When Sol Mercado was born, her father gave her a name that means sun in Spanish, because, as she explains at the beginning of this film, she was the sunshine of his life. But for many years, sunshine was hard to come by for Sol. When she was 19, she shot and killed a rival gang member in California, and she served 16 years in prison as a result.
There, she discovered gardening through a program offered to inmates and she began to see her time working with plants as “her freedom.” Upon her release in 2020, she began working for Planting Justice, a food-justice and urban-gardening organization in Oakland, Calif., where we see her as she begins to grow a new life for herself in the world.
In this film, Débora Souza Silva and Emily Cohen Ibañez trace the historical connections between growing food and freedom, and give insight into what it takes for someone to find forgiveness. Mercado and the filmmakers answered questions via email about the project.
TIME: This film is part of a series that TIME and Sundance have supported, addressing the issue of gun violence in this country. How does Sol’s story shine a light on what needs to change?
SILVA AND COHEN: Today, as a re-entry coordinator at Planting Justice, Sol helps implement gardening programs in communities that are most exposed to gun and gang violence. As Sol once told us, “If gardening helps me to find my own self, my freedom, I believe it may also help the new generation of youth in these communities, and offer them something positive in life to keep them away from crime.”
We could not agree more with Sol’s intuition. During our research phase for the film, we came across new studies that show a correlation between community gardens and a decrease in urban gun violence. Furthermore, for communities who live in “food deserts,” growing their own food means having access to healthy, fresh vegetables.
TIME: The issues of reclaiming the power to support oneself, the narrative ties to a legacy of enslaved people and even the more recent heritage of Sol’s, are so powerful in this film. Can you explain a bit more of that history to us?
SILVA AND COHEN: In the process of making this film, we did a lot of research and, in doing so, we discovered how our legacy of slavery in the United States has shaped our current broken food and carceral systems. Not only are agricultural and domestic workers denied the same protections given to all other industries in the United States, but prisoners in California are subject to involuntary servitude, essentially working without pay while incarcerated. And as in the times of slavery, farm and incarcerated workers have used gardening as a way to resist their oppression.
By having agency over their own food provision, oppressed peoples have found ways to nourish themselves and reconnect to the land and their own labor, which has spiritual and psychological benefits. Historically, people dispossessed from land have planted gardens on small plots, often fighting to gain rights to grow food on these plots where they can supplement their diets, obtain profit, and transmit cultural heritage.
In the Caribbean and the U.S., slaves grew gardens in forests near the plantations where they worked to supplement the meager provisions provided by their masters. Slaves earned money at the Sunday market and some gained enough income to buy their own freedom. Across the Americas, Indigenous people invented the method of companion planting. They fought, and continue to fight, to keep their lands for traditional gardening methods when colonizers have tried to seize them.
Gardening is not a quaint pastime, it is a powerful means to reclaim one’s labor, life, and land. Food systems are one of the most powerful manifestations of a society’s economy and culture; in the United States, we have an unforgiving capitalist economy that we ingest into our bodies every day. By highlighting Sol’s story and passion for gardening in our film, we hope to bring about a new way to imagine a world that is abolitionist, filled with color, life, hope, and joy.
Read more: Why Doctors Are Prescribing Nature Walks
TIME: Sol, can you explain what "gardening is my freedom" means to you, both from when you were in prison and now?
MERCADO: When I was in prison my only place of freedom was the garden at the Insight Garden Program and the garden that we built in front of the housing unit that I was housed at. I was able to go there and get my mind out of the prison. It was the only place where I would forget where I was at;, I was able to process a lot of things that led me to choosing the lifestyle that I chose that led me to prison. That was the only quiet and peaceful place where I was able to connect with the plants and forget for at least a few hours that I was just a number in prison “CDCR#WA2487” and that I was surrounded by an electric barbed wire fence.
TIME: What’s the thing you want people to know about your life now?
MERCADO: I want them to know that rehabilitation, healing and change is possible. I am living proof of that. That I have not taken my second chance at freedom for granted. Today I use my experiences to bring healing and hope to others. Today I am an advocate, I work as a reentry coordinator at Planting Justice in which I help those who have been incarcerated find resources so that they too be a part of ending recidivism. I also facilitate self-help groups and continue showing those who have been incarcerated the importance of healing while gardening and being around nature.
Most recently, I started going back to the prison where I spent 16 years and brought plants to the same garden that was once my only space of freedom. I share with the incarcerated ladies there how important it is to be able to relate with the plants when finding healing. Now, I teach them how to grow their own medicine and their own food, but most importantly, I share with them the importance of speaking up and using their voice to ask for help.
This film was supported by TIME Studios and the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program with support from the Kendeda Fund, as part of a series of short documentaries addressing the issue of gun violence in America.
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