The sun rose over Buttonwillow Farm in Bakersfield early last Saturday morning, as Native American elders and members of the South Central Farmers collective gathered to bless the land for future harvest. In the silence of daybreak, visitors and farmers stood together on a plowed field of dirt and bowed their heads. Tata Cuaxtle, a native American elder from Copalillo, Guerrero, consecrated the ground with sacred blessings in preparation for the farm's first day with functioning irrigation equipment and access to running water.
“Our modern world is de-naturalized and filled with commercialism,” Cuaxtle said. “Without our connection to the land, life has become unnatural. In not knowing our earth, we have lost our freedom.”
Following the weekend sunrise ceremony, supporters of South Central Farmers gathered for an all day festival of music, dancing, food and workshops. Congresswoman Maxine Waters marked the first official day of flowing water onto Buttonwood Farm's 85-acres at a ribbon cutting ceremony. By early evening, some 500 people attended the free concert under the stars with numerous bands including Azatlan Underground, Blackfire and Quinto Sol to celebrate the urban farmers' continuing fight to grow organic produce and distribute it to low-income families, despite losing their land.
Sixteen years ago, following the riots in South Central, the city of Los Angeles offered 350 urban families the chance to create an urban farm on 14-acres in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. The farmers transformed the littered vacant lot into the nation's largest working urban farm. After almost two decades of successful farming, the residents were forcibly evicted from the garden in 2006 after Los Angeles city officials sold the land back to its original owner in a closed-door deal. As portrayed in the 2008 Oscar-nominated documentary, The Garden, the South Central Farmers watched in horror as bulldozers flattened their inner city farm in preparation of future sale to developers.
An anonymous donor gave the urban farmers the 85-acre Buttonwood farm in 2006, but the group was unable to cultivate the land because they lacked the funds to purchase an irrigation system for the scrub-covered property. In order to continue their mission to grow and distribute organic produce, the group farmed on leased land in Bakersfield.
In April of this year — thanks to the organizational efforts of journalist Mira Tweti — the group announced they received approximately $500,000 worth of donations to make irrigating their donated land possible. Bakersfield businesses and concerned residents contributed farming and irrigation equipment, as well as skilled labor in installing the farm's future irrigation system.
The events of 2006 made the members of the South Central Farmer's community effective activists for their cause. “What happened in L.A. marked us and made us more committed to our work,” said Alberto Tlatoa, a college student and farmers' market distribution organizer for South Central Farmers at the Hollywood Farmers Market. “We have to be agents of change.”
Danny Santana-Hernandez, a student organizer and supporter of the urban farmers, joined in the festivities to celebrate the contributions of student protesters and activists. “Our coalition of supporters lead to a successful demonstrations and boycott of Forever 21 that lead to them pulling out on their deal for South Central's land.”
With the original farm land at 41st and Alameda up for sale, the group hopes to begin a new battle to buy their land back. Tezozomac, South Central Farmers' leader, voiced with confidence that the group can put their activism to work in raising the needed 16 million dollars to purchase the land. “It's a whole new chapter for us,” he said. “When we buy the land back we will have two farms, with one mission: to make a path to get affordable organic food to the people.”
Tezozomac stepped across the field's choppy clay to greet Native American elder Cuaxtle with a five-part handshake that ended with each man placing a hand over his heart. It was the same handshake each South Central Farmer — children and grand parents alike — shared throughout the day.
Brooke Burton is also the author of Foodwoolf.com.