In 2009, a young boy in the Pueblo of Zuni heard about the new Zuni Youth Enrichment Project. He thought its inaugural Summer Camp program sounded exciting and fun, and he eagerly delved into the activities, from Zuni culture and art to physical fitness and nutrition.
He could not have known that ZYEP would become a lasting influence in his life. In fact, it would determine the course of his life.
Today, 20-year-old Liam Simplicio is a member of ZYEP’s 2022 Agriculture Support Team. This group of five dedicated food sovereignty specialists work closely with registered families as they plant, nurture, and harvest their gardens and cropland during the current growing season.
He also recently completed the nonprofit youth organization’s first-ever Emerging Artist Apprenticeship. During the six-week program, Liam learned all about two-dimensional graphic design with Zuni art instructors Keith Edaakie and Leanne Lee, expanding his drawing skills and learning to use his artwork in creative disciplines such as printmaking and sublimation. He and the other apprentices also attended their first art show at the Bernalillo Indian Arts Festival.
Liam says both of these programs have been a perfect fit for him. His experiences in art and agriculture are what he remembers most fondly from that first Summer Camp 13 years ago.
“Agriculture has always fascinated me,” he explains. “To be connected with the earth, to be proud of something I grew. I love learning different agricultural techniques, like Zuni waffle gardens.”
This spring, ZYEP hosted three Doye:nap’she Garden Kit Events. At each event, Zuni youth and their families received their 2022 garden kits through a variety of “Walk n’ Learn” fun stations set up in Ho’n A:wan Park. As an Agricultural Support Team member, Liam staffed one of those stations.
“I made a seed game with a painted poster that showed mature plants,” he says. “I asked people to match seeds with the right plants. It was really fun.”
He notes that agriculture and art are both inherently creative pursuits. His first corn stock, he says, gave him the same feeling of pride as a new piece of artwork. And, as with agriculture, he doesn’t have a single favorite medium.
“I just really love learning new and different techniques,” he says. “We all had such a good time during the apprenticeship, creating digital art and having free rein with our creativity. I loved seeing everyone else’s ideas, and receiving acknowledgement from the older artists.”
Liam grew up surrounded by the arts. His father is a fetish carver, his sister is a potter, and his mom does a little bit of everything.
“She has a deep creative side,” he says. “She sews, makes aprons, builds shelves. Everyone in my house creates. Even my nephews are getting into art.”
Now that the art apprenticeship has concluded, Liam is focusing his time and energy on the Agriculture Support Team. He says he’s working toward taking on a larger leadership role in his community.
“I went to college at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque in 2020-21, but it wasn’t for me,” he says. “I don’t view success through the lens of Western education. I want to work in my community, in my culture.
“It’s healing to be back home,” he continues. “I’m learning to be resilient, and I would like to teach that to my community. That’s what drives me. And ZYEP is giving me a voice, just as it gives voices to others.”
Liam calls the youth project “a catalyst for hope,” observing that the ZYEP team is providing much-needed opportunities to young people and their families. Those opportunities are rooted in Zuni culture, health, and all-around wellness.
“I love being part of that,” he says. “People ask questions, and then I can explain. I really like the show-and-tell part of the work, because then people might try it themselves. Small changes now can mean big changes later, so I’m doing everything I can to take steps forward.”
Liam says he has dreamed of this type of leadership since Summer Camp in 2009, and he’s looking forward to expanding his involvement at ZYEP.
“I have a strong belief that we can all be leaders, and use our abilities to support one another,” he reflects. “We have a Zuni expression that I really like: ‘As long as we are all together, and hold each other as one, we will be strong.’”