By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“It’s going to be impossible to do anything with those people there,” said Rafael Ruiz, a former South Central farmer who arrived at the site one morning in January and found his 30-by-30-foot lot locked shut. “I don’t like using hard words, but they’re despots.”
One gardener who still works on land at the 41st Street farm said the leaders initially were seen as strong allies in their struggle to preserve the land because they spoke good English, unlike most of the other squatters, a majority of whom are immigrants from rural areas in Mexico. Now, three years after Juarez and Tezozomoc took control, that gardener and many others said, fear reigns at the South Central Farm.
“They started acting like owners of the land,” said the farmer, who requested anonymity for fear of eviction.
Community organizers who were at first welcome at the farm but later told to stay away by the leadership told similar stories.
“We felt like we were kicked to the curb,” said Nadine Diaz, who volunteered at the South Central Farm in 2005 with peers from USC while she was a graduate student in social work. Diaz said she began hearing from farmers who sought out her help: “We started getting phone calls, ‘We’re not being treated fairly, they’re kicking us out, they’re changing the locks on us’ .?.?. It’s such a shame.”
The South Central farm is a magnet for environmental-justice and Latino activists because it symbolizes the issues that define urban areas with large immigrant populations: the preservation of green space and the agricultural traditions brought to the U.S. by immigrants.
“People who come, whether [from] Laos or El Salvador or Mexico, bring with them farming skills and farming knowledge that has to a greater extent been lost in this country,” said Robert Gottlieb, an urban-environmental-studies professor at Occidental College. “There have been all kinds of fascinating stories of people who have taken median strips in major roadways, planted in alleyways. The farm at 41st Street is part of that broader phenomenon.”
The South Central Farm has drawn support and contributions from such disparate groups as Food Not Bombs, the Bus Riders Union, Common Vision, local high school MEChA chapters, Green Party gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo, famous tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill, and de la Rocha, who gave a free concert at the site in November that drew an estimated 3,000 people.
But the South Central Farm has not lent itself to neatly packaged causes. Founded in 1992 as a community garden to be managed by the food bank, it was supposed to be temporary. When Horowitz, the owner, won a settlement with the city in 2003, the food bank warned the farmers that there was little they could do to prevent the closure of ?the garden.
To this day the food bank continues to operate the farm’s water and sanitation services by collecting, through the farm leaders, $12 in monthly dues from each farmer. Other than that, the food bank handed over management to the farmers themselves. “They basically locked a lot of the gates that we used to have keys to,” said food bank spokesman Darren Hoffman. “We don’t go on the property much anymore.”
No other oversight remained. And, led by Juarez and Tezozomoc, the farmers continued to squat on the property while the courts heard their appeals to the 2003 ruling.
Eventually, in fliers, meeting agendas, announcements and e-mails, the leaders of the farm began invoking the rhetoric of Mexico’s Zapatista movement and made, according to farmers, attendance at some demonstrations mandatory. “If they tell me I have to be there at night to watch the farm, I have to be there, because if not, they will throw me out in the morning,” said one farmer who still gardens at the South Central Farm.
Juarez denied this, saying, “Let me tell you one thing, all is volunteer, everything is on a volunteer basis.”
In a written notice dated last July 16, Juarez explained that the garden’s gates would be locked during City Council meetings so that farmers could rally there. “Now is not the time to be cutting cabbage flowers or being only on your own,” read the note. Some farmers began grumbling that although they wanted to work to save the farm, they didn’t see any reason to be marching in public and chanting slogans. “One loves the little space you have to grow vegetables, that’s why we tolerate it,” one current South Central farmer said.
The situation took a nasty turn last June.
Some 17 farmers sought help from the food bank during a June 8 meeting. A day later, an anonymous flier began circulating at the garden that read at the top: “The following people have sold out to the Food Bank!” The flier listed each gardener who went to the food bank to complain and variously questioned some male farmers’ masculinity and referred to some as “puro pedo,” or “pure bullshit.”
“Just get out of here already,” read a screed next to one farmer’s name. “Put yourself up like a man and not like the viejas [women]. All you need is a skirt!”