Greening the Ghetto: The Desert in Color

The concrete-gray washes over me like a tidal wave of rubble, with 100 million plastic bags and a few hundred thousand worn out tires embedded in its curling face. Even with the dusty trashy mess, our neighborhood has me enamored. Everyone keeps warning us about the sinister dust storms that roll across the desert in March and April, and we are already seeing vast clouds of dust hovering over the city like smog over L.A. I hear about these impending sand blizzards, and when I am out sweeping the street, fighting the used nacho cheese chip bags and smashed plastic coke bottles plastered to the asphalt, I find myself muttering, “God, we need some trees in this Colonia.”  

Bruce Berman, editor and photographer of the Border-Blog, an absorbing look at life through photography and essays which concern our border with Mexico, posted this photo of Juarez. The photo is a reflection of the pain in my heart for this city, like the erie aftermath of falling bombs, or a used-up and discarded city in sorrowful ruins.juarez-lores

For the last several months we have been considering a home-garden/greenhouse project with the hopes of bringing life and color to our neighborhood. As I wrote in What Color is Hope, Juarez is devoid of color. Dust, concrete, and trash are the overbearing color-sapping sponges that have infected so much of this world. We want to help reverse that effect. Some simple ideas we have are: small raised-bed flower/veg gardens; building/buying planters, pots, etc for our neighbors; thinking of ways to use the trash to our advantage, i.e. using buckets, tires, & other items to turn into planters; painting homes; painting mural-like “street art” on graffiti-burdened walls. We are in the beginning stages of organizing some sort of Greening the Ghetto project for Ciudad Juarez, starting here in Colonia Palo Chino. This past fall I started this in our own yard by planting a small bunch of  Zenias; this winter I have extruded thousands of rocks from a 10’x 10′ patch of dirt in our patio, I have begun to amend the soil, and I started a compost bin. 

To us and our friends Juan and Carmen, Greening the Ghetto is much more about spreading love to this community through color and life, and we believe that these are reflections of the true heart of God. Simple acts like these can create inroads for sharing life, like getting to know our neighbors better and helping transform this community. To El Paso, Juarez is the elephant in the room that few people are acknowledging; these worlds that are separated by an imaginary line are painfully detached from each other. We have been thankful for people like the Border Explorer and Border-Blog, who are speaking out for our Mexican brothers and sisters, but with so many people from El Paso afraid of crossing the border, we are asking how we can connect the two very different worlds of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, the 3rd safest city in America and the murder-capital of Mexico, with bonds of solidarity, love, and the outrageous beauty of shared life. We want to flip fear upside down. 

Our friend Betsy gave us a copy of a talk from, a super intriguing site where, “the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers… are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).” The talk she gave us is called, Greening the Ghetto. This talk speaks directly to the changes that we would like to see within this community, with hopes that it will swell across the city. We encourage all that would be interested in this project to take 18 minutes and check out the talk and consider joining us in bring life and color to the desert. We look forward to hearing from you.


Thanks to Bruce for the use of this stellar photo. Please visit his site to see other excellent photos of our border.


12 Responses to “Greening the Ghetto: The Desert in Color”

  1. Love that photograph! Can’t wait to explore his blog and ‘border explorer’. I’ve heard about We will for sure listen to that talk!

    We have another small stack of pots waiting for you here to take back and fill with some love and color! We can’t wait to get down there and dig in the dirt with you guys!

  2. Thanks for the pots! They will be well used in the Ghetto. Your support, words of encouragement, and love are priceless.

  3. So inspiring! I love the concrete and very practical way you envision the color of hope. You are so right about the unrelenting gray/concrete/plastic bag environment that is Juarez. [And, as always, your prose hits a home run!] You’ve dreamed up a wonderful project, and I will do my best to promote it…starting with watching the TED talk.

    Thanks for the link. I look forward to meeting you. We Border-ites must support each other, and I fully respect the commitment you’ve made in Juarez.

  4. It is so good to have found you! We truly admire your heart for our world and your commitment to the border and our Latin American brothers and sisters. We look forward to working with you and your community and we certainly look forward to learning more from your experience and passion for this place.

    Looking forward to sharing life with you…

  5. So excited about this. There is something about sprouting flowers, especially in spring, that speaks of the resurrection.

  6. Very true. Ironically, it is snowing right now in Ciudad Juarez; I had to cover up a few plants with some plastic bags and it just makes me look forward to the imminent life and beauty.

  7. isaac Says:

    dude, TED is one of my favorite sites!! i’m looking forward to seeing you guys on there. can’t wait to see you and maybe plan a visit down there. let me know how i can help.

  8. Isaac, one of the projects that we would like to do is to paint small murals around our neighborhood, in part to erase the lame graffiti, but also to paint stories of hope and love. With your talent and training in art, you can be a tremendous help in this specific project. You should e-mail me about this and I can send over some ideas.

    However, we just want you to come down and visit!

  9. isaac Says:

    there’s no way i’m going to go down there to JUST visit!

  10. I just got done listening to the audio of Greening the Ghetto. I’m hoping to start a conversation with this one. I spent just a week in the S. Bronx in 2005 and was just kind of awestruck by the kindness of the people I met. There is little corner diner where we would eat lunch and dinner all week, “Danny’s”, I think it was. Oddly, the owner’s name was Christy. There were always, and this is not exaggeration, always, NYPD cops in there. I think she fed them for free and made coffee for them. And it probably helped out business, I’m guessing. One of my students, Cory, treated her like she was his long lost grandmother and the two gave each other a hard time that whole week. The night before we left, she went out and got gifts for all of my students and me. She got me a 40$ bottle of cologne!? The real world is so different from what gets media attention and it makes me think about how all of the fear surrounding Juarez misses a million of these kind of interactions that go on each day. Really, this blog is just that, some media on the reality of the kindness that’s present.
    So, back to Greening the Ghetto: the thing that stood out to me the most was that the people in Bogotá began to pick up their own trash when they started to feel cared for; and what did that were public projects that valued them. I had my house re-sided several years ago and what blew me away were how many people would walk up to me and thank me for making the neighborhood better. It’s unusual the hope and care that environmental, even just aesthetic changes, can give. I’m doing my thesis on “Nature as a means of Grace” and this has got me wondering even how making things beautiful by bringing back trees and flowers, soft sights and smells might actually be some kind of vehicle of grace. They say that their is enough atomic energy in your fingernail to blow up a small city. Makes me wonder how much of God’s character might be packed into the petal of a flower.

    Matt and Misty, I’d love to first hear more of your vision for this in your neighborhood AND I’d like to know what the top 2-3 things that we can do to help.

  11. Aaron,

    For us it is quite easy to see that caring for our neighborhood with color, life, and art will make a difference. When gray, dust, and trash prevail in any place, the moment that color invades it is like a neon sign blaring in the face of the drab world around it.

    We are starting small because we do not have many resources. So, in this season, we would love to create small container gardens that folks in our colonia can maintain in their patios. The director of the local elementary school approved the use of a small part of the property for the creation of a garden. She hopes that we can teach the kids of the school about gardening, and this coming fall we hope to have a hoop-style greenhouse. I am pretty sure that we can garden all year round in the high desert fairly easily.

    We need people to come and help us learn how to garden well, teach composting skills, and help us use the trash around us to our advantage. We do not want to reinvent the wheel. What we are trying to do has been done so many times before; therefore, the more hands that can help, the more teaching and training that can be done, the quicker Ciudad Juarez is invaded with life.

    Thanks for your interest and thoughts!

  12. […] in February we began writing about Greening the Ghetto here in our own neighborhood in Juarez. Sure, it is a daunting prospect, but we are continuing to […]

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