In Los Angeles, glimpses of an oasis with deep immigrant roots

Ten minutes from my home, next to a disused landfill, a highway and the largest port in the country, lies an unlikely hillside oasis of vegetables and fruit trees.

Emerging as a mirage from its surroundings, San Pedro Community Gardens occupy a six-acre city-owned land in the otherwise highly industrialized area of ​​the blue-cut San Pedro port community of Los Angeles.

Once part of Tongva’s ancestral land, an indigenous people in California, the place – now divided into 224 family plots and a common plot, each averaging 30 feet by 40 feet – has provided physical and spiritual nourishment to several generations of immigrant Angelenos, ever since gardeners began cultivating the land here in the 1960s.

As many peasants were pushed into cities and across borders by industrialization and urbanization, some turned to the gardens for refuge, connection to the home, and a means of preserving and passing on their cultural heritage.

Raúl Laly Fernández, who grew up in the small town of Purépero in the Mexican state of Michoacán, joined the Commonwealth in 1986, about 20 years after immigrating from Mexico City.

“Most of the people who garden here used to live in Mexico in small towns and on ranches, where they worked the land for other people who own the fields – we call them campesinos,” he said. “And so when they came over here, yes, now they work in the city. For them, this country means a lot, because when they work with the land here, they feel like they’re home again.”

Sir. Fernández spoke to me about his early days in the garden: “Before I retired, I came here after work, took a shovel and started working in the ground. And all the stress, all the excitement you have from work, just wanted to disappear, “he said.” I would look after my plants or go and talk to my garden friends. Sometimes we played short, Mexican games that we know. “

For Mr. Fernández, the gardens provided a much-needed daily respite and community space that he otherwise felt was lacking in Los Angeles.

“Like most people living in Mexico, especially in small towns, in the evenings after work they go out to the square where people gather,” he said. “They sit on a bench and talk and say hello to people who pass by, because almost everyone knows each other. We can not do that here. ”

As a Russian-Ukrainian American who moved to the United States as a teenager and later married a second-generation Mexican American, I find myself attracted to stories of migration, disconnections, longing for one’s culture, and the creation of new homes.

When I discovered San Pedro Community Gardens in 2019, I instantly connected with the expressions of longing for ancestral lands that I saw in this lovingly cultivated landscape. By that time, in the midst of California’s drought, the gardens were closed for water infrastructure improvements. They reopened in June 2020, and I continued to learn about the history of society through the traumas and disruptions caused by the pandemic and exacerbated by structural racism.

Kimberly Mentlow, a new gardener who was born in Ohio but grew up in Los Angeles, is eager to become a part of the community. She has just received her due after three years on the waiting list. Working with the gardeners – sweating with them, getting dirty with them, growing and sharing things with them – was especially important to her, she said.

“I’m really excited to get to know them, experience them, learn about their families or see what their passion is, what they want to grow, who they are as expressed through their garden,” she said. “I can look at my friends Liz and Dave’s gardens, and you kind of sense who they are. You can feel their art, their culture, their creativity, their experiences, their loves. ”

By joining the garden, Mrs Mentlow is also seeking a release from the stress of her job and a connection to the land. “Time goes by and you do not look at your watch,” she said of her time with gardening. “You’re right in the moment.”

For many gardeners, their family grounds have served generations and commemorate family members who have moved on.

Johny Cracchiolo, who immigrated from Palermo, Italy, with his parents in 1968, took over his land from his father, who died 23 years ago. “This is my home away from home,” he said, almost tearing up. His father, he said, had been cultivating the land for 30 years. “So this plot has been my dad and I for 50 years.”

Imelda Ladia shares a similar family story. After retiring to the Philippines, Mrs. Ladia’s father migrated to Los Angeles to join his daughters. In time, he wanted to return to the Philippines, but Mrs. Ladia tried to give him a reason to stay.

“He loved growing plants, so we got him a plot here,” she explained. More than 30 years have passed since then. “We would come over here with my sister, brother-in-law and my husband and we would help him. We loved helping him and he was so happy.”

After her father’s death, Mrs. Ladia and her family decided to continue cultivating his land as a celebration of his legacy. “Our heart is in the garden,” she said.

For some people, working the land in San Pedro Community Gardens is a chance to repair broken connections to ancestral homelands.

David Vigueras’ family has lived in Los Angeles for generations, and he uses the garden to reconnect with the way of life of his native Yaqui ancestors from Sonora, Mexico. “I’ve been all over Mexico, but I’ve never been to my home country, Hiak Vatwe,” he said. “I try to emulate the way my people, my ancestors, could have approached this garden.”

Mr. Vigueras also cherishes the diversity of gardening. “What I think is beautiful here is all the ethnic groups in this garden, the different cultures that people come from, and that we all share what we cultivate,” he said. “You have Italians growing Mexican chili, other people growing Italian eggplant.”

“We cross-pollinate,” he said.

During my reporting, the gardeners in San Pedro welcomed me and gave me their wisdom, their stories, and the fruits of their labor. They also taught me to work with the soil and the plants, which gave me a deeper understanding of the garden itself. Close friendships followed. Eventually, the garden became the place where I spent the most time away from home during the days of the pandemic before vaccination, thanks to the relative security provided by the outdoor common space.

My own family in Ukraine grows a lot of their own food, and therefore I deeply related to the gardeners’ desire to recreate a piece of their homeland, reconnect to a lost lifestyle and grow deeper roots in their adopted homes – all while not caring only the health of their family, but the health of an entire community.

Stella Kalinina is a Russian-Ukrainian-American photographer based in Los Angeles. Her stories focus on human connections, personal and municipal stories and the places we live. You can follow her work further Instagram.

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