Longform

THE FARM TEAM

part 2 of 2
In the spring of 1991 Tony entered an Alamosa pawn shop carrying his television. The family had moved to the San Luis Valley almost a year before, and things weren't going so well. He'd been reduced to selling his possessions in order to feed his children.

The brood included Tony and Sharon's five kids as well as Jamal, now twelve. Tony had gone to court to get custody of the boy. There were accusations that the mother was abusing drugs and alcohol, and two of her other children had juvenile records. The judge had agreed that her home was not a safe environment for the child.

Tony was still convinced that leaving Denver was the right thing. But his initial attempts at farming had failed miserably.

The first place had been a true test of their pioneer spirit. There was no electricity or plumbing, and water had to be hauled from an artesian well. The family might have made it, though, if the landowner hadn't reneged on the purchase agreement after the Browns had already poured a large portion of their savings into the place.

They moved into a trailer court north of Alamosa and bought a second farm a few miles away. But after dogs killed their flock of a dozen expensive sheep, they couldn't afford to replace them and let the farm go. Tony felt bad about the sheep--not just because of the money, but because he had failed to protect them. So far, he hadn't turned out to be much of a shepherd.

The move had been hard on the kids, too. There weren't many blacks in the San Luis Valley, and the Browns' arrival had inspired new talk of big-city gangs, as well as stirred up some old-fashioned redneck bigotry. After they'd lived in the area for several months, one woman had said to Tony with mock surprise, "Why, Tony... it's good to see they ain't hung you yet." Still, he managed to shrug off such comments, and whenever he was turned down for a job, he chalked it up to ignorance, smiled and went on his way. Tony told his kids, "So long as they don't lay a hand on you, you have no reason to fight."

Such admonitions weren't easy for a young man like Elijah to follow in the Alamosa schools. Elijah hadn't wanted to leave Denver in the first place, and Tony worried that he'd just taken the boy from one situation where he was continually having to fight to another. But at least here they didn't fight with guns.

The younger kids had adapted more readily. Even Malika, who scrambled to hide beneath her blankets when the coyotes howled at night, only rarely mentioned missing the malls and her friends in the city. And cowboy Luqman was definitely in his element, although he too reported that some kids in his classes called him by racist epithets. "Just walk away," Sharon would console him. "It takes a bigger man to walk away than to fight over some words that don't mean nothing unless you let them."

And besides, for every bigot there were a dozen people willing to lend a hand. One of the first residents Tony had met was Eddie Espinoza, a gregarious businessman who owned a towing company. A few months later Eddie saw Tony hauling railroad timbers on his car, three timbers at a time. After Tony's second trip, Eddie handed him the keys and title to an old truck. "Pay me back when you can," he told a surprised and grateful Tony.

Sharon got a job with the school district's Headstart program, tutoring preschool children of low-income families. In the cities, such programs are filled with minority kids; in the rural San Luis Valley, the students were predominantly white. But the kids didn't care that their teacher was black, and neither did their parents.

One of Tony's proudest moments came when he was invited to ride with the local rodeo club in the annual parade. His borrowed horse side-stepped and pranced the length of the street as Tony waved and tipped his hat to the cheering audience. The Muslim Cowboy was home on the range.

But the family had lost their Denver home altogether--to the bank. Tony and Sharon had thought of their city house as insurance in case it took a while to get the farm up and running, as well as something they could sell to pay for the kids' college. Now it was gone and they were wiped out, without enough money to put food on the table. The family continued to pray five times a day, asking Allah for guidance.

In the meantime, Tony took his television to see what he could get for it. Inside the pawn shop, he was surprised to see a large black man, and even more amazed when the man gave his name, Abdul Shabazz. He, too, was Muslim, but the coincidences didn't stop there.

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Steve Jackson