by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo
When the financial crisis hit, stores across the nation went out of business, but by 2009 one U.S. retailer was crowing about an upswing in sales: Burpee Seeds. The recession prompted consumers to spend less on ornamental plants and lawn service, but many people started buying vegetable seeds. Seeds are relatively cheap, so families and working people tried to stretch modest grocery budgets by growing their own food.
This is an American tradition. “Recession gardens” follow a long line of food gardens born of national moments of crisis. During World War I, the government promoted “Liberty Gardens,” and during the Great Depression people turned to “Relief Gardens” and “Potato Patches” as remedies for joblessness and food scarcity. By 1944, World War II’s “Victory Gardens,” are believed to have produced more than 40% of the fresh produce eaten in the United States. In the 1960s and 1970s urban fiscal crises and countercultural ideals sprouted a new crop of guerilla gardening and urban community gardens. Now, the recession combined with the food movement and the desire for local, organic produce is fueling suburban and urban agriculture.
Collective or shared food gardens have always arisen in time of social crisis. But some sectors of society, such as Latino immigrant newcomers, live in a constant crisis, one defined by poverty, discrimination, and criminalization and transnational family formations because of their legal status. In inner-city Los Angeles, people from Central America and Southern Mexico, some of them indigenous and many of them undocumented, gather at urban community gardens to grow homeland foods but they are also cultivating bonds of care and connection. At the garden they find belonging, inclusion, and a re-created homeland. They encounter a hostile nation, but they feel welcomed on a small patch of land, where food and plants bridge them to their collective past, to new friends, and to restorative moments of reflection and transcendence in close encounters with plant nature. As one of the gardeners said, alluding to both the ethereal and the earthly, “Where else can we touch the soil?”
Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo is Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California and the author of Paradise Transplanted: Migration and the Making of California Gardens, as well as Gendered Transitions, God’s Heart Has No Borders, and Domestica. She is regarded as one of the most accomplished and imaginative immigration scholars in sociology today.