In South Central, a ‘Rebel Garden’ of True Bounty

Growing a Community Space in L.A. to Heal and To Reconnect to the Land

This Thanksgiving, Rebel Garden co-founder Erica Montelongo contemplates growth and healing in South L.A. Courtesy of author.

Being a steward of the earth is a responsibility I hold dear to my heart. That’s why, four years ago, I got involved in creating a raised-bed garden in South Central Los Angeles. We call it the Rebel Garden for Indigenous rebellions seizing land back across the world.

I like to think our garden is one way for our community to reconnect to the land that was forcibly taken from us and serves as a small, living patch where autonomy and healing can blossom.

Gardening is about more than just taking care of plants. I believe that it is important for us to see ourselves as an extension of nature. Just like the networks of mycelium that nature creates when no one is watching that years later produce a thriving forest that can communicate underground, we need to build a pathway with our community that enhances our relationship with the Earth. It is the very foundation of our human existence.

Having my hands in the soil is a legacy that has been passed down to me by my family, who’ve taught me that as Indigenous people from North West Mexico, our relationship with Mother Earth is deep-rooted.

My mother’s parents harvested sugar cane and tomatoes, traveling from North of Durango to Sinaloa, to find work. My father and his brothers tended to my grandfather’s maize and bean fields in Ramon Corona Durango. To escape poverty, they both made the journey from Mexico to the U.S. in the mid-1970s. My mom came as a toddler, using the documentation of a U.S. resident about the same age as she was. She followed my grandma, who, two years prior, was first to migrate, crossing the border hidden in the trunk of a car. My father crossed “El Rio Bravo” at 18. They all relocated to Los Angeles, where my parents met as young people in South Central.

Like many, to assimilate, our family took on Western cultural traditions, like gathering for a Thanksgiving meal.

Growing up, I was under the impression that Thanksgiving was a celebration of pilgrims and Natives coming together on newly discovered land. It wasn’t until I attended a community workshop as a young adult that I realized that this “holiday” marked a war waged against Native peoples who have been deemed different from me in history and school, but yet looked like me, similar in skin and hair, enjoying similar foods, and even using similar colors and patterns in our beading, clothing, and blankets. We might have been from different regions but I recognized that we were one people.

After that, each year that my family went around the table individually sharing our thanks and appreciation, I couldn’t help but feel guilty knowing the truth about this dark history of European settlers, land theft, control, and genocide.

Though my family has lived through systematic violence, trauma, poverty, and discrimination just as our ancestors did, we never shared about the generational traumas we’ve endured or had the time to explore critical thinking due to being overworked, not having access to education, or possibly not feeling safe enough to express ourselves for fear of being vulnerable.

So it was to my surprise when, after so many Thanksgivings of me sitting quietly and guiltily with the knowledge of the holiday’s true origin, one year, my grandmother said, “Pray for the less fortunate and for our people who are being detained at borders, fleeing from their homelands.”

That was the first time anyone had shared their thoughts about any humanitarian struggle. It felt like an opening of sorts, to share what was weighing on my heart. My grandmother had set the tone with her approach, and I gained the courage to share with my family about the Native American people who have lost their lives in the name of this holiday. Without any pushback or further engagement on what I had just mentioned, everyone listened and prayed on their behalf.

Being separated from our land has caused environmental, economic, emotional, and social distress in our community. It is the opposite of the idea of “bounty” that colonial Thanksgiving insists upon.

Mother Earth is forgiving. She can’t take away the wrongs we’ve inflicted upon her but we can build with her towards a better tomorrow.

That’s why it meant so much to have the privilege of breaking the asphalt and creating the Rebel Garden, with members of the art collective IPR Artz (Indigenous Peoples Resistance) in 2019.

As an artist and caretaker of green spaces, I felt called to be a part of this project in part to help move our community from incarceration to liberation. What better to do this by incorporating prosperity and new life through plants?

The garden was built at Chuco’s Justice Center (CJC), where IPR Artz has a residence. CJC—formerly Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center, which was shut down in 2013 for its criminalization and over-incarceration of brown and Black youth—has since become a home for organizers, artists, educators, and organizations, including the alternative school FREE L.A. High School, which stands for Fight for the Revolution that will Educate and Empower Los Angeles.

Jahzara Halliday—a graduate of FREE L.A. High School—became one of our first garden instructors, engaging young people to water seedlings, plant in the raised beds, and introduce flowers into the garden. Her work was inspired by a FREE L.A. teacher, Velton Jermaine Johnson, who showed her and other students how to grow beans. While Mr. Velton passed away in early 2020, his kind spirit remains in the garden to this day.

Our goal for Rebel Garden is to create a space where community members can learn to grow, harvest, and compost food waste. I believe that having the power to be self-sustaining even in limited spaces is crucial to our autonomy in South Central, and to our healing as a community. To be surrounded by trees and flowers is a human right. It helps us alleviate stress, reduce our everyday anxieties, and let go of being in constant survival mode.

When you grow up in an area where the food most of us can afford is in packages with ingredients you can’t pronounce, it is also beautiful to see where real food comes from. How it begins to sprout from the soil. From a seedling to a fully developed plant, the flower starts to blossom and then the fruits of our labor begin to emerge.

Rebel Garden continues to grow. In 2021, in collaboration with local nonprofit RuckusRoots, we came up with the idea of an internship-style class in which our youth learned from local gardeners, culture-bearers, artists, and activists about caring for, maintaining, beautifying, growing, and harvesting from our garden, how it can help them heal not only themselves but their community. That year, we added more raised beds, hydroponic towers donated by CERCA Cultivation, an irrigation system, and a compost system, thanks to LA Compost. We planted and harvested carrots, cucumbers, and strawberries; we grew sunflowers and basil, and even some shade trees. We also made colorful signs to decorate and mark the space as our own.

Today, we’re working on creating more entrepreneurial pathways for the youth, learning how to make tinctures, food, and other products from plants and herbs. Our interns designed a logo that we put on stickers, a banner, and t-shirts, and we’ve gotten our produce certified, so we can sell our harvest at farmers markets.

Being separated from our land has caused environmental, economic, emotional, and social distress in our community. It is the opposite of the idea of “bounty” that colonial Thanksgiving insists upon.

We can redefine holidays, but it doesn’t change history. We don’t need specific days in our lives to show what others mean to us though. It’s in what we do every day, and how we show up for community and each other.

That’s what we do when we come together at Rebel Garden to reconnect to our land.

When I’m at Rebel Garden, and I see young people digging their hands in the soil, pulling out a carrot, or mesmerized by the butterflies, birds, and insects that now call our green space home, that is bounty. That moves us beyond survival. That is a step toward healing.

Erica Montelongo is co-founder of the Rebel Garden. A local artist and environmental steward based in Los Angeles, the intersection of beauty and struggle inspires her to recreate art that also translates into advocacy for the earth and her community.


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