14 Acres

An L.A. oasis faces extinction

Associated Press

Monday, November 21, 2005

By Hugo Kugiya, AP National Writer

LOS ANGELES - The cherimoya fruit — crop of the Incas, redolent of pineapple, passion fruit, banana, mango and strawberry — grows in the Andean foothills of Peru and Ecuador, but very few places else. It is a fragile and fickle plant that prefers the coolness of mountain altitudes and proximity to the equator.

But it grows here, in a small garden plot tended by the Vaquero family, immigrants from Puebla, Mexico.

It grows here, amid the power lines, railroad tracks, warehouses, and truck fumes of industrial Los Angeles — a rare fruit, harvested from this rare interruption of the forever expanding, asphalt city.

It grows here, in a garden that likely will soon be vanquished, cleared by a developer’s bulldozers.

The Vaquero’s garden is one of 360 sections, each no bigger than a suburban driveway, that make up the 14-​​acre South Central Community Garden. Its farmers are virtually all working-​​class immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica. They are janitors and seamstresses and maids.

You forget all your problems here,” said Jose Vaquero, 16, a sophomore at the local high school. He and his sister Elizabeth, 14, grew up in Los Angeles and translate for their Mexican-​​born parents, Alfredo and Remedios. “Everyone gets along. It’s safe. Nobody worries about gangs. They don’t bother people here.”

Elizabeth attempted to explain what this place’s meant to her. “I was raised here, it’s fun to work in the garden, meeting other people, meeting new guys,” she finally admitted, laughing out loud in embarrassment as she hugged her mother in the moonlight.

After years of legal negotiations over its ownership, the land is being prepared by its owner to become what mostly surrounds it — a warehouse. The farmers, organized and legally represented, have failed so far in their challenges to the decision by the city to sell the land to attorney and real estate developer Ralph Horowitz. Horowitz operates out of the tony, beachside hamlet of Santa Monica.

Horowitz did not return phone calls requesting a comment. But in previous interviews with The Associated Press, he said he was undeterred by the protest of the farmers, who do not pay rent or taxes on the land.

They’re not going to walk off voluntarily,” said Horowitz. “They have to be thrown off by a sheriff.”

His history with the land has long been contentious. In the mid-​​1980s, he was forced to sell it to the city, which planned to build an incinerator there. The plant was never built, and the land was donated instead to a city food bank, which lent it to the farmers, who 13 years ago began planting the garden. Two years ago, Horowitz successfully sued the city, forcing it to sell the land back to him.

The farmers are now sentries on the land they do not own, sleeping overnight in tents along the narrow road that bisects the lot, vowing to defy the owner and authorities as they continue to challenge the sale in court. The farmers make sure someone is inside the locked gates at all times in case the owner orders the locks changed.

The city’s commuter rail line runs only strides away from the edge of the farm. This is a district of light industry: welding benches, furniture shops, flower storage, a candle factory, and warehouses for everything. More trucks, it seems, travel these streets than cars. All around these blocks are truck yards, truck stops, truck repair shops and truck washes. Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Venice Beach are far away; the intersection of Normandie and Florence where truck driver Reginald Denny was beaten during the 1992 riot is not.

One mile south of the Santa Monica Freeway, two east from the Harbor Freeway, the farm is enclosed by a chain-​​link fence, topped by barbed wire. Behind the fence is something surreal — pastoral garden-​​scapes taken from the memories of men and women from an older world. There are scarecrows dressed in soccer jerseys, handmade hammocks slung between guava trees. Folding chairs set under the shade of an avocado tree.

It’s a sanctuary,” said one of the farmers leading the legal fight, who goes by the single name Tezozomoc. “I call it hunger of memory it’s a place you have when you want to come back to a place and time when you felt good about your life.”

Tezo (what most call him) was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and grew up in Los Angeles. He makes a meager income; “service industry,” and “manual labor” is all he will say. He is in his 40s, the son of two janitors who cleaned classrooms and offices at Pepperdine University in Malibu, seaside home to movie stars and a world away. His mother still cleans there. His father is dying. He has leukemia. Chemotherapy was followed by three strokes. Until he was sick, he spent all his spare time at the garden.

One of the things I promised him was to take care of his plot,” Tezo said. “This garden gives us a place where we have a semblance of safety. It gives you a feeling, like, ‘I know how to do this, I have control over this, I can teach this to my kids.’ These are intangibles you can’t put a price on.”

The families who started the farm 13 years ago first had to break, by hand, the concrete slab that covered the lot. They trucked the concrete to the dump and brought in loads of topsoil, all at their own expense and effort.

We worked so hard,” said Tezo. “We didn’t go begging. We said let’s roll up our sleeves. We broke up the concrete with hammers, shovels and picks. That’s why people feel such an investment in the garden. We all worked together to make this happen.”

Families grow crops they cannot easily buy in grocery stores, herbs like pipicha and huaje. They grow chayote, corn, papaya, cactus, oregano, cilantro, figs, aloe and gourds. Babies — Elizabeth Vaquero was among them — take their first steps here. Adolescent romances bloom here. Politicians stump here for votes. Doctors come seeking medicinal herbs. Urban planners take notes here. And old men like Bonifacio Reyes, 72, come here when they feel sick. The air, they say, is healthier, the proximity to so many plants a remedy in itself.

I feel better now,” said Reyes, an asthmatic fisherman from Veracruz, who came to the garden one night with a cold, joining chilly protesters warming themselves by a fire they started in a metal drum. The Vaqueros are here almost every night.

Alfredo and Remedios Vaquero left Puebla in 1990 shortly after Jose was born. Both earn minimum wage. Alfredo works at a warehouse, filling boxes with merchandise destined for various 99-​​cent stores. Remedios sews bikinis in a garment shop. The cherimoya is the prize of the family’s garden, where they also grow squash and marigolds. Remedios guessed they save a modest $30 a week by growing some of their own food. Farmers routinely trade with one another.

But the farm’s most important function is not to save money. It is the backyard that many of these apartment-​​dwelling families lack. It is a second home for their children, the safe street the parents wish they had but cannot afford. It is a place of picnics, celebrations and misadventures. As a young boy, Jose broke his hand falling out of a tree here. It is a place where boys become fascinated with lizards and grasshoppers instead of guns and drugs, parents said.

The farmers are like one family,” said Marylou Escobar, an immigrant from Guatemala, who works at a large hotel downtown. “This place is like school and church for me.”

Her three grown sons, who all work in construction, put in time at the farm, but the garden is Marylou’s special place. She brings her parrot Lulu here, sets out food on the table beneath a trellis of squash vine, and sits.

When I sit here,” she said, “I forget everything.”