La Mesa Verde, San Jose

Sustainabilities: Eco-oriented | Justice-oriented | Vernacular

La Mesa Verde (LMV), a program of Sacred Heart Community Services of San Jose, was created in September 2009 after the economic downturn to assist low-income, working poor, and long-term unemployed residents in growing organic vegetables in their own backyards. In less than five years, LMV has helped start over 300 gardens across San Jose. The program advocates for food self-sufficiency, the improvement of health, and community involvement around healthy food resources. In particular, LMV works to achieve these goals through the construction of organic backyard vegetable gardens, providing participant families with the materials and training needed to grow an organic garden in their homes—including raised beds, soil, drip irrigation systems, seeds/seedlings and compost. Families are required to attend nutrition, food system, and garden-based educational seminars during their first year and for continuing years are encouraged to join community networks intended to promote ongoing support and education.

La Mesa Verde backyard garderners

La Mesa Verde backyard gardeners

San Jose is located in Santa Clara County, which has a long history of agricultural production, yet one that has also been riven with inequality. Early in the twentieth century the region produced nearly half of globally marketed stone fruits, such as plums, apricots and cherries,1 and became known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight. Yet the base of this valley’s fortune was built on often violent and racist political and labor practices. In the early 1900s, during San Jose’s heyday as production center of stone fruit, ethnic Mexican and Europeans immigrants worked together in the fields. While European immigrants had ample opportunities for upward mobility, racist rhetoric and segregation in the housing and labor markets limited economic, housing and social opportunities for Mexicans in San Jose.2 Today, the economic base of the valley—now referred to as Silicon Valley— has shifted to high-tech industries, yet race- and class-based inequalities persist. For instance, Pellow and Park describe the economic and ethnic segregation of San Jose neighborhoods and industrial workplaces that expose people of color and low-income workers to the dangerous environmental toxins common in the electronics industry.3 In addition, the high degree of inequality and poverty in Silicon Valley has resulted in a geography of food insecurity, where over one third of Santa Clara residents are considered food insecure.

Coming from a background in community empowerment through theater, Raul Lozano started La Mesa Verde after observing his neighbors in San Jose struggle with accessing healthy food. In a city with rich topsoil and an amenable climate, Lozano asked why should anyone who is able to grow food struggle to provide their family with fresh produce? Having grown up working with his family in the fields of Central California farms, Lozano felt organic gardening would be common sense to many ethnic Mexicans, who had experiences in campesino or farm-worker families. Lozano’s experience mirrored what scholars have found: By 2003, 83% of rural farming families in Mexico had at least one family member who had immigrated to the United States, with half of them settling in California, and with many of these retaining extensive knowledge of the agroecosystems in which their families had worked for generations.4

Yet after reconnecting with the cultivation of food through a Master Gardeners class, Lozano found that San Jose’s Latino residents were not targeted by current urban gardening efforts. He then created LMV, with the goal of “democratizing the organic, locally grown food movement beyond the wealthier and well-educated.” The organization is committed to working with San Jose’s large ethnic Mexican and Latino communities, which make up over 30% of the one million residents of San Jose. Their work also places inequality of healthy food access in the context of a history of institutional racism and inequality in San Jose and beyond. LMV’s home-garden food production and development of sharing networks mirror similar food justice efforts described by Alkon and Norgaard, who highlight that in marginalized communities, mistrust of dominant power structures and experience with institutionalized forms of race- and class-based exclusion have inspired some food justice workers to emphasize strategies that promote local community self-reliance.5

The current program manager, Malin Ramirez, describes LMV championing backyard gardens as “a community strategy to address marginalization.” As a part of this work, LMV has partnered with another San Jose organization, Somos Mayfair, which supports members of the Mayfair neighborhood, a largely ethnic Mexican community, through cultural activism and social services. Meanwhile, LMV contributes a vital element to community empowerment efforts: helping gardeners honor and conserve cultural culinary and agroecological traditions. Participants in LMV pride themselves in growing traditional chiles, beans, epazote, chayote, and more. Their experience exemplifies what scholars have found in studying other community gardens: in addition to providing space to resist marginalization, gardeners find a place to grow fresh food and culturally significant ingredients, share traditional knowledge, and connect with a new land in culturally traditional ways.6,7

Finally, there is a “right to the city” dimension to LMV’s work. LMV focuses on bringing gardens to families in their own backyards, rather than having them travel additional miles to increase food access. This presents a special challenge to the organization, since over 90% of participants have been renters, leading gardeners and program organizers to share concern over both housing insecurity and garden tenure insecurity. This, in turn, has provided fertile ground for renters’ rights activism. In 2014, the Sustainable Economies Law Center worked with organizations such as LMV to promote AB 2561, the Neighborhood Food Act, which seeks to legally protect tenants’ rights to grow food. Some program participants have also advocated for a more assertive use of rented land, reclaiming Zapata’s slogan that “the land belongs to those who work it.”

Thus, while focusing on food, LMV contributes to broader discussions of urban sustainability—one focused equally on vernacular, ecological, and justice-oriented concerns.

Michelle K. Glowa

Published June 1, 2015

1. Leslie Gray, Patricia Guzman, Katheryn Michelle Glowa, and Ann G. Thomas, “Can home gardens scale up into movements for social change? The role of home gardens in providing food security and community change in San Jose, California,” Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability 19:2 (2014): 187–203.
2. Stephen J. Pitti, The Devil in Silicon Valley: Northern California, Race, and Mexican Americans (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).
3. David N. Pellow and Lisa S. H. Park, The Silicon Valley of Dreams: Environmental Injustice, Immigrant Workers, and the High-Tech Global Economy (New York: New York University Press, 2002).
4. Ann Aurelia López, The Farmworkers’ Journey (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
5. Alison Alkon and Kari Marie Norgaard, “Breaking the Food Chains: An Investigation of Food Justice Activism,” Sociological Inquiry, 79:3 (2009): 289–305.
6. Teresa Mares and Devon Peña, “Urban Agriculture in the Making of Insurgent Spaces in Los Angeles and Seattle,” in J. Hou ed., Insurgent Public Space: Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities (New York: Routledge, 2010), 241–254.
7. Nathan McClintock, “Why Farm the City? Theorizing Urban Agriculture Through a Lens of Metabolic Rift,” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 3 (2010): 191–207.