Bushel of Complaints
As they have nearly every week for three years, supporters of the South Central Farm came to City Hall last week to scold officials during the City Council meeting for not doing enough to save the 14-acre garden, where immigrant farmers are squatting.
As the farmers face eviction, more and more activists from outside the South Central community have taken up the farmers’ cause and rallied at City Hall. One such supporter, Santa Monica family therapist Rebekah Price Ketover Brod, said Friday, “We need to use this open biosphere as a role model for community harmony and nonviolent ways of surviving and living in our country.”
Trouble is, the opposite of harmony and nonviolent behavior takes place at the farm these days. Instead, interviews and documents show, the South Central Community Garden, as it is officially known, has been the scene of severe — sometimes violent — internal strife.
The conflicts have led to allegations of abuse, intimidation, sexual harassment and the purging of farmers who disagree with the farm’s current leadership. There have been fights, arrests and restraining orders. Farmers complained to officials about the problems but found little relief. As a result, there’s been an exodus of farmers in recent months from the lands at 41st and Alameda streets to other community gardens, where they say they can work freely and peacefully.
Twenty current and former South Central farmers, who spoke to the L.A. Weekly in a series of interviews, in groups as well as individually, say the farm has become an unofficial fiefdom for organizing leaders Rufina Juarez, an MTA transportation planner..
Now, with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa involved in negotiations to allow a nonprofit agency to purchase the garden from developer Ralph Horowitz, the farm’s current leadership is a potential beneficiary of millions of dollars in contributions if a sale is made.
“If the city buys the garden and doesn’t take those people out, it’s going to be a larger problem than they already have,” said Pedro Barrera, a former South Central farmer, who was kicked out in January by the South Central Farm leaders and now gardens elsewhere. “They don’t even have the property . . . Imagine what will happen when they actually get the land.”
The breakaway farmers’ numbers are small compared to the 350 farmers that Juarez and Tezozomoc say they represent. Yet their grievances shed light on the workings of a garden that is at the center of high-level negotiations for the property, which could sell for as much as $18 million. And many of their complaints were echoed by other community activists, who went into the farm with the goal of helping but were eventually snubbed and alienated by Juarez and Tezozomoc.
According to farmers, fliers and announcements produced by the farm leadership, complaint letters, e-mails and others involved with the garden, the South Central Farm leaders:
. Evicted farmers, although they were never granted authority to do so by the agency that founded the farm, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.
. Required farmers to attend City Council meetings and demonstrations, often by locking the farm gates during such events.
. Intimidated farmers who complained by filing restraining orders against them and, in one instance, distributing anonymous fliers calling those farmers “sellouts.”
. Collected unknown amounts of cash contributions and referred to their group as a nonprofit 501(c)3, which it is not.
The state Secretary of State’s Office has no records of a nonprofit group named South Central Farmers Inc. Patrick Dunlevy, an attorney with the Pasadena firm Hadsell and Stormer, which is handling some of the South Central Community Garden’s legal matters, said the farm is preparing paperwork to be submitted to the state. Even so, Juarez and Tezozomoc have been receiving cash donations. During a November 22 concert at the farm by former Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha, $10 donations were collected. At a recent meeting of the farm’s support committee, Juarez waved a wad of cash and said it was a $500 donation she had just received, news that was met with applause from the gathered activists.
Juarez declined to address the specific allegations against her. Tezozomoc, in an interview, said he and Juarez are merely enacting and enforcing rules that the farm’s “general membership” voted to approve. He and Juarez were elected in February 2004 to be the farm’s leaders and public representatives, Tezozomoc said. They have faced two or three challenges to their office, he said, but each time, a majority of the farmers voted to keep them. Enforcing the rules is his job, Tezozomoc said. “It’s all volunteer,” he said. “We’re not forcing anybody to be there. We’ve empowered people to struggle.”
But current and former South Central farmers paint a different picture. Many said they were never interested in picketing or marching in demonstrations, but were forced to participate by the farm leadership. Many said they did not want to participate in a ’round-the-clock “vigil” at the site, but were threatened with expulsion if they refused.
They said they sought help from the food bank, from the lawyers at Hadsell and Stormer, and from outside organizations, but each time, Juarez and Tezozomoc either arrived unannounced at meetings away from the farm or responded by increasing pressure on the farmers to comply with their rules.
“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!”
When the two sides later confronted each other at the farm, Juarez went on a verbal rampage, former farmers recount. “She said, ‘I have more pants than all of you.’ She said, ‘Put on your skirts, bunch of ignorants,’ ” recalled Juan Gamboa, one of the South Central farmers involved in a November 8 scuffle with Juarez and Tezozomoc that resulted in his arrest and a hospital visit for his sister-in-law, Irma.
Little by little, farmers have left and have been kicked out. Some were told their monthly dues would no longer be accepted. Others were simply locked out, the locks to the 30-by-30 lots changed without their knowledge. Many of the plots they left behind at the South Central Farm today remain abandoned and in disarray.
“We began to realize that they were most really concerned with the interests of the garden,” said Margarito Salgado, 59, who, like many gardeners, left the South Central Farm earlier this year and now gardens at the new Stanford Avalon Community Garden near Watts. “We’re not opposed to the other farm. We don’t want it to close. But there needs to be another administration .?.?. I would like Zach de la Rocha to know the kind of people he’s dealing with.”
The Stanford Avalon site, near 111th Place and Avalon Street, was offered to the South Central farmers as a possible alternative site in the event they lose their legal challenges to eviction. The offer, Tezozomoc said, was rejected by the farmers.
Some community leaders and activists in South L.A. see drawbacks for the area if the South Central Farm leaders have their way. If they are allowed to stay permanently, no other landowner in the neighborhood will ever permit a community group to use a blighted, vacant property on a temporary basis, said Mark Williams, board member with Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles.
“If you sign an agreement saying you are going to have tenancy on a temporary basis, then when it comes time to go, you have to go,” said Williams, the son of the late Juanita Tate, a pioneering activist whose family moved to the neighborhood in 1905. “We thought it would be two to three years, and it turned into 10 to 12. But that doesn’t mean they should receive squatters’ rights. How will we ever get people to buy property here or do development here?”
Concerned Citzens formed nearly 20 years ago out of the movement to stop the site at 41st and Alameda from becoming a municipal incinerator. Horowitz, who was forced by the city to sell his property so that the incinerator could be built, sued to get his land back after the project was scrapped and transformed into a community garden.
When the City Council settled with Horowitz in 2003, Concerned Citizens made sure that 2.6 acres of the site would be set aside for soccer fields. Williams, who is African-American and still lives near 47th Street and Central Avenue, said his mother worked with nearby Latino families to make sure they got what they asked for.
“When Jan Perry called my mother to ask her what to do about the garden, she told Jan that we needed a soccer field,” Williams said. “Now, not very many black kids in South L.A. played soccer. But our North American Youth Soccer League serves 1,800 hard-working immigrant Latino families, the same makeup as the gardeners. The only difference is, [the soccer families] live in the community.”
Many of the South Central farmers, in fact, do live in Perry’s council district 9, where the farm is located, but scores of others do not. According to a 2003 list of the farmers and their addresses, many come from communities outside Los Angeles such as South Gate, Maywood, Compton, Altadena and Culver City. An office for South Central Farmers Inc., the nonprofit group that is not registered with the state, is listed in Sun Valley. Tezozomoc would not disclose where he lives. A man named Tezozomoc is registered to vote in North Hollywood.
If negotiations by the Trust for Public Land to buy the property from Horowitz are successful, the garden will then be transferred to the L.A. Neighborhood Land Trust, an entity created by the City Council to expand the amount of park space. Villaraigosa aides are already working to line up funding to complete the sale and pay for educational programs at the garden.
Trust for Public Land area director Larry Kaplan left open the possibility that Juarez and Tezozomoc would play a role in a nonprofit garden. “I would imagine they would have a role, because they’ve been so involved in it to date, but that’s not my decision,” Kaplan said.
The first crop at the new Stanford Avalon Community Garden, near Watts, is poking up from the topsoil. Tiny green buds of alfalfa emerge from one of the garden’s 30 plots, most of which are being tended to by former gardeners at the South Central Farm.
There is already a waiting list, said Al Renner, president of the Los Angeles Community Garden Council, after meeting with gardeners there on a recent brisk Sunday morning.
Renner would not address specifics relating to allegations of strife at the South Central Community Garden, but acknowledged that he heard stories from farmers who left.
“There are several ways of running a garden. There are the standard democratic rules of organizing, then you have benevolent dictators, then you have non-benevolent dictators of gardens. I find that I would rather do what the will of the people want,” Renner said.
One South-Central gardener who declared himself defiant and unafraid of retaliation from the South Central Farm leadership is Ediogenes Luviano Rumbos, 82, known among urban immigrant gardeners in South L.A. as “Don Eddie.” Luviano still works a plot at the South Central Farm but rarely goes there much anymore and is now focused on farming land at the Stanford Avalon garden.
“The simple reason is that over there, one would arrive early to do work and the gates would be locked,” Luviano said. “There is tranquillity here. Here, the campesinos get to work without anyone discriminating against them and without embarrassments.”
Staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this story.