Hmong immigrants lose a secret garden

The setting sun is an orange stamp on a rice-paper sky. A late summer breeze rustles through 10-foot sugarcane tickling the stillness. A coat with Thai embroidery hangs inside an unoccupied shed fashioned from bamboo, cornhusks and a cardboard refrigerator box.

There doesn't seem to be anyone here on this 4 1/2 acres in southeast Fresno.

But, then, a glimpse of movement through cornstalks and staked Chinese long beans leads to a small man carrying a large bucket, hand-watering plants.

He is old. He is shy. He doesn't speak English. He ducks his head at a stranger and continues watering the garden the city of Fresno is about to uproot.

Other cities such as London and San Francisco have their guerrilla gardeners -- folks who take over blighted lands and start growing things like sunflowers in front of Parliament or a vegetable garden in the Richmond district. They are usually environmental activists looking to make a point and don't mind causing a rumble.

But the last thing the Hmong immigrants who farm here were ever looking for was a fight. They've seen enough trouble in their lives.

All of Fresno's older Hmong immigrants share the same history: An agrarian tribe living in Laos, they were recruited by the CIA to fight during the Vietnam War in what later was called the Secret War. When the United States left Vietnam, and the communists took over Laos, the Hmong ran for their lives.

They fled through jungles, crossed the Mekong river, lived for years in squalid refugee camps in Thailand. Some, beginning in 1975, made it to the U.S. as war refugees. Today, Fresno's 32,000-member Hmong community is second largest in the United States.

Some of the latest generation of Hmong go to college and work in various professions. But there are still three generations living in many Hmong homes. There is still a grandparent who at heart is a farmer, just as their families were in the mountains of Laos. And many of the Hmong immigrant families living in apartments near this garden still struggle with poverty and food bills.

The garden began about 13 years ago, when a small group of older Hmong spotted the empty piece of land overgrown with huge tumbleweeds. The city had purchased the land with a community grant to build a city park that never materialized.

The Hmong dug a 5-foot pit, cleared the tumbleweeds and buried them in the pit. They sowed vegetables. They did it all by hand.

They didn't ask anyone's permission. For years, no city officials noticed there were crops instead of weeds on the far edge of town.

"You have to understand, where they come from, open land is open land -- its purpose is to feed people. They don't really understand the concept of 'city property,' " says Chukou Thao, 37, executive director of the Hmong American Farmer's Association.

Each family works three 100-foot rows in the garden. They each pay $3 a month for water to be delivered from a private irrigation company. Those three rows provide about 20 extended families vegetables year-round.

With about 20 gardeners, some 300 people eat. Somewhere along the line -- and Thao and city officials say the history is murky -- the garden came under the auspices of the California Rural Legal Association, then Metro Ministry, then the Hmong American Farmer's Association. Around 2001, CRLA landed a small state grant that allowed the farmers to add some drip irrigation, with the approval of the Parks and Recreation Department. But at no point did the city officially, in writing, approve the garden.

Now Fresno's Parks and Recreation Department has transferred the property to the Police Department to build a police substation. The gardeners must be out by Nov. 1.

Abandoned plans

Randall Cooper, the parks director, came to office in 2005.

Community activists immediately tried to get his support for the Hmong garden on city property.

Cooper, a former San Jose police official, liked what he saw: potential.

He envisioned a cultural center, a park, carving the garden into smaller plots involving more people from all over the city, walkways, statues. It would be called the National Hmong Friendship Garden. The plans cost $2,500.

"He had plans drawn up. They were beautiful, expansive," says Edie Jessup, director of a hunger nutrition project with Metro Ministry. "We were all impressed. But then he said, 'By the way, it's up to you to raise the millions of dollars.' "

Cooper says he proposed a partnership to raise the $4 million he says was needed for the project. "We set up an account at County Bank and offered to help them with fundraisers."

The elderly Hmong gardeners who speak little English and mostly bicycle or walk to the garden in southeast Fresno did not attend meetings at City Hall about plans for the project.

Cooper said younger Hmong who offered to represent the gardeners didn't come to the meetings either. "They just walked away from the process after we paid for the plans."

Cooper says he's committed to the idea of community gardens. He envisions the city using other properties, dividing them into 10-foot-square parcels and doling them out by lottery to people across the city.

He says one of those locations might be land at Shields and Fowler avenues -- about three miles away from the Hmong garden. He says the city is considering allowing the Hmong to garden there.

But Cooper says the land the elderly Hmong already farm will serve the city better as a police building.

He says the city bought the land for $360,000 and can transfer it to the Police Department at its current value of $720,000.

"I was in law enforcement for 29 years and I learned sometimes you have to make decisions that serve the community as a whole. This is the best use of funds. The best return on investments for the city in its entirety."

The transfer of the land, Cooper says, "is a done deal."

History and culture

Xiong Yang, 70, wears a bright shirt printed with red strawberries and red lips. It's her favorite gardening shirt. She bought it for $1 at the swap meet. Her wide-brimmed hat, she made herself 10 years ago.

She takes care of her three rows of vegetables by herself. On this morning, she weeds. She picks red, tiny, hot peppers and pulls up a peanut plant, shaking the nuts from the roots. She fills a bag with small, delicately striped Thai eggplants before resting in her canvas, twine and cornhusk potting shed.

"The city says her shed is a blight," says Thao, who tried to persuade the city to let the gardeners stay. "It's definitely not some shiny thing you can buy at Home Depot, but I like it better."

Thao worked in Fresno's Planning Department and in code enforcement before becoming executive director of the National Hmong American Farmers.

He came to this country from Laos when he was 6. His parents and grandparents are farmers. He says it's the last thing he ever wanted to be, but instinctively he drops to his knees and helps Yang pick peppers while he speaks to her and translates her words.

She shows him her lemongrass and other herbs that she's growing.

In Hmong, she says her grandmother, Jua Vang, taught her the medicinal values of the herbs when she was a small child. Her parents taught her to plant in their mountain village of Longpaba. She holds out her hand to show how little she was when she was learning and Yang and Thao both laugh because she is petite and not much taller than that now.

She says she likes the garden because sometimes when she's working, she forgets about everything but the sun and the breeze. She forgets that her husband died two years ago and that her son moved away.

Other times, she does think about her husband, Cha Yang, and how much he loved vegetables.

"She says she would come out here to pick vegetables for him," Thao translates.

Tears that she does not wipe away run down Xiong Yang's face.

Most of the other gardeners are friends and relatives Yang has known for decades. She says that in the summer this place gets noisy with grandparents shouting directions to grandchildren out of school and working in the garden.

But the rest of the time, people mostly stay inside themselves during their three or four hours working in their rows.

"It's our time of peace," she says.

Most of the plants trace back to Laos. The corn is a variety with red silk, the eggplant striped, the mustard extra spicy.

Thao says he doesn't agree that the Hmong garden does not serve the interests of the city as a whole.

"There's so much history and culture right here," he says, crushing some basil in his hands. "You can touch it, breathe it. If we are one city, why is it 'us and them'? Why don't we all see Mrs. Yang as our grandparent? Maybe this could be a demonstration garden. Maybe people making a U-turn on Belmont would have heard her story and the story of the Hmong and they might wave and say, 'How are you today, Mrs. Yang?' when they drive past."

Yang speaks some English.

"I don't want to go," she says.

But Thao says Yang and the others would never fight to stay.

"Their whole lives they have been upset by war. They lost their families, friends, land. They just want peace. They're tired and they're old and they won't fight the city for three rows of vegetables." he said.

"Their only hope is that the city of Fresno -- not the government, but the people who live here and make up this city -- say, 'This is something worth saving. If you can't save this kind of network, this kind of support, this kind of love, then pretty soon the only thing left to save is concrete.' "