Three hens and a rooster.
Those five simple words represent the beginning of a vision for Hector Trejo.
“Three hens and a rooster,” Trejo said, his voice rising above a cacophony of squawks and crows. “Yes, that was what we started with.”
He looked down at dozens of chickens pecking and dust-bathing at his feet. Behind him, a small structure houses juvenile birds, and a stack of filled egg cartons bear the bounty from the flock. The squeals of pigs, tucked out of sight in their own small barn, compete with the noise of the chickens.
The animals are part of the one-of-a-kind farm that is taking shape under Trejo’s direction in the churchyard of San Matías, an Anglican parish and migrant shelter in northwest Juárez.
A tall man with closely-cropped graying hair, Trejo wears a black jacket and the clerical collar of an Anglican priest as he walks throughout the farm. A heavy silver cross with asymmetrical arms hangs low on his chest. He arrived in Juárez in 2018 to take a position as the pastor of three churches and soon thereafter opened his churches’ doors to migrants. Providing shelter and especially food to migrants was a costly venture, but it was work that Trejo felt morally obligated to carry out.
As he walked the ample spaces of the church properties, he came to a realization.
“(These properties) were not being taken advantage of. They did not have plans, they did not have a purpose, there was no reason for them to exist,” he said in Spanish. “I thought, ‘I have this (pastoral) responsibility, and there is this space surrounding us.’ I felt obligated to push myself to create an activity.”
And so his vision began, with three hens and a rooster. Then he added the greenhouse, where slow drips of water nourish seedlings that, at this time of year, are covered against the freezing nighttime temperatures. The horticulture will include, depending on the season, what Trejo termed the “basic basket” of vegetables and herbs that the migrants typically use in their cooking: tomato, squash, chile, onion, rosemary, basil.
“I wanted to provide the capability for producing food, number one,” Trejo said, but he also placed emphasis on environmentally sustainable practices. Aside from sustenance, caring for the plants and animals serves as occupational therapy for shelter residents, many of whom are living in an urban environment for the first time.
“Many of the people with us are from Central America or rural areas of Mexico,” he said. “So they have a very special connection to planting or to the care of animals, and that’s exactly what we try to take advantage of, so they are not in an environment of stress, anxiety, and depression.”
Yadira, a resident of the shelter, came to Juárez from Michoacán in southern Mexico six months ago with her family. She and her husband, who were owners of an avocado orchard and other small businesses, left their successful middle-class life behind to escape extortion and threats. Now, Yadira assists Trejo with supervisory and administrative tasks in the church office and the shelter, responsibilities that have helped her manage her mental health.
“I am a very active person,” Yadira said, sitting on a swing at the edge of a courtyard where two boys kick a soccer ball back and forth. “If I didn’t have (activities) to help me here, I think I would be lost, depressed.”
Focusing on the farm leaves her with little time to think about depression or anxiety, she said.
“You need to be thinking about what needs to be done, what needs to be improved, what needs to be fixed,” Yadira said. “All of that helps me, when they tell me ‘we need food for the pigs, we need food for the chickens, help us here, help us there’– it helps me.”
María Cecilia, another shelter resident, steps into a dormitory-style room furnished with four sets of bunk beds to comb her damp hair into a tight ponytail. Back outside, she pauses in front of a mural depicting “La Bestia” alongside migrants dressed in the national flags of various countries. Like Yadira, she is also fleeing violence in Michoacán and has been at San Matías with her two daughters for six months.
“When we had been here four months, I became deeply depressed,” she said with emotion. “I would cry, thinking ‘when would all this be over?’”
Trejo put María in charge of the kitchen, where she supervises other helpers as they plan and prepare meals for all the residents of the shelter. The work has given María an outlet to focus her energy and distract her mentally, she said.
“I love cooking. Cooking is my life,” she said. “We are all stressed, but that’s what has helped me to not be thinking the same things over and over, about when we will finally be able to cross (the border). We have physical activity, women’s exercise sessions, and we support each other. We keep busy so that we don’t think about the very worst things.”
The San Matías shelter and its various projects are supported by several foundations, including Dormir es Poder, a nonprofit dedicated to migrant assistance.
“I do whatever Father Hector needs,” said Douglas Winter, the founder of Dormir es Poder, which spends about $2,000 each month on doctor visits and medication for migrants. Winter also volunteers at the shelters for several days each week.
The shelter is also supported by Innovaciones Biológicas, which created the tilapia tank system.
The tilapia farm, housed in a structure that resembles a greenhouse, includes a shallow pool for young fry and two growing tanks for larger fish. They are designed to drastically reduce water consumption and to support other aspects of the shelter’s food production, according to Benjamin Navarrete, a biologist with Innovaciones Biológicas.
Whereas traditional tilapia farming requires that up to 90% of the water be discarded each day, “with this system, you don’t need to do water changes, or at most only 5% each day,” Navarette said.
“The entire project is cyclical, an integrated farm, the waste from one part becomes the input for another part. The fish are interconnected with the horticulture. They complement each other.”
Navarette is waiting for warmer weather to stock the pool with the first crop of tilapia fry, typically brought in from the coastal Mexican states of Colima and Jalisco. When running at capacity, the tilapia farm will be capable of producing seven tons of fish per year, with growth schedules timed to make harvests possible every two months.
Aside from the chickens and the tilapia, pork will be another important source of protein. In the cinderblock barn, Juancho and Shakira, a breeding pair of corpulent pink pigs, lie lazily on their sides as their eight living offspring squeal and scramble over each other at the sight of visitors.
“Shakira gave birth to 10 piglets,” Trejo confided with a grin, then added diplomatically: “We had the pleasure of sampling some of the ‘models’ around the holidays.”
But Trejo envisions the pigs as energy producers as well as food. One aspect of his long-term plan includes collecting their waste to be converted into electricity for what he calls “Phase Two” of his project. A process that converts the pig manure to compost produces a renewable fuel called biogas that can generate electricity in a small plant that Trejo plans to build. That power will be used, in turn, to run a treatment plant that will allow for the recycling and reuse of water. The goal is to create a “circular economy” that will both save money and be environmentally sustainable.
Another long-term goal is the commercialization of the shelter’s meat and vegetable production, which would allow Trejo to pay wages to the migrants who farm and tend animals.
While Trejo believes that the ongoing work involved in running the farm helps the migrants’ mental health, he said he is also cognizant of the fact that every person in the shelter remains in a state of limbo.
“No one left their country with the intention of staying at one of our shelters,” he said. “In spite of having some occupation here, they still aspire to make their dream a reality. But day by day, having an activity helps them avoid an idle mind, and that improves their spirits.”
For Yadira, the activities and chores involved with helping other migrants, gardening, and taking care of animals has helped pass the time as she and her family wait to find some path for entering the United States.
“We have been here for six months, and that’s a long time,” she said. “But with all the activities, it feels like I got here last week. I am not aware of the days (passing) because I don’t have time to think about my problems. There are things to do every day.”
Things like tending, now, to dozens of hens and roosters.
Cover photo: Father Hector Trejo, pastor and director of the San Matías shelter in Juárez, is on the way to making his vision of a “circular economy” of sustainable food production a reality. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)