In the heart of East Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, the Peralta Hacienda Historical Park is an incongruous reminder of California’s Mexican past: six acres of open space in a sea of single-family homes. What was once a massive ranchero now features a Victorian house surrounded by carefully tended vegetable gardens.
Ben Glickstein is director of outreach here. He says back in 1820, Antonio Peralta had big agricultural dreams for this stretch of land that slopes down to Peralta Creek. "And we’re still using this for agriculture, for food, here in the middle of this pretty urban neighborhood."
Ten years ago, a local community organizer got an idea. Why not let a handful of elderly refugees from Laos work this land? So today, schoolchildren visit to learn about 19th century life in California - making adobe bricks and grinding corn for tortillas - alongside Mien gardeners from Southeast Asian mountain country, refugees from the so-called “Secret War”that the U.S. conducted in their country half a century ago.
"The Communist, you know, faction in the country looked at the Mien people as traitors," Kathy Chao Rothberg says. She's the head of Lao Family Community Development in Oakland. She estimates some 50,000 Mien refugees live in the U.S. now, 15,000 of them in Sacramento, another 13,000 in the East Bay. "They’re spread out in East Oakland, in the cities of Richmond, San Pablo, El Sobrante, Pinole, Hercules."
Chao Rothberg herself came over when she was seven years old. For her, the trauma of the passage to the U.S. is something her father talks about, a dramatic piece of family history. For older Mien refugees, the pain of what they left behind is a personal memory. Those who made it out of Laos ended up in Thai refugee camps, happy to be alive ... but grieving for the people who didn’t make it out or died trying.
Nai Siew Saechao, 77, starting working the land as a child with her family in Tum Lan. That translates to "Big Village."
She was in her mid-20s, already a mother of four, when the entire village had to flee. They crossed the border to Thailand and found themselves stuck in a refugee camp, staring at security guards and hanging on the occasional delivery of fresh vegetables to supplement their rice rations.
“We left everything! Cow, horse, pig, chickens,:" she says. "And of course the grain. The rice, corn. You can’t carry it. Everything leave it there."
After four or five years, she made it to the U.S., to Oakland, and to a burgeoning community of Mien refugees. But here amid the concrete and steel of urban America, she yearned for the feel of soil between her fingers.
At Peralta Hacienda, the Mien farmers have planted pumpkins, corn and numerous varieties of green beans and herbs. Many of the vegetables grew from seed sent by family and friends back in Laos and Thailand. They provide a fresh, fragrant reminder of home, right here in Oakland, easily incorporated into stir-fries and stews. (For recipes, see my post at Bay Area Bites.)
Kathy Chao Rothberg of Lao Family says you can't understand the power of food and its cultivation to help these community elders feel connected. "Many have mental health problems and depression. And so the garden, in addition to providing a place where they can grow vegetables and herbs for their consumption [is] also a place they can call home, that they can have other seniors to socialize with. So that they’re not so isolated."
Northern California is home to several Mien farm programs. Others are big enough to support commercial sales, but Peralta Hacienda is sized for the personal use of just 10 people. That said, when the beans are ready to pick, sometime in July, there will be a community feast here. And everyone is invited.