Video: An Indigenous Community Garden at Risk

The future is uncertain for the Beach Flats Community Garden, a two-acre garden, where for 25 years, the community has grown food and gathered.
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The future is uncertain for the Beach Flats Community Garden, located on a quiet street near an oceanside amusement park in Santa Cruz, California. For 25 years, the two-acre garden has provided organic food to low-income families, hosted neighborhood birthday parties and late-night sings by the fire, and has been a favorite spot for area residents to unite over local indigenous issues. It is also a small piece of earth that reflects the cultures of many from faraway homes. Now, the the imminent takeover of the garden weighs heavily on the hearts of local South American residents and supporters.

“These gardeners were mostly Indios in Mexico, who left their homes in part because of the failure of land reform in Mexico,” said Santa Cruz City Councilman Micah Posner. “It was just by the luck and the generosity of the Seaside Company that they had this place for 25 years. But now capitalism is rising up its head again.”

Photo by Christina Rose

City Councilman Micah Posner stands beside a sign the reads, “Respect the work of others.” Next to that is the orange netting that divided the garden to be returned to the Seaside Company.

The Santa Cruz Seaside Company wants the garden back. Rather than paint Seaside as the bad guy, Kris Reyes, director of External Affairs & General Services for Seaside notes that it is the only company in the city that offered the community two acres of land for a garden. Instead, Reyes says the problem lies with previous city administrations.

“Many of the political leaders… voted to find a new, permanent garden location 20 years ago and they failed to deliver,” Reyes said. “We sat down together over a year ago and the city said they wanted to honor that promise. So we said okay. We will give you a three-year lease while you figure out this issue and fulfill what you told the community you would do.”

City council members signed an agreement supporting the garden, yet City Manager Martin Bernal doesn't understand why the gardeners need so much land. When told it is an important gathering place for the community, he notes that a large formal community center has been built and a playground down the street holds equipment for the children. Another nearby quarter-acre, Poet’s Park, has tiny plots that will be allocated to less than a dozen gardeners.

Plans focus on an “active economic development program” and call for the garden to be reduced to about 3,000 square feet, with affordable housing built on the current garden site. The plan does not recognize that the proposed changes will destroy what the community has worked 25 years to create. Residents believe this means gentrification, and they will be forced out.

Photo by Christina Rose

Emilio Martinez Castaneda and Federico Garcia stand in the garden where planting was nearly delayed, but has resumed after the division of the land.

Peter Bichier, research scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, from Venezuela, has been studying Beach Flats Garden as well as 18 other community gardens. “This one is particularly unique because it is also tied to a cultural experience. In this garden, you are really submerged, it’s kind of like a little island of Meso-America. Everything is made out of recycled materials, there is nothing really new.”

Activists believe the city doesn’t understand the differences between American and indigenous community gardens or why this land is so important to them. In American gardens, each plot serves only the family that tends it. The indigenous garden is run by retired men who have worked this soil for 25 years and produce vegetables for the entire community. The people in Beach Flats depend on that food to feed their families, but they also love the garden for the culture that it represents. Lisette Orozco brought her children to see the garden to teach them about their rural Mexican roots. “I saw those magnificent corn plants, the nopales (cactus) and the frijoles. This looks like my grandma’s milpa, not a farm, not a garden, it’s milpa. I just fell in love. Here they started to learn about their culture. They like to hang out and plant and the gardenieros gave us 10 pounds of corn. Now we are making homemade tortillas and frisole.”

Emilio Casteneda, 70, sat in the garden and reminisced. “People come from other places and say, ‘What a beautiful garden.’ This is where I come in the morning and sometimes I stay until 11 at night. I talk to my friends, I look at my beautiful plants—look how beautiful they are,” he said, gesturing toward the garden. “I am going to come everyday until God comes to get me. That’s how it is.”