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Third-space Farmers

by Devon G. Peña, Ph.D.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Imagine a space where families gather everyday to work on the community
farm. Imagine they have made this special place into a sustainable source of
local food. They have created an edible landscape: a green mosaic with an
endless variety of food crops, medicinal plants, fruit trees, creepers,
crawlers, and cacti.

Imagine the people plant seeds that are family heirlooms and have been
over countless generations. Imagine the seeds contain genetic information
that is at least five thousand years old from the native ancestral crops of
the Americas.

Imagine a space where indigenous women cultivate heirloom crops and
visions and memories of their cultural identity and heritage into the
landscape. They are making place; they are making home.

Imagine the passing of this knowledge to the next generation in memories of
the plant stories and the social and ecological skills of the farmer.
Imagine the youth eagerly pursuing the cultivation of crops like maize,
beans, calabaza, guayaba, chipilin, and chilacayote. Imagine they know the
wild and cultivated varieties, their nutritional and medicinal properties,
and what it takes to grow them naturally.

Now, imagine this space is located not in a rural area of Mexico but at the
center of one of world‚s largest and most important global cities, Los
Angeles, California. Imagine then, nothing less than the amazing 14-acre
urban farm known as the South Central Community Garden, at 41st and
in Los Angeles.

South Central is the largest urban farm in California and one of the biggest
in the U.S. For thirteen years, the community has relied on this precious
and rare space to grow food while becoming self-reliant and building a sense
of community. South Central Farmers Feeding Families is a grassroots
organization of 350 families who manage this mosaic landscape of native row
crops, fruit-bearing trees and vines, and medicinal herbs in a democratic

Like other anthropologists, I often marvel at the sustainable and equitable
nature of agricultural practices of indigenous farmers around the world.
Mexico‚s native ethnic groups have created one of the world‚s great centers
of agricultural innovation and botanical knowledge. Mexico is a „Vavilov
Center,‰ an important world center for the original domestication of wild
plants, including mainstays of the global diet like maize, bean, squash,
peanut, chocolate, tomato, sweet potato, avocado, guayaba, and chayote.
South Central Farmers are a contemporary extension of this Vavilov Center
and thus stewards of significant natural and cultural resources.

I visited the farm in June to initiate a pilot study of plant biodiversity
in this remarkable urban agro-ecosystem. I identified 35 species, each with
a multitude of medicinal or nutritional uses. Many of these plants have
spiritual significance. I currently estimate a range of 100-150 species
across row crops, trees, shrubs, vines, cacti, and herbaceous plants.

I have observed youth and the elderly tending and harvesting crops at South
Central. I am always struck by the way these relationships represent the
shared social life of the garden. Perhaps the most important crop cultivated
here is conviviality? These loving acts transmit knowledge of plants and
farming but also build an ethic of self-reliance. The farmers grow food and
social capital: The intergenerational cooperation farming provides gives
youth meaningful alternatives to gangs and drugs.

Now imagine another space: a 14-acre block of hulking gray warehouses
bare concrete parking lots. Imagine why the City of Los Angeles would
to evict the 350 farming families at South Central to make room for another
block of lifeless urban redundancy.

The South Central Farmers fought against this eviction during the month of
October, demanding that the City of Los Angeles live up to its decision in
1992 to allow the South Central community surrounding 41st and Alameda to
cultivate a "community garden" to help alleviate hunger in the area. But on
October 19, the Superior Court of the state of California declined to hear
the petition of the South Central Farmers against the city of Los Angeles
and real estate developer Ralph Horowitz. The Court of Appeals ignored the
law and sound public policy in overturning the injunction in place on the
property. The Los Angeles City Charter allows the City to sell real property
it determines it no longer needs, but only after complying with various
procedures designed to ensure that the City does not squander resources in
the sale. The sale of the garden property to the Horowitz interests did not
comply with these procedures. The Court of Appeal held, nevertheless, that
the City did not have to comply with these provisions because it had not
determined that it no longer needed the garden property. This situation
leaves the South Central Farmers exposed to the impunity of Mr. Horowitz,
who, in the past has expressed extreme desire to demolish the community
as soon as he would have any legal authority to do so.

This space has a long contested history. It was the site of a key episode in
the decades-long struggle against environmental racism in LA. In the 1980s
the Concerned Citizens of South Central, led by Juanita Tate, successfully
resisted efforts by the City to use the site for trash incinerators. The
activists instead created an alternative „third‰ space compatible with the
needs of the community.

LA needs a dozen more urban farms like South Central. It does not need to
destroy a singular natural and cultural treasure to replace it with more of
the same: an impoverished, homogenous landscape, a result of enclosure by
privatization. The third space of human and natural capital created at South
Central over the past thirteen years must be valued as a model of grassroots
new urbanism.

Inner cities across North America are being re-invented from the grassroots
in creative and hopeful ways. There is a sustainable Latina/o urban ecology
and the South Central farmers embody this heritage of environmental
self-governance. The process of re-visioning a sustainable and just city
must not be diminished by the encroachment of the heartless soul that is the
post-industrial urban landscape of neoliberalism.

Imagine LA as a city without people, without culture, without ecology.
Imagine the empty warehouses and blank parking lots; the buried Zanja
and the paved-over containment of wild rivers and creeks. Imagine a light
post in place of a sacred tree, South Central‚s fallen Pochote. Imagine the
silence˜a space devoid of laughter and the chatter of children and their
grandmothers tending fields of ancient heirloom corn.

Dr. Peña is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington in
Seattle. An award-winning author, his most recent book is entitled Mexican
Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida. The South Central Farmers
Support Committee meets every Wednesday at 7 pm at the farm on 41st and
Beach Avenue. For other ways to help, contact Rufina or Tezo, organizers of
the South Central Farmers Feeding Familes. Go to, email

Posted 11.7.05 by Unit

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