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First Person > Juanita Nelson

Juanita Nelson - 1970 to Present: Self-sufficiency as social activism

Homesteading in New Mexico and western Massachusetts



Juanita remembers, “We began to feel, and I in particular, that our whole lives were tied up in war stuff, because we live on this war system….I felt as though I wanted to remove myself to some greater extent from that system, and so we left and we ended up in New Mexico in a village of 500 called Ojo Caliente, pretty much a Spanish-speaking place, where I had my first garden…”

Learn more about Juanita Nelson: View a timeline of her life and listen to her full interview.



file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/nelson1970_garden, alt: Wally and Juanita in the 1940s

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Juanita smiles joyfully as she stands amidst the leafy results of her first garden in Ojo Caliente during the summer of 1971. She recalls that garden in her interview:

We've never had a garden so beautiful as that one-everything germinated. Cause you had to have irrigation anyway, but it was not the kind that you have here where you use electricity and pump; I guess it was something electric, intermediately, but it was a system that had been built several hundred years before; the water came from the mountains when the snow melted, and then you would have water in to your plot. People had certain times, but because our garden was so small, anytime the water passed we could open up our gate and irrigate.

Photograph Courtesy of Juanita Nelson.

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/nelson1970_adobe, alt: group of nine civil right activists

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This home in Ojo Caliente, New Mexico, is where Juanita and Wally lived between 1970 and 1974. Juanita remembers:

We lived in an adobe that had 18–inch thick walls. Our landlady lived down about a quarter of a mile down the road from us. We drew our water up by hand. We had electricity there because I think in the '30s, there was some kind of program there to electrify rural places, so we had a light bulb in each room...

Photograph courtesy of Juanita Nelson.

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/nelson1970_well, alt: Wally and Juanita in the winter of 1986

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file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/nelson1970_sign, alt: Wally and Juanita in the winter of 1986

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In the top photograph, Juanita, Wally and guests stand at the well that is located in front of their home on Woolman Hill in Deerfield, Massachusetts. The "organic vegetable" sign which is posted near the Nelson home can be seen in the bottom photo. Juanita and Wally shared their life at Woolman Hill until his death in 2002. Juanita describes her domestic life at Woolman Hill:

...we built our house from salvaged material. We used kerosene lamps for a while, and now I have two gaslights.... We grow most of our food; I don't buy stuff that's imported, except I have to buy oil. But there are so many things here that you can buy... I can a lot of things; I dry things, and so I have plenty to eat. I just eat differently maybe from other people. My winter salad is, say for instance, pickled beets and sauerkraut—it's wonderful together. And I've discovered making parsnip salad in the spring because parsnips can stay in the ground; and once the ground thaws you can pick them. And I grate them, and put some oil on them. And then if you have had parsley, it comes back for a while—put a lot of parsley in it... absolutely delicious.

Photos courtesy of Juanita Nelson.

Story Clip #1:

1970–1974 "I wanted to remove myself to some greater extent from...[the war] system": homesteading at Ojo Caliente

Wait for each file to download, then click the arrow to play the audio.

Audio also available in MP3 format

It was in 1970 during the Vietnam War. We were refusing to pay taxes; we were working in CORE [Congress of Racial Equality]; we were working with the great brokers, Cesar Chavez and those. Wally fasted for twenty–three days once in front of one of the big chain stores to try to get them to stop using, either grapes, or something, whatever it was that they were doing. And yet, we began to feel, and I in particular, that our whole lives were tied up in war stuff, because we live on this war system. I have something at my house now—somebody sent it; it says, "Peace would destroy civilization as we know it." And indeed it would, because we could not consume with, 5% of the population that we have, forty, fifty, whatever percent of the world's goods. And we have bases all over the world and so forth. So, anyway, I felt as though I wanted to remove myself to some greater extent from that system, and so we left and we ended up in New Mexico in a village of 500 called Ojo Caliente, pretty much a Spanish–speaking place, where I had my first garden...

Story Clip #2:

Juanita discusses homesteading in New Mexico and New England

Audio also available in MP3 format

We did go there and live there for three and a half years. We went in '70 and left in '74. We learned to love it. We were in northern New Mexico, not so far, at 6800 feet. We always liked New England, but we thought, "Oh, we're going to homestead, we need to be in a warm place—ha, ha, ha." The climate, in a sense, was somewhat the same, in a different way. It would be, could be warm; it would get very warm. It was always cool at night. We couldn't even get ripe tomatoes. We had to pick them green because they wouldn't get ripe. They ripened all right after we picked them. And that's where I learned to can and dry things. We wanted to stay, but we found we didn't have enough money to buy land. We thought we would there, but it was too expensive, so that's how we ended up in New England.

We met somebody who came through who ended up himself at Woolman Hill when there was an alternative school there, and they did farming, did gardening and canning, and they had two cows and so forth. And Randy Kehler wrote to us and said, "Our farmer is leaving; would you like to do this?" Because when we met him, we said if we couldn't find anything within the next few months, we were going to come back east. And we said, "No, we don't want to be a farmer, even if we don't get paid—we want to homestead." And we ended up being able to do that. We came here in '74, took down a house; I took out millions of nails. We did all our work by hand. We didn't know anybody but Randy Kehler when we came here, and we got to know so many people, and so many people helped us. Some of 'em came to help, so we finally even put in an electric line over to Traprock so that people who had Skil saws and all that sort of thing could work. And our house...we lived pretty much the same, I lived pretty much the same as we did... well, I don't know how you could compare that, but...In New Mexico we had an outhouse—we had a designer outhouse because an architect friend of ours visited us and designed the outhouse. [chuckle] We lived in an adobe that had 18–inch thick walls. Our landlady lived down about a quarter of a mile down the road from us. We drew our water up by hand. We had electricity there because I think in the '30's, there was some kind of program there to electrify rural places, so we had a light bulb in each room, something like that. And so, that was an extraordinary experience. I've never had a... we've never had a garden so beautiful as that one—everything germinated. 'Cause you had to have irrigation anyway, but it was not the kind that you have here where you use electricity and pump; I guess it was something electric, intermediately, but it was a system that had been built several hundred years before; the water came from the mountains when the snow melted, and then you would have water in to your plot. People had certain times, but because our garden was so small, anytime the water passed we could open up our gate and irrigate.

Then we came here. And here we have an outhouse, which we probably wouldn't be able to get permission to have now, and we built our house from salvaged material. We used kerosene lamps for a while, and now I have two gaslights. What else do we do? We grow most of our food; I don't buy stuff that's imported, except I have to buy oil. But there are so many things here that you can buy: eggs, local eggs; you can buy cheese, there's cheese that's made here; there's pickles, sauerkraut—although I make my own sauerkraut. I make sauerkraut. I can a lot of things; I dry things, and so I have plenty to eat. I just eat differently maybe from other people. My winter salad is, say for instance, pickled beets and sauerkraut—it's wonderful together. And I've discovered making parsnip salad in the spring because parsnips can stay in the ground; and once the ground thaws you can pick them. And I grate them, and put some oil on them. And then if you have had parsley, it comes back for a while—put a lot of parsley in it... absolutely delicious.

Story Clip #3:

Juanita speaks about war tax refusal

Audio also available in MP3 format

Wally has never been anywhere where he hasn't started a tax refusal group and he started that, and so we've had a pretty vital one. Right now it's in sort of a quasi–dormant state. I mean it goes up and down, and a lot of people here have, relatively—obviously it's not a very big movement; I wish it could be. That's the only way you can stop war, stop participating in it, and stop so much consumption that requires war, at least that's the way I look at it.

Story Clip #4:

"People are people": Juanita discusses her belief that "everybody seems to want to, just wring everything they can out of people."

Audio also available in MP3 format

Wally actually lived-three years of his life, his family had lived on plantations because his father was a Methodist minister with a lot of kids, didn't make much money, and he wanted to farm and that was the only way he could do it. And that was another thing that formed Wally about this business that people are just people. For two years they worked on the plantation of a, in quotes, white man, and he had both blacks and whites. They lived separately, but treated them all the same, pitted them one against the other. As Wally would say, he'd ask the poor whites to do something and if they complained he'd say, "That's alright, I'll go and ask the niggers; I"ll tell the niggers to do it," and vice-a-versa. And the second year when his father went to settle up with Mr. Charlie-that's what they called all these bosses; I don't know whether that was really his name-and Mr. Charlie said, "Well, Preacher, you've got a fine family. You work hard," and all that, and then next, "You only owe me 500 dollars," and Wally's father said, "Wait a minute. According to my calculations, you owe me 500 dollars," and Mr. Charlie said, "Wait a minute! I don't have niggers figuring after me," and he put'em off the plantation. Of course, Wally said, the kids were delighted [chuckle] 'cause they wanted to go back to Little Rock anyway. Then the next time they did the venture they worked on a plantation owned by a black man, and he said it was the same thing. He didn't have any whites on his..., except that you could call him by his first name, but he was trying to get everything he could out of everybody. No different, no different. And that's something I believe, and it's discouraging; it really is discouraging, but people are people. Everybody seems to want to just wring everything they can out of people, and all of us do. This is society. [pause] I don't know, I've heard some figures-one percent of the population of the United States makes thirty times as much as a regular worker. And to say a worker is... that's like an epithet. The worker is the ones who keep the world going, so what's [laugh] I don't really quite understand that, but that's the way it seems to be.



Related Resources

About Juanita Nelson's War Tax Resistance experiences

  • Juanita Nelson, "A Matter of Freedom" Liberation, September 1960.

 

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