By Michael E. Miller
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By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
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All during his childhood, Murray worked the farm. The demands of the earth came before school. The demands of the earth came before play. There was never time for play, he says. When the sugar cane was ready for harvest, Murray left his classmates and cut cane. And despite everything his family put into the farm, the Murrays barely scraped a living out of the earth. Ignatius's mother, Ira, hammered and smashed rock to pebble that she would sell to cement manufacturers in order earn money for the family's Christmas. "It was work, work, work, full-time work. I got so tired sometimes," he groans. "I wanted to leave and go to different place and do something different."
But now 38 years later and 500 miles from his homeland, the farmer's son has come to understand his father's gift. It was not just the gift of land but knowledge of the land. And not just the understanding of when to plant okra and callaloo, or how long it will be before the crop is ready for harvest. He gave a simple knowledge that the land gives back if nurtured, coaxed, and coddled. He gave Ignatius the insight that a person can create a bounty from nothing but dirt and a handful of seeds -- with his own hands, with his own sweat.
"I didn't realize what he was giving me until now," says the 56-year-old, looking out over rows of Scotch-bonnet pepper bushes.
Murray's canvas is Overtown. On one lot, and then another, and now a third near NW Eighth Street and Fourth Avenue, he has turned vacant land into verdant, riotous, scrappy garden. Near the massive pillars of I-95, which sliced and bisected this part of Miami and decimated an already wounded black business community, sugar-cane stalks more than ten feet tall sway in the sun. On the corner of Eighth and Fourth, the windows of a storefront that recently housed the Gibson Park Baptist Church are shuttered with plywood boards. Nearby in Murray's garden, a clump of fat green bananas shoots from a stalk in an abundant bunch. In the neighborhood known as The Swamp, on the western edge of Overtown, where too many men and women with glassy, wanting eyes hunt for solace in a pull of cheap liquor or the whoosh of crack cocaine, Scotch-bonnet peppers sprout little buds of scorching green. In a place of so much aching desperation and emptiness, Murray looked out and saw fields of produce.
A flock of hens scurries out from under some sugar cane and squabbles across NW Fourth Avenue toward People's Bar-B-Que, as Murray clomps into his garden in black baggy gym shorts, his long dreadlocks and full beard now gray. He snaps a brown grizzled pod of okra from a bush and slits it open lengthwise with his thumb. Spreading the pod apart, he nudges out a repository of little knobby brown seeds and pushes them into his palm. In these seeds Murray sees the okra he will plant in the fall. He cracks a pencil-thin sprig from what looks like a cluster of weeds, shakes it, and shows little black specks that fall into his hand. They will give him a crop of callaloo, a leafy vegetable similar to collard greens that is popular in Jamaican cooking.
Murray's motivations are primarily monetary. The West Indian Market will buy callaloo and hot peppers to sell to homesick Caribbeans. A produce broker has said he will buy as many Scotch bonnets as Murray can supply for one dollar per pound. If Murray can grow enough, sell enough, he believes he can fashion a living here in this poor soil in one of the poorest parts of Miami.
"I grow hot peppers but I can't grow enough," he says. Local people who know their hot peppers want the ones Murray grows. "My peppers have special flavor," he boasts. "The peppers they import don't have no flavor like my peppers. They don't get them right. They pick them when they're too young. They are not ripe."
On a telephone pole next to his lot on Fourth Avenue, a hand-lettered sign advertises his skills. "Honey, Do This. Do That," it reads. "Landscaping, welding, carpentry, plastering. No job too small. Ask for Murry." "I do everything to make a livelihood," Murray explains.