(Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 43)
We originally featured the new park in East Hollywood over three years ago. Now, a few months shy of a year since the grand opening of the first-ever community garden at 1115 North Madison Avenue, a local chef and gardener has overseen the growth of the first year’s sets of fruits and vegetables for the community.
Heleo Leyva has lived in East Hollywood for nearly eighteen years. Since June 2019, when the garden was originally introduced to the neighborhood by the LA Garden Council, he has served as the lead gardener for the project, planting and raising seeds through the new soil to produce an array of beets, tomatoes, chili, kale, hierba buena, jamaica, zanahorias, nopales, and more fresh produce.
Heleo first learned to plant from his father in Puebla, Mexico, who began teaching him the craft in his formative years. He is not commissioned by the LA Garden Council, but volunteers his time to grow the greens out of a love for farming.
“It’s hard to explain. But it’s a part of life, not something separate,” he says of planting.
In a community surrounded by fast food, where boxes of pizza, if not plastic or paper bags with grilled meats and buns, serve to dominate the expenses of many families here, the act of growing and consuming fruits and vegetables can seem like a remote, cumbersome, and even unsatisfying process. But there is more to the cuento.
East Hollywood’s median annual family income for a household of three is reported as being just under $40,000, or only 1.8 times over the federal poverty level for such household sizes. In Los Angeles, that $40,000 median income level is also well below the “average” of $69,138, for families of the same size in L.A. County.
Heleo’s time with the garden is also taking place during a chapter for the community when a growing number of healthy, but unaffordable foods are entering the area due to the ongoing gentrification of its storefronts and housing, which can have the effect of leading many of the area’s ethnic communities to view healthy eating as “a white thing.”
This is where Heleo’s roots play an important role in challenging that narrative. Hailing originally from Puebla, Mexico, where many pueblos are still tied to their native customs, including speaking Nahuatl, Heleo views farming as something intrinsic to living. This is a perspective largely out of range for much of Los Angeles, where the ability to consume food and entertainment far outweighs incentives to live more sustainably, thus making the act of growing one’s own food an act of resistance.
But even if Heleo wasn’t rooted as such, the simple fact that he can communicate himself in two languages in an area where the majority of youth speak one language at home while learning another at school, makes him well-equipped to invite an “old” community into a “new” way of interacting with their vicinity.
Over the course of time, then, in the post-coronavirus world that’s certain to arrive in due process, I believe that with the right support network, there should be no reason why he and other growers can’t teach youth and families of color in the community to grow too, as Heleo’s father once showed him. The garden will also surely need more volunteers to grow and fulfill such vision, which will be another key step towards creating food justice in East Hollywood.
To learn more about the fresh new stretch of green in the community, continue down the rabbit hole here.
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