Tucked away between the tough concrete of roads and sidewalks in East LA lies a sprouting patch of greenery. Walking in the garden, your eye catches the vibrant orange rows of cempazúchitl. The sounds of birds softly chirping fill the air while you try to avoid bumping into the numerous potted plants around your feet.
Miguel Ramos started this garden when he bought the property and began to use the land in his front and back yard to start planting. Motivated by the need of a healing space to escape the stress of his previous job, Ramos’ vision included creating a space to build community and wellness.
“I feel like… everything that we see, [such as] homelessness on the streets, police brutality, all these different things that we see in our society, we carry that and it’s part of our communities,” Ramos says. He then asks, “at what point do we actually find places so we can heal?”
Ramos and his partner, Elizabeth Guzman, established Casita del Barrio in 2017. To the couple, urban gardening and agriculture are a way to build community. They believe that as the practice grows in popularity, it has the potential to help address issues concerning food insecurity and the environment in urban settings such as Boyle Heights and East LA.
In the past, Casita del Barrio has collaborated with La Cosecha Colectiva, an organization focusing on the exchange and distribution of community-based produce in East LA and neighboring areas. According to Ramos, collaborations such as these relied on community members, who grew their own food in their backyards and gathered to share their resources.
“If you‘re able to grow your own food, you don’t have to depend on these larger systems around you,” says Guzman. “So building with the land is really about being able to take care of ourselves, our families, and our communities.”
Although home gardening is gaining traction, with over 42 million Americans engaging in the practice as of 2020, these projects are disproportionately distributed across LA county. According to the UCLA Sustainable Grand Challenge, in Los Angeles county there are over 1,000 urban agricultural sites. However, only less than 3% of urban agriculture occurs in communities like Boyle Heights and East LA, where access to healthy food may be limited.
Guzman believes that urban gardening gave her a greater sense of agency and sovereignty, while at the same time reaffirming the importance of developing self-sustaining practices through urban agriculture. This became critical at the height of the pandemic when food insecurity rates increased from 16.6% to 24.3% primarily among low-income, female, and Latino households.
Although Casita del Barrio is still getting back on its feet after the pandemic’s peak, Guzman and Ramos hold onto their aspirations to expand. Ironically, that aspiration is challenged by a policy that intends to grow the practice of urban gardening.
The Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone program passed in 2016 allows LA County landowners to use their properties for agricultural purposes in exchange for a potential property tax reduction. However, according to the ordinance, a property must be vacant or contain non-habitable structures to be eligible, neither of which applies to Casita del Barrio.
“There’s obviously challenges because [policy makers] are trying to treat urban farmers the way they treat big farmers,” Guzman says. “So it just doesn’t translate sometimes.”
A new program in the works named the Good Food Zone policy was developed in 2020 to address the disparity of healthy food options in so-called food desert communities through economic incentives for primarily small businesses. While the policy mainly focuses on retail businesses, it’ll also assist the production of what it calls “micro-gardens and community farms.”
According to Good Food Zone, Boyle Heights is among the communities the policy intends to prioritize.
Despite the challenges the owners face regarding expansion, the initial intent for Casita del Barrio remains sound.
“Casita was always intended to be a cooperative space and a community space,” Guzman says. “I think that it could go to a land trust, so that it stays within community ownership.”
Before the pandemic, Casita del Barrio was a hub where a myriad of events occurred, including organizing, pláticas, community meetings, fundraisers, seed and clothing swaps and planting days.
One frequent attendee, Ishidro Sesmas, says he grew his confidence in poetry and song with the help of the community he garnered at Casita del Barrio.
“I could say that [this] space played a big role,” says Sesmas. “I also was learning about my culture and ancestral practices essentially. Everybody that I’ve crossed paths with, they’ve had so much to offer.”
In addition to creating a safe space to build community, Casita del Barrio is also committed to conserving water.
One of Casita del Barrio’s main features is its gray water system, which consists of a series of pipes that connects and filters the disposed liquid used from appliances so that it can be used to hydrate the various plants. According to Ramos, one inch of rain collected on the house’s 1,000 square-foot roof is enough to fill 600 gallons of water.
“These are all indigenous practices”, he says, “and I’m just trying to apply a more modern aspect. It’s important to recognize our relationship to the earth and the plants, but also how those facilitate a relationship to ourselves and other people.”