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A slice of home becomes a path to activism

A community garden helps students keep their culture close while grappling with issues like workers’ rights and food access.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A little piece of Central America lies at the corner of Susquehanna Avenue and Dauphin Street.

At least, that is what that junction represents for Benjamin Franklin High senior Domingo Jorge Sebastian. Last summer he worked with the Norris Square Neighborhood Project at “Las Parcelas,” a garden on that corner in Norris Square in North Philadelphia.

“I felt like I was in Guatemala working on my family’s farm,” said Sebastian, who moved to Philadelphia three years ago from Huehuetenango, a city in western Guatemala.

For six weeks, as part of the project’s summer crew at the garden, Sebastian, along with Juan Marcelo Ulin Az and Demian Rosales, harvested fruits and vegetables, including squash, eggplant, cauliflower, cabbage and blue grapes. The harvests became a source of fresh food for community members.

The students’ work built on decades of community dedication to the garden.

“Las Parcelas came to life in 1983, when women in the community reclaimed vacant lots in a push against the neighborhood drug war,” said Marian Dalke, Norris Square Neighborhood Project’s food and landscape coordinator.

The women were focused on sharing and preserving their Puerto Rican culture and history through different cultural themes manifested in the garden, explained Dalke.

Courtesy of Norris Square Neighborhood Project
While the garden allowed the boys to remain close to their culture, it also became the place where they grappled with the idea of food justice through three important lenses – migrant farmworkers’ rights, food access, and youth activism.

Over the course of the summer, said Rosales, a senior at Saul High School, "I learned so much about the challenges migrant farm workers face. The wages they earn aren’t enough for them to support their families. Some workers in California get just a cent for each tomato they harvest.”

He added, “I think it’s great that food justice advocates have tried to increase the minimum wage, but supermarkets in America are against this. We need to do more to protect the rights of these workers.”

For Rosales’ peers, the conversation about farmworkers’ rights is personal.

“In Guatemala I worked on the farm with my grandfather, and we mostly grew fruits like apples and peaches and also all kinds of beans,” said Sebastian, who comes from a family of farmers. “I know what it’s like to have your life depend on your farm and what you produce.”

Ulin Az, who came to Philadelphia from San Cristobal, Guatemala, five years ago, had a similar experience.

“In Guatemala, we grew our own food. We had land there, so we planted everything,” he said. “We hardly ever bought anything. That’s how we lived.”

Ulin Az, a freshman at the Community College of Philadelphia, graduated from South Philadelphia High School.

Courtesy of Norris Square Neighborhood Project

Long hours in the garden also got these students interested in expanding food access in the city.

“I realize that I don’t live in a food desert, because there’s a supermarket with fresh groceries three blocks from where I live,” said Rosales. “But a lot of people in other neighborhoods don’t have regular access to fresh food.”

Each Wednesday, the students set up a farm stand that opened for business at 8 a.m.

“Our customers were people who lived in Norris Square,” said Ulin Az. “Whatever we harvested in the garden, we sold and charged $1 per piece of produce. We worked as a team at the farm stand, and it was important to serve the community in this way.”

What the community didn’t buy became the ingredients the team used to make original recipes and meals for other youth programs or neighborhood meetings.

“We cooked many different meals with what we produced, like pizzas with vegetables, vegetable eggrolls, and spaghetti and lasagna with vegetables. And sometimes we had to cook for about 50 people,” said Sebastian.

This zeal for harvesting crops and expanding food access has followed the boys back to their personal lives.

“In the community I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot about farming, but at Ben Franklin I don’t really have any classes or activities related to healthy eating and food,” said Sebastian. “So maybe I can impact my school by bringing what I’ve learned there.”

He added, “Healthy eating is important to me because it gives me energy.” In Philadelphia, he is concerned about pesticides in American produce. And many recipes here require the use of oil.

“Back home [in Guatemala] we never [cooked with oils],” he said. “Everything is natural. Eating vegetables is important.”

Rosales, who currently studies food science at Saul, plans to study biotechnology in college. “I’m hoping to find a way to make food more available to people in cities like Philadelphia.”

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