Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo is the Florence Everline Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California and most recently co-author of South Central Dreams: Finding Home and Building Community in South L.A. Before participating in the Zócalo/Esperanza Community Housing event “Is South L.A. Forging a New American Identity?,” she chatted in the green room about exploring community gardens in Watts, finding a home at USC, and why she considers herself a “retired salsa dancer.”
Where's your favorite place to go in South L.A.?
One is right here—Mercado La Paloma. I've been coming here since 1999. I have brought my freshman students on walking tours, … and we would always end up here for a meal. And then I have this real affinity for gardens, and plants, so I would say some of the community gardens in Watts are among my favorite places.
What is your favorite plant?
My favorite edible that I like to grow would be Armenian cucumbers. It’s actually a muskmelon. And it looks like a snake. It’s really a wild looking plant, and it’s very sweet. You might have the opportunity to buy it at the farmers market; you won't see in the store. Try it. You don’t have to peel it. It’s a beautiful thing. And then for my ornamentals, I love succulents because they're so sculptural. So I love these big octopus agaves that are like 8 feet tall, 10 feet wide.
Aside from gardening, what’s a hobby you enjoy?
I like to dance. I consider myself a retired salsa dancer. Not that I was good. But I like to take dance classes, and I’m working on my belly dance.
What’s one of your most memorable encounters with past students?
There’s so many; I’m just going to come back to Mercado La Paloma. Home is a big theme in our book, and I always tell students: Find a place on campus where you can feel at home, where you can feel like you can belong. Not everybody can do that at USC. So there’s a particular trio of my former PhD students who would come here for their coffees for breakfast, and I just saw one of them in there. So that’s very present.
Do you have a place that feels like home at USC?
This is so boring, but my office. There’s so many beautiful spots. I give the advice to students—I tell them go to the philosophy library, go to this beautiful place. But then I wind up just being locked away in my office.
What does your office look like?
One of the walls is kind of an avocado green—like a brighter, tropical green, and one is rust-colored, like leftover paint from my kitchen. I love my books and my little tchotchkes—little presents that students have given me over the years.