What the Garden Gives: Homegrown Food Along the Alameda Corridor

Wedged between car parts and brick walls, Elvira grows various chiles, sarabando beans and marigolds. | Photo: Vickie Vertiz

Many southern Californians grow their own food, and there's been a noticeable increase in the popularity of gardening and foraging with the economic downturn. More people are turning to self-provisioning in ways they had not considered before, signaling a need to reconnect with this part of our lives.

I asked Aida Salazar from Maywood, a writer and friend, if her mother had a garden. "Oh, just flowers," she said. "I mean, we have guayabas and avocados, but that's it." It is easy to take for granted that some of our families grow their own food in the southeast, but this is a special phenomenon in this part of L.A. County. Some communities in the southeast do not have access to high-quality produce markets -- like Vernon and Commerce, both highly industrialized, with factories right next to elementary schools. In the last century, the region has had a delicate relationship to employment and agriculture.

In the 1920s, land developers in what is now South Gate envisioned it as a residential area where people could find work in the rapidly growing sectors such as construction, the automotive industry, and oil refineries. The land was also used for sheep grazing, dairying, growing apples, cauliflower, beets, barley, corn, and walnuts. It is no surprise that everyone, from dentists to tent-dwellers, was growing their own food.

Aerial view of South Gate ca. 1920 | Photo: Courtesy of L.A. Public Library
Aerial view of South Gate ca. 1920 | Photo: Courtesy of L.A. Public Library

Almost all of southeast L.A. boasts an agrarian past: Cudahy, Bell, Bell Gardens, and South Gate developed on lots shaped to accommodate small families, a small orchard, and a few farm animals. Families used their gardens to cover their basic needs and to exchange goods with neighbors, and live the California dream of a fruitful land. For the diverse families who moved to the region starting in the 1940s, having fruit trees or gardens was already part of civic life. After new families moved there in the 1970s and '80s, the fruit trees witnessed new stories.

"We would use the fruit trees to climb, [...] role-playing Super Friends [...]," said Francisco Dueñas, who grew up in 1980s South Gate. "Our large apricot tree was our Hall of Justice." When Francisco traveled to his dad's rural hometown in Jalisco, he acquired a greater appreciation for agriculture. He started to see their garden at home as an extension of his father's agrarian past, into his present life as an urban Angeleno.

Depending on how much time his father had, their backyard garden grew watermelon, zucchini, corn, tomato, and chayote squash, the latter's curly cue vines threading through the garden. The farming was done after school and work. When his father had overtime shifts and less time to personally tend the garden, Francisco said, "I didn't dare try to plant anything myself or mess with the garden. I was afraid of messing it up."

His relationship with the garden changed over time. "As I grew up," he said, "[T]here was a tension between spending time in the backyard versus doing my homework and excelling in that." He more than excelled: he graduated from Pomona College, and is now a national advocate working for queer Latino rights.

In Downey, Jorge Segura remembered his own father-and-son gardening relationship.
"My dad planted squash, tomatoes, chile de arbol, jalapeños, cilantro, cucumbers, beans, and onions; the staples of most meals in my family," he said, a pre-kindergarten educator and photographer. "I tend to grow the same crops I grew up with."

Tigers Eye beans freshly cut | Photo: Jorge Segura
Tigers Eye beans freshly cut | Photo: Jorge Segura
Tigers Eye beans after the drying process | Photo: Jorge Segura
Tigers Eye beans after the drying process | Photo: Jorge Segura

"I grow the same vegetables my dad does," he added, "but I experiment by buying the heirloom seeds of unique varieties that aren't available at the local hardware store." The farming tradition of some families changes once in this country and when the opportunity, need, or desire to grow their own food arises. Jorge is passing on his gardening knowledge through his career as a preschool teacher. "[They] compost all of the fruit and vegetable food scraps and the nutrient rich compost, and worm tea goes back into the garden," said Jorge. His preschool students get a kick out of it, some of whom may not have access to a yard or space for a thriving garden. "The worms are a huge hit with my class as we record how fast 1,000 worms can decompose a banana."

In 2013, the Los Angeles Times described the success of a community garden tended to by Environmental Club students at Bell Gardens Intermediate (BGI), a school I attended. The garden faces Florence Avenue, a busy street that in a block and a half reaches the Bicycle Club and the 710 freeway.

The edible garden at BGI was said to provide everything from pineapples to Swiss chard and artichokes. The article noted that, "For many of the mostly poor, predominantly Latino residents in Bell Gardens, school-based urban farms are the only source of affordable, pesticide-free produce." The garden got students excited about healthy eating and some saw direct changes in their family's eating habits.

The gardens, located at each school in Bell Gardens, are a wonderful idea that connect a new generation to their choices around consumption, their health, and their influence over their environment. Perhaps some of those students live in buildings with no space to grow anything. However, the school is two blocks from my mother's home, and on the way there, every single house has a garden. For families with the space, time, and tradition, the gardens persist. When I asked Mom why she grew sarabando beans in her front yard, Elvira said, "Es que aqui no hay." She couldn't find sarabando in local supermarkets, so when she had the chance to grow her own, she planted them along a brick wall that gets a lot of sun. That part of her garden is wedged between a covered car port, a clothesline dangling above it, and bougainvillea weaving its thorny twigs through the barbed wire.

Photo: Vickie Vertiz

The sarabando beans are pinto-sized, in colors ranging from light green to a dark brown or purple, growing inside a thin verdant pod that resembles an asparagus spear. Their taste is similar to that of garbanzos when they're made into hummus. Elvira makes the beans into a paste with mint, salt and garlic that she spreads inside tamales before steaming. I, along with family, friends, and neighbors, live for her food. Her above-ground planter gets sun all day long and is right next to chiles she can't name and marigolds, the latter attracting insects that eat pests. For her, gardening was about giving her cooking a singular flavor, with her own hands, one that would help her make tamales no one else could.

In a very narrow space next to our house, like Francisco, Mom also grows chayote squash along the fence. In the back of the house are the ripe sugar cane stalks and lemongrass. Next to her kitchen window is a plumeria tree and purple orchids, tropical flowers that are supposed to thrive in humidity-rich climates, but her green thumb creates a canopy around the house, a shade adds living space to the house. Even with all the home-grown greening, the region's environmental reality is still a grave concern. Is it really possible to grow healthy food in neighborhoods surrounded by freeways, railways, and ports, which can cause lung disease, emphysema, or lung cancer?

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East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice is a nonprofit organization that, among many projects, sponsors a produce-exchange project through local home gardens. The project is called La Cosecha Colectiva, or The Collective Harvest, and promotes community health and justice in the southeast L.A. region where many communities like Vernon and Commerce are considered food deserts.

The group formed out of conversations about big box stores being built nearby. One woman was in favor of the store being built. She didn't have a car and had to travel by bus into East L.A. just to get produce that went bad in three days. The hierarchy of supermarket distribution makes it so that stores like Pavillions get the freshest produce, lasting the longest. By the time produce makes it to places like Food for Less, the worst quality produce ends up on the shelf, the cilantro wilted by the time it gets home. "What she needed was access to fresh produce," said Mark Lopez, Co-Director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, "not a big box store." He added that since many of the lots in Commerce were polluted and not fit for farming, people grow food at home, in their front or back yards. To mitigate the toxins in the soil, EYCEJ staff and members use raised beds and farm only in places that have been homes and not sites of industrial production.

Papayas danlge into the alley next to the Vertiz household | Photo: Vickie Vertiz
Papayas danlge into the alley next to the Vertiz household | Photo: Vickie Vertiz

Twenty different home gardens participate in the exchange. "It connects folks who were never connected before," Lopez added over the phone. Neighbors who could not communicate because of language barriers now compare the sizes of their squash and tomatoes. The Colectiva exchanges crops every two weeks.

Environmental injustice, lack of fresh produce, a love for a special taste -- no single reason exists why people grow their own food in the southeast. Eventually, many motivations emerge and change over time. Jorge pointed out perhaps the most obvious reason: "The garden was my dad's space to relax after long days at work. It's also my space to stop thinking and forget about everything else that's happening in the world and connect to the earth."

"I'm sure I hated it at times," he said, "because I wanted to watch Saturday morning cartoons, but now I understand what the garden gives."

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