ALMA Backyard Farms is an urban farm in Compton, CA, founded by two LMU alumni, Erika L. Cuellar and Richard D. Garcia, that focuses on restorative justice and environmental stewardship.
Have you ever wondered what a chocolate lightning tomato tasted like? Have you found yourself craving its watery, seedy insides, on an unusually hot day – even though this is the first you’re hearing of it?
This is exactly what I’ll find myself doing during my visit to ALMA Backyard Farms, an urban farm located in the heart of Compton. When I arrive, the children are out and playing ball; and the plants peek out unceremoniously from the raised beds, all aligned and occupying the exact same spaces, some of them already bearing fruit, and yellowing, yellowing.
I tell co-founder Erika Cuellar that I was hoping it would rain (gesturing towards my sweater), and laugh when she asks, are you from L.A., which is to say, it doesn’t really rain here, not anymore. In fact, it’s a balmy kind of hot, and though I am here to talk to Erika and co-founder of ALMA, Richard D. Garcia, I am also keenly aware that I am suddenly surrounded by land, and more land, as far as my eye can see. And there, sprouting stubbornly against the October heat – squash, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes hanging like a string of pearls, clusters of fruits and vegetables everywhere, and towering above the farm, on a top deck – a tall avocado tree, its leaves luminous, bearing the small eyes of the black fruit, already ripened, ready to burst open. By this, I know that I have already been swept away by ALMA; already, I knew what others were talking about when they said the earth does something to you. It was not about the farming in itself, though it is that too; rather, it was about the earth, and what it did to one when they were around it – such beauty, such a majestic thing, right beneath our feet this whole time.
We will talk about the earth as if it was hearing us; this living, pulsating thing, that both overwhelms and reassures at the same time.
That is what intrigues Richard the most; it is an unfolding, he says, and we are all unfolding with it.
When Richard was young and attending seminary school, he had the opportunity to serve with Father Greg Boyle, volunteering at Homeboy Industries. He had attended Loyola High School, and continuing in the Jesuit education seemed only natural. He was headed down a path where he would become a Jesuit priest, he says, lost in thought, as if contemplating what kind of future that life would have held for him – perhaps not one where the idea of ALMA would have been possible at all. But Father Boyle introduced him to the idea of the sacredness of service, the service for others that is so inherent to the Jesuit identity to begin with, and that was enough to reassure him that he didn’t need to become a priest necessarily to follow a path of service. It seemed to have worked.
Richard felt re-energized, and refocused. He says he thought a lot about what food did to people, and, more precisely, how people behaved around food, around a shared meal. When we break bread, we are open to brokenness too – not one that would have us give up, but one that would harness our vulnerabilities, that would draw others around it. It was a new kind of seeing, a new kind of being.
And Richard saw this, and saw this from many. How once, when delivering food in the neighborhood, a girl told him that the last time she drove by that exact spot was to do a drive-by shooting. This really stuck with him; the stark contrast between who we are and the intricate worlds we navigate throughout our given lives, and the selves we inhabit when we are in a state of surrender, in a state of tenderness – tending to the garden, witnessing the earth yielding good fruit. These selves seemed to be radically different, not that we become different people when we were surrounded by the land, by the farming, but rather, something revealed itself whenever we were tending to the land – something filled with clarity, with purpose.
This is exactly what Erika was experiencing too, particularly during her time working at Homegirl Café in Chinatown. She says she liked the idea of being able to serve a meal to others, and the feeding that occurred beyond the nourishment of the body itself, and the meaningful moments of teaching that one would stumble upon whenever they shared a meal.
Erika grew up about five minutes from the land that hosts ALMA Backyard Farms now, playing softball on the same land she was now farming. I ask her if this is home, and a spark appears in her eyes; yes, she says, this is kind of home; but I came about it in a roundabout way.
When Erika attended LMU, studying education and Spanish, she always wanted to be a teacher; she dreamed of one day having her own classroom. But at LMU, her idea of what it meant to be a teacher was challenged, and she found herself thinking about education in a whole new way. She identified with the Jesuit value of building men and women for others, the idea of service being at the core of education itself. She asked herself what that meant, practically; what it looked like, and most importantly, what it meant to be the agent of change, to be able to serve others? As a first-year student, she attended one of the service trips organized by the Center for Service and Action; they visited Skid Row, The Catholic Worker, St. Margaret’s Center, St. Joseph’s Center, Dolores Mission, and Homeboy Industries.
“It was exciting to see how quickly Erika developed into a service-oriented student,” said Patrick Furlong, the director of LMU’s Center for Service and Action, who remembers Erika from when they were both students. He was a couple of years ahead of her, and says he is amazed to see how she continues to engage in the service and justice world, throughout college and after.
At that point, Richard had been serving as a youth minister, and had started an afterschool program through Homeboy Industries. He wanted to give kids a different space, so they wouldn’t have to turn to gang life. He just happened to be recruiting for tutors when he met Erika, and she fit the bill: smart, talented, service-oriented, and with a great GPA.
“That was important to me,” Richard says, chuckling at his particular way of identifying college students with great promise; because it was important for the kids to see that they could have good role models. Like Erika, like himself, people to show them that there was, in fact, another way. And it worked; most of those kids ended up attending LMU, they both remind me, smiling proudly.
But I already know it wasn’t about the GPA, it wasn’t about bringing something different for the kids. It was about being with them, spending time with them, so they would have the chance to see themselves in a different light. In this way, Richard says, their stories were just beginning, just unfolding.
And so were they.
The love of farming is not something Richard developed suddenly. Growing up in a Filipino-Catholic household, his family worked in the fields; his grandfather was a sugarcane farmer, and his father worked in the fields of Santa Maria. Through his mother, he got to experience first-hand the joy that one can have from tending to plants, the unearthing, the seeding, the watering, the coming back to the greenness of it all over and over again, after a long day of labor elsewhere. Here, notice, the connection to the earth, the bliss of it, the calmness. From his father, he learned about the process of farming itself – the pruning of tomatoes, the times for harvest, the excitement building up to it all. But he noticed that it was never quite only about the farming itself; instead, whenever his father spoke, he talked less about the plants, and more about his brothers – and this is perhaps where it begins for Richard, for him to be able to see what farming can do for a community, the unspoken connections it can bring, the memories it can evoke – all of it while feeding others. It helps me make sense of why we exist, he says, alluding to the sense of unfolding we’ve been talking about earlier. It is the sense of participating in the story of creation itself, isn’t it? The redemptive nature of it too – weren’t Adam and Eve farmers, tending to the Garden of Eden, before they became anything else too?
ALMA’s mission is twofold, containing exactly that – both the sense of community, and service, the giving that comes from tending to the land itself. At its core, ALMA is grounded in both restorative justice, and environmental stewardship. It strives to give the opportunity to the formerly incarcerated to reorient their lives as caretakers of the community. I am intrigued by these words, that provide a necessary space for an imagining that must occur, in order for us to even begin to comprehend what the mingling of both can do. How does ALMA balance these elements, I want to know. I am interested in the careful wording of it, that word – “reorient” the lives of the formerly incarcerated, instead of transforming. It’s a subtle shift, but it’s a necessary one. So what does this “re-orienting” actually mean, practically speaking? What does it mean to offer the formerly incarcerated the opportunity to become agents of health, safety, and community?
It is not about second chances here; ALMA does not claim to give another chance to the formerly incarcerated, as that would be too ambitious of a claim to make. Instead, both Richard and Erika are certain about what it does. Working on the farm is like being a mirror; being able to reflect the dignity back to the person who has lost it, says Richard, meaning, it does not require them to be transformative, it simply requires them to be agents of tenderness, agents of brokenness.
This often happens in quite surprising ways, and it certainly was a surprise to Adolfo Martinez, an ex-lifer who had spent more than 20 years in prison in South L.A. When asked what he wanted to do with his life after prison, Adolfo, like many others in a similar situation, said he wanted to give back to the community he had taken away from. Time is something that cannot be reclaimed back, of course, and the formerly incarcerated know it more than anyone else. But this, they can do, and re-entry into communities is a lot harder when one is carrying on their shoulders the guilt and shame of having taken away from their own communities, one way or another. But beyond the guilt: the nothingness, the not being able to belong to the same communities that built them, the same communities they grew up in. And this is where ALMA comes in; we are trying to create a space where they [the formerly incarcerated] can fall in love with life, again, and again, and again, says Richard, lost in a gaze towards the land, where the drooping leaves of the zucchini were unfastened and unmoored, as if in mid-flight.
Here, the farm is its own thing. How it breaks open, the ground, the mouth of it – fleshy, damp, viscous. Press the hands into its stillness, and it moves, it breathes, it changes colors. Adolfo turns the earth, parts it, adds the seeds; he is so focused on his task, so immersed into the land, that he has forgotten where he was. When he looked up, a group of children were staring at him, wide-eyed and curious, excited to see the farm for the very first time. They didn’t see past him, they didn’t see what he thought he had taken away from the community; instead, they witnessed his giving back, and the joy in their eyes, and the delighted squeals in their voices was a new kind of gifting, which brought him to tears. “As I worked on the farm, the farm was working on me,” he says, remembering that day.
And indeed, it does; it works with its quiet, majestic stillness – the labor of it, the love of it, and the feeding, looming large and deep beyond the fruits it bears.
By Mahtem Shiferraw, Staff Writer