immigrant. I’m an indigenous mixed woman.
I live in central Massachusetts, Grafton specifically. I have been doing English-Spanish interpretation. I also do Portuguese but I’m not super fluent. I have been doing a lot of co-op incubation work. I am part of 2 co-ops currently. My farm, Global Village Farms is one and my interpretation group, Access Co-op is the other. My paid work is my interpreting/translation work.I have been doing interpretation co-op work for more than 15 years so I have some business experience on that end. With the co-op work, a lot of it is about education. What are ways to work if we don’t want to live in a capitalist society?
I love farming. I’m getting a lot of training as a healer. I feel that I have a lot of skills in that. Traditionally my folks believe in energy healing and herbalism so that is something I am vested in. I have done racial, environmental and social justice work. I have been doing women liberation work for a long time. I also did a lot of education for unions.
I just started farming seriously 3 years ago. It is hard transforming food but it is something people really need. I will be the first one to say, “It’s hard to start a business on your own” but making it a co-op makes it easier. I enjoy that work immensely.
What is your motivation for doing this work?
I came to the US from Guatemala as an adult with 2 children. I’m a first generation migrant. I grew up on a farm. My grandparents had a farm. Every week and during vacations I would go there to help them, but I also grew up in the city. I went to school in the city. Growing up seeing the 2 sides was beneficial. I got to see the food, the exercise, the freedom. I love that life. Coming to the US and seeing the disconnect from people and the land was frustrating.
It was always my dream to raise my kids on a farm but I could never do it. I have been saving to buy a farm ever since I can remember. My grandparents sold their farm when their kids grew up because no one wanted to run it. They all lived in the city. It’s an interesting cycle. The children work on the farm then they grow up and their kids work on the farm, etc). I hope that some of my 5 kids want to work on the farm when they are older. I also have some grandkids so I think my chances are pretty good.
Traditionally the environmental work I do (not White environmentalism) focuses on how Indigenous people are so connected to this kind of work, but it’s being lost. Farming is one of the easy ways for people to go back to their roots. Mental health also plays a role. People like me, who come from severe oppression, usually get pinned against the land. On my mother’s side I am Garifuna (Black Indigenous from the Caribbean). Enslavement created a hard relationship with people of color and the land. I think that’s one of the reasons we have more health problems like high blood pressure, obesity, you name it! It’s interesting to see how our bodies have been pure for so long and then we come to toxic places, and we get sick. We had very good diets not that long ago, before colonialism. I see my community really suffering because they have lack of access to good food, and lack of education. I dont think a lot of Guatemalan people know how bad it is not to have their traditional food (for example switching from tortilla, which is the traditional staple to having white processed bread).
For me, I’m not an educator in the traditional way. I like hands on work and I feel that being on the farm with the food is an easier way to have these conversations. I also come from a place that practices oral traditions so it is easier to share this information when we are about doing work like weeding or gardening. That’s the way I do the work.
Why did you decide to join the NESAWG Board?
As farmers I don’t think we know how much policy really affects us. That’s something we lack. Farm work is fun, but it’s hard work. If you don’t have information about what can make that work easier, then it’s really not possible. Without knowing about grants or subsidies it's hard. For me, joining NESAWG was an opportunity to meet people that have similar goals. I also like to do frontline work with other genuine folks and I saw that here.
I understand when people say, “I don’t think it’s a person of color’s job to tell white people what to do” but at the same time, if we don’t do it, or at least help, they’re gonna do a crappy job!
I also understand that in appearance I am less threatening than some other people of color. I have skin privilege. I have access and should do the work for folks that don’t have the same access. When I got the invitation to join NESAWG, I was excited. (I am also part of the Northeast Farmers of Color network) It seemed like a good place where I could do the work.
What are some tips that you would recommend for anyone who wanted to get into this kind of work?
You can easily get burnt out doing the work but you have to remember that our ancestors died for this work! We have a lot to learn from our elders. It’s important to have a good relationship with the folks that did the work before us and learn from their experiences. That is something that’s worked for me. There’s a really important transition of knowledge that happens in those relationships and connects. You can cry your sorrows to someone who has already been there. I would say to any that wants to do this work, do your homework about people who have been doing this work before you. Learn the real story behind the work being done and the land.
What would have been the hardest lessons or challenges in your work?
The hardest piece has been understanding that even though we have been oppressed for so long we have internalized a lot of that. It still hurts when a person of color does something that is hurtful to me or the movement. I understand why it happens. It is not people being mean. You just internalize some stuff. That’s when the work gets hard. People’s own fears and reactions get in the way. It’s so much easier to do surface work and put a bandaid on the problem but we have to do work to get to the root of problems.
Do you have any books or authors that you recommend to learn about the food system or helped guide your personal journey?
I have been reading a lot of good stuff. One book that was really good for me specially because of my background is called We Were Taught to Plant Corn Not to Kill: Secrets Behind the Silence of the Mayan People by Douglas London. It’s about the civil war back home and the work Indigenous people have to do to liberate themselves. It also explores how to keep and pass down traditions that were lost in the bloodshed. It’s a book that talks about what your real journey is and how we develop as people. It’s about how all the hurts you have through your journey change you. The reason there was a rebellion against the government was because people just wanted to grow corn in their ancestral lands. That whole thing got lost in the fight. It’s a call to do revolutionaly work without bloodshed. Sometimes the work is not that exciting and we really romanticize revolution. For me that book centers my work and who I want to be/my legacy.
How do you want to be remembered?
I don’t have lofty goals to be famous. I’m not shy but I don't want to be on tv or on the radio. I want people to remember me as an honest, happy, hardworking, loving person. Obviously I am not all of those things all the time but that is a goal of my work and what I work towards.