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Migration and the Making of California Gardens
By Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Gardens of Migration
When a fire destroyed the chaparral on a hillside in LA's Griffith Park in 1971, Amir Dialameh, an Iranian immigrant who worked as a wine shop clerk, got the idea to build a garden there. He began by terracing two acres with pick and shovel and his own bodily strength, clearing burnt-up tree stumps and planting jacaranda trees for shade, as well as magnolias, pines, pepper trees, roses, geraniums, bougainvillea, ferns, and succulents. For nearly three decades, this lifelong bachelor hiked up the hill to tend the garden, working about four hours daily, scarcely taking a vacation. He paid for all of these plants on his own and installed steps and benches that he painted with colorful designs. Once word got out about the public garden, some people offered money to cover the plant costs, but he refused cash donations, reciting his rhyme "In the land of the free, plant a tree." To show his love for America, he laid out rocks to read USA, and when he worked in this hillside oasis he flew an American flag. This garden was his act of creation on the earth, and it became his home and his connection to humanity and the universe at large. "I created this place," he said. "It is like my family."
Gardens are deceptive. They are seemingly place bound, enclosed, and immobile patches of earth with plants, yet they are products of movement and migration. In elementary school we learn that seeds scattered by wind and sea and carried across the ocean from one continent to another allow plants to sprout in new places and that bees, water, and photosynthesis allow plants to thrive. But why do gardens look the way they do? And what do gardens reveal about the people who make and inhabit them? These answers are to be found in the movement and migration of people, plants, and ideas about garden design.
In Paradise Transplanted, I examine Southern California gardens through a migration lens. It is my conviction that we cannot understand these gardens without acknowledging that nearly all the plants, the people and the water in Southern California have come from elsewhere. Lush tropical foliage from equatorial regions, lawns, and towering trees now dominate the landscape in this arid semidesert, and today these appear to be "naturalized," but photographs from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries show this region as it once was: wide-ranging plains filled with scrubby chaparral and with few trees to relieve the flatness. Native landscape has been replaced by the built landscape you now see when your flight departs from LAX—a vast horizontal sprawl of buildings and a maze of streets and freeways with palm trees, shrubs, and patches of green grass growing in the crevices, some thriving in vacant lots and in between asphalt cracks, and some in gardens meticulously designed and maintained, but all of it sandwiched between sea and sun-drenched hills and desert.
The gardens of Southern California are defining elements of the region. They have been produced by the sedimentation of distinctive eras of conquest and migration, exerting an influence on who we are, how we live, and what we become. In poor urban neighborhoods and wealthy residential enclaves, gardens surround the homes and apartments where migrants, immigrants, and the fifth-generation descendants of earlier newcomers now live. These gardens can be read like tattoos or graffiti, as ways that our social and cultural expression has left marks on the landscape. In turn, these gardens shape who we are as individuals and as a society.
Gardens are diverse and laden with multiple meanings. Most basically, a garden is a plot of earth used for growing, enjoying, and displaying trees, flowers, and vegetables. Gardens can be distinguished from parks (used-primarily for recreation) and agricultural farms (used primarily for food production), although there is clearly some overlap. Landscape architects Mark Francis and Randolph T. Hester define the garden as an idealization, a place, and an action, emphasizing that "by making gardens, using or admiring them, and dreaming of them, we create our own idealized order of nature and culture."
In this book I underscore the sociological implications of migration and gardens, unearthing social, cultural, and economic consequences of Southern California gardens. I share what I have learned in my study of paid immigrant gardeners in suburban residential gardens; urban community gardens in some of the poorest, most densely populated neighborhoods of Los Angeles; and the most elite botanical garden in the West. To tell this story of labor, community, and status in the gardens of Southern California, I rely on over one hundred interviews, ethnographic observations, and historical analysis. I begin by framing the study with three claims, which I sketch below.
GARDENS AS MIGRATION PROJECTS
For more than two centuries, people have trekked to Southern California to fulfill dreams for a better life, and the quest for the good life here has generally included palms, orange trees, and lawn. The idea that the good life is situated in a garden is an old idea, echoing the biblical Garden of Eden and the Islamic paradise, and today, from trendy wall gardens to healthy school gardens, garden imagery continues to define our notions of ideal surroundings. As people have remade themselves in Southern California, they have transformed the gardenscape, and this interaction between migrants and the environment has produced gardens. This is a historical process encompassing the successive conquests and migrations, as I detail in chapter 2. It began with the Spanish missionaries' enslavement of Native Americans and the Anglo-American appropriation of Mexican land and continued with the widespread employment of first Japanese and now Mexican immigrant gardeners toiling in residential gardens. In the process, native landscapes have become gardens of migration.
Gardens are always produced by the interaction between plant nature and culture, and because of its conscious cultivation, every form of garden embodies both pleasure and power, but a constant defining feature of Southern California is the significance of migration. Migration culture and aspirations have shaped the gardens here since the eighteenth century. In turn, the gardens have influenced the society that has formed here.
Today, immigrants from around the globe come to Southern California, joining prior immigrants and domestic migrants who came from other parts of the country. Even when migrants have occupied subordinate social positions and have found themselves excluded from legal citizenship, subjected to racism, and relegated to bad low-wage jobs, they have actively cultivated plants and gardens. In this regard, gardens can serve as minizones of autonomy, as sites and practices of transcendence and restoration. Gardens offer compensation for lost worlds, bringing moments of pleasure, tranquillity, and beauty, and they articulate future possibilities.
These acts of migrant creation are projects of self-expression and social creativity. Building on the work of others, I have come to see gardens as a form of storytelling, as individual and community efforts to shape outdoor surroundings and plant nature in ways that we find desirable and congenial. As we shape the landscape, we are crafting ourselves and projecting our ideas of how nature and culture should look. As landscape designer and historian Wade Graham reminds us, however, "The drama of self-creation isn't straightforward"; rather, it is "full of deviations, diversions, dodges, and impersonations."
Sometimes we seek to transform ourselves and the garden provides a vehicle for that aspiration. Sometimes we seek a sense of freedom, or of control when our lives feel out of our own control, and the garden provides that too. From the level of individuals up to nations, gardens tell a story about the people who create them, their aspirations, yearnings, and anxieties.
We used to think of immigrants and migrants being inserted into new physical spaces and just learning to "fit in," becoming like the majority that already lived there. We called this theory assimilation, and sociologists, with our penchant for quirky jargon, derived many variants—straight-line assimilation, segmented assimilation, bumpy-line assimilation, and racialized assimilation, among others. Most of this focused on social institutions and groups, such as workplaces, schools, and civic spheres.
These perspectives implied that immigrants are like passive plants, when in fact they are among the most agentic, willful people on the planet. They are the ones who picked up and left, who either were driven out or elected to go elsewhere and enact the drama of starting anew. The garden metaphor of the "the uprooted" and "the transplanted" might be productively reversed, as the writer Patricia Klindienst has suggested. "What would become visible," she asks, if we "focused on the immigrant as a gardener—a person who shapes the world rather than simply being shaped by it?"
This view sees gardens as an expression of immigrant agency and creation, with immigrants using homeland seeds and plants to anchor themselves in a new place, bringing together culture and nature to materially remake a strange new environment into a familiar home. In this view, the cultivation of particular flowers, herbs, vegetables, and fruits forges critical connections to cultural memory and homeland. Bulbs and seeds, sometimes illegally smuggled across borders by friends and relatives and sometimes purchased at a local store, are planted in backyard gardens, on balconies, on windowsills, in the hidden spaces of apartment building lots, and in community gardens, providing a narrative of home continuity and familiarity that is particularly meaningful for immigrants from rural, preindustrial societies.
But it would be a mistake to see this as a matter of simple ethnic continuity and reproduction. Immigrants also adopt new practices. And sometimes their garden replicas of their homeland are enthusiastically adopted by others, inverting the story of assimilation. That is what we are now seeing with the current global food fashion, as upscale restaurants and publications enthusiastically tout the joys of growing and eating chipilin and papalo, culinary herbs from southern Mexico and Central America that still remain unknown to many people in central and northern Mexico. "The Global Garden," a weekly feature by Jeff Spurrier that ran for two years in the Los Angeles Times, provided a multicultural tour of LA gardens and educated readers about the new edible plants that recent immigrants have brought to Southern California, including papalo, thepungent culinary herb popular in Puebla and Oaxaca, which has now also been featured in the upscale food magazine Saveur. Papalo has now even migrated into that iconic zenith of French-California cuisine, Alice Waters's Chez Panisse restaurant kitchen garden in Berkeley, showing the power of humble immigrant culture to reshape the mainstream. To be globally omnivorous is today a sign of cosmopolitan status, and immigration and immigrant cities are vehicles for this process. Immigrant cultivation feeds and revitalizes the mainstream.
Elements of gardens have always been borrowed, copied, and deliberately inspired by other gardens, but now garden conventions and styles circulate transnationally with relative ease. These exchanges are concentrated in global, cosmopolitan metropolises that bring together people from many corners of the earth. Sometimes migrants from very urban, industrial societies who are accustomed to living in apartments without tending plants pick up new gardening ideas and practices when they come to the United States. In The Global Silicon Valley Home, landscape architect Shenglin Chang shows how Taiwanese engineers and their families who migrated to the Silicon Valley embraced single- detached family homes with green lawns and foliage planted around the perimeter, an aesthetic form and home preference long associated with British, Australian, and American conventions. This kind of domestic garden has now been transplanted to Taiwan, as trans-Pacific migrant commuters bring back a preference for Mission Revival–style homes with red tile roofs and carefully tended lawns that they first experienced in California. They report taking pleasure in displaying the "home's face" with a front-yard garden, although some, like many Americans, dislike the tedium of lawn care. These lawns and gardens constitute new transnational and material forms of what Peggy Levitt has referred to as "social remittances," cultural and social practices that migrants take back to their place of origin.
Similar processes are under way in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, where Southern California–style detached homes and gardens signal conspicuous consumption and "status on both sides of the Pacific." In Hong Kong, a gated housing development called Palm Springs offers home buyers "the look, feel and beauty of southern California" with "palm-lined streets and picturesque scenery." These housing developments promise the California dream in Asia, and, as Laura Ruggeri compellingly suggests, they have been deliberately "imagineered" on the Southern California model, facilitated by circuits of transnational capital.
Not all immigrants and transnational subjects adopt new gardening practices and forms. Elsewhere on the West Coast, affluent immigrants from Hong Kong have been criticized for refusing to adopt neo-English styles of lawn and naturalistic plantings. But the point is that the material life of homes and gardens now circulates in transnational flows and that contemporary migration facilitates this process.
In my approach to understanding the role of migration in creating gardens and transforming the landscape, I underscore the influence of social inequalities. Labor migrants and refugees fleeing war, violence, and economic devastation, for example, face different scenarios in their engagements with gardens and gardening practices than do transnational entrepreneurs and engineers. While some of the privileged circulate as citizens with access to multiple passports, multiple homes, and a vast array of credentials and financial resources, others operate in a state of restricted legal and economic possibilities. It's an age of international migration that is characterized by what Steven Vertovec has dubbed "super-diversity," drawing people of different origins, legal statuses, and social classes together in metropolitan regions. This too shapes gardens.
Many of the eleven million undocumented immigrants who live and work "without papers" in the United States do not own private property with expansive gardens. Yet agriculture and gardening have long served as job sectors for disenfranchised immigrant workers, especially in the western United States. Many of these same immigrant workers have operated with what Cecilia Menjivar has called "liminal legality," a gray zone of temporary visas, permits, or waiting for the possibility of regularizing status. In various places around the world, agriculture and gardening jobs have employed migrants with experience working in rural, preindustrial peasant and farming societies. And that is the story throughout the West Coast region, including Southern California, where gardening became an important sector of the immigrant labor market and a route of economic incorporation, especially for Mexican and Asian immigrant men from rural backgrounds. Today, Latino immigrant men are disproportionately employed in residential maintenance gardening, but it was Japanese immigrant and Japanese American men who invented the job as we know it today. While Basque, Vietnamese, Central American, and Korean immigrant men from rural backgrounds also work in California gardening, the job is today mostly performed by men of Mexican origin.
It is also important to take account of traces, sedimentation, and vestiges of past migrations. The sedimentation of prior migrations and the vestiges of garden ideas and plants and practices that were once popular remain on the land. These now appear side by side with new plantings and practices that reflect contemporary migration. As Yen Le Espiritu has underscored, immigrant communities express yearnings for homeland not only through the physical reshaping of their surroundings but also through the imagination, so that ideas, memories, images, and practices that are disconnected from the physical space where one lives help to define home. As she reminds us, "Home is both an imagined and an actual geography."
Sometimes immigrants rely on deliberately modified perceptions that allow them to see the new landscape, and their place in it, in ways that remake their original home. They are trying to maintain dignity and restore their place in the world. For example, in a study of early twentieth-century Japanese and Punjab farmworkers who were exploited in the California fields and denied citizenship, Karen Leonard found that they reinterpreted the Sacramento Valley as similar to their homeland and saw themselves as "rulers on the land ... subverting the imposition of the racial and ethnic stereotypes that portrayed them as powerless laborers in California agriculture." This too is a kind of place making and exhibits agency and imagination of the type that allows immigrants to endure challenging conditions.
Gardens, through actions and the imagination, enable migrants to create new homes, attachments, and means of livelihood that link the past with the present. Through gardening, immigrants may transcend and resist their marginalization.
Excerpted from Paradise Transplanted by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
Preface and Acknowledgments
1. Gardens of Migration
2. Ellis Island on the Land
3. The Gardeners of Eden
4. "It’s a Little Piece of My Country"
5. Cultivating Elite Inclusion
6. Paradise, Future