El Rancho de las Mien: A Story of History and Community

ACTA - Posted on 01 February 2011

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Holly Alonzo is Executive Director of Friends of Peralta Hacienda Historical Park.  In the following article, Holly discusses the eight-year history of the organization's Common Ground project, which received funding from ACTA's Living Cultures Grants Program in 2006, 2007, and 2008.  The program brings together Mien elders with their youth and other youth of the community to transmit their cultural traditions relating to food.

Participants in Friends of Peralta Hacienda Historical Park's Common Ground project: from left, Meui Chin, Ying Fu, Celine, Jobari, Holly Alonzo, Kenny Le, and Meui Chin.Friends of Peralta Hacienda Historical Park (Friends of PHHP) has worked with the Mien elders since 2003, when the Lao Family Center asked the organization about community garden space for a group of Mien women.  Friends of PHHP was coping with a weed-infested ornamental garden surrounding the 1870 Antonio Peralta House.  What better way to realize their mission of engaging community in the historical park, which had been the headquarters of the 45,000-acre Peralta rancho during the Spanish and Mexican periods of California history, than to invite the Mien elders to help?

The women quickly converted the area around the house, and the abandoned youth garden, into a successful working mini-farm, growing over thirty vegetable species, as documented by Lauri Twitchell of the UC Botanical garden.  They cut back the ornamental trees and shrubs so their crops would receive enough sunlight.  Strikingly, Rich Seyfarth, the landscape architect of the original garden, says the thing he most loves about Peralta Hacienda is seeing the Mien gardeners working at the site, in the remnants of the ornamental garden he designed.

In the midst of this transformation, they began telling folktales to Peralta Hacienda staff, sitting on the Peralta House patio.

However, the land became a contested space.  As the garden grew, youth saw it as a great place to play hide and seek, or would leave the hoses on for hours, or break the spigot; the garden was part of ‘their’ park.  Adults would help themselves to the Mien vegetables, perhaps thinking they didn’t belong to anyone.  (The Mien always let a portion of their crops go to seed, for next year’s planting.)  The organization needed to find ways to encourage communication between the Mien women and others in the community, especially youth, to de-escalate the increasing ill-feelings on both sides.

Staff began an interview project based on the shared landscape, called Common Ground, funded by the California Council for the Humanities, part of the California Stories initiative.  Mien elders and children of many cultures told their stories, revealing both the gulf of experience between them as well as deep commonalities.  At the same time, through the traditional arts of cooking and gardening, the women engaged with diverse youth from a position of mastery, as traditional artists sharing their skills.  Friends hoped this would lessen the alienation many were experiencing in Oakland, so far from their origins.  Local youth would have a special opportunity to broaden their horizons, looking into close-knit cultural world of the Mien.  This interaction would be a paradigm for what could happen, optimally, among the different cultures of Fruitvale, which is one of the most ethniclly diverse communities in the U.S.

At first, interactions were weak and intermittent, eye contact rare, misunderstandings constant, each others’ names never learned.  The women, bruised on every level by historical forces, were hesitant to unfold their personalities.  However, encouraged by staff, they soon became eager to tell about their lives.  Dressed in traditional attire, they came to the Peralta House to record their stories of inconceivable sadness.  Tom Hutcheson of UC Berkeley Media Studies also videotaped the youth, telling their own endearing stories.  The program concluded with a community banquet with all the Mien gardeners and kids, and many other neighbors.  Among those attending was Tafu Saechao, translator from the Lao Family Center, and brother of Yen Kwen, whose photo and thoughts are documented here.  He urged Friends of PHHP to have the banquets monthly.  By now, the Mien had become actively engaged, requesting banquet dates that coincided with certain harvests, such as string beans in early August.

The Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund made it possible for the program to continue, funding generously three years of programming, which Friends of PHHP heralded as the Landscape of Stories Arts and Garden program, through which youth and the Mien worked with artist educators weekly, with bi-monthly community banquets created from the garden’s produce, frequent Story Circles, and park stewardship.  Both laughter and tears were common as they exchanged stories, from hilarious folktales, to accounts of immigrant hardships, war, starvation, and the deaths of family memers by firing squad or of infants-in-arms while fleeing through the jungle.

With Artist Educator Tracey Cockrell, youth created visible art: stepping stones to identify plants, scarecrows to keep away the birds, and other signage.  Youth and Mien shared recipes, too, and gathered to eat together.  Again the process was slow, with youth and elders usually eating their own food, rather than venturing to try each others’.  And then, mouthful by mouthful, people ventured to taste—and found themselves enjoying—food they had never eaten in their own homes.  Friends of PHHP published the Community Recipe Book based on the recipes and stories collected through this project, with photos by Ene Osteraas-Constable.

Friends of PHHP began inviting the women to participate in the volunteer days sponsored in parks by the City of Oakland, such as Creek to Bay Day and Earth Day.  The women responded with utter commitment and energy, alongside other neighbors of different cultures.  At one event, they climbed a barrier to get into the yard of the then-derelict Coolidge House, and cleared it of an inpenetrable forest of six foot tall weeds in half an hour, then hoisted the gigantic mounds of waste up and over the eight-foot tall chain-link fence, basking at the surprise and lavish praises of the other volunteers, replying simply, “We like to work!”

Friends of PHHP staff invited the Mien elders to community charettes to decide the content of the Urban Book, an outdoor museum of community stories planned for the site in its master plan.  The Mien families came, bringing huge amounts of delicious food for all to share.  They contributed their ideas, helped by translators provided by Oakland’s Equal Access program.  Their reflections on the idea of ‘home’, both in Laos and in the US, will be part of the Urban Book, once funding is found, along with images and text about the cultural exchanges with Reggie, Richie, Tamon and the whole group of children living around the park who have now grown up in close contact with these Mien elders.

The Alliance for California Traditional Arts and the California Arts Council then granted funds to collect more interviews and create short films based on the women’s lives, with voice over soundtracks in Mien, so that the Mien themselves could understand and would see themselves reflected in a public space.  In order to structure the stories and write subtitles, Friends of PHHP carried out the intricate process of translating into English, not only the words, but the world from which these interviews came.  This has taken years, in part due to the shortage of bi-linugal, bi-literate Mien English translators.  These short autobiographical films premiered at the December 12, 2009, opening of the exhibit in the Peralta House.

Staff began to notice that each new crop of kids did not have to be educated to relate politely to the Mien; it was as if there was now a tradition of good relations that carried on even when the older kids went to high school and new kids moved into the neighborhood, or younger siblings joined the program.

Word of the project has begun to spread.  In April 2009, Radio Bilingüe, the largest Spanish language radio station in the country, interviewed the Mien women at Peralta Hacienda for a documentary feature called “El Rancho de los Mien.”

Additional funding from the Thomas J. Long and the Stewardship Foundations has enabled Friends of PHHP to continue the banquets, Story Circles, and mentoring in the garden through the summer of 2009, in a special intensive youth program, assisted by 17 diverse youth interns provided by the Lao Family Center, who mentored 70 younger kids.  Thus, the interactions you see in the beautiful photos by Nina Egert are the culmination of years of work to foster the current positive exchange of culture and traditional arts.

Mien garden fence near the 1870 Antonio Peralta House.The story is not over: Many adult neighbors (and City maintenance staff) are uneasy with the Mien farm in their midst, and especially, its amazing fences, concocted from twigs and scraps, branches, hoses and bits of old wood, wire, gratings and even bedposts, around all the garden plots.  Some visitors pronounce them aesthetically beautiful, fascinating artifacts of adaptation, resilience and survival; to others, they are a hazardous blight.

Friends of Peralta Hacienda Historical Park sees another opportunity to encourage cultural understanding and exchange in this clash of viewpoints on the Mien fences.  The organization hopes to initiate an open process, working with artists, designers, the City of Oakland, and community members—the Mien and others—to dream a fence, jointly created, that encloses simultaneously many stories and perspectives.

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