Mien gardens and makeshift fences at Peralta Hacienda Historical Park
Story and photos by Matthew Green
On an early-spring afternoon, Mey Yan Saechao is standing among tall, yellow-flowering mustard in her small garden plot at Oakland’s Peralta Hacienda Historic Park.
The six-acre park is in the Fruitvale district, and Mey Yan’s plot is behind its centerpiece, the Antonio Peralta House, built in Victorian Italianate style in 1870 on what little land remained to Antonio from his father’s original 45,000-acre estate. That gargantuan tract, Rancho San Antonio, was granted to Sergeant Luis María Peralta in 1820 in recognition of his military service to the Spanish crown. The grant extended southeast from present-day Albany through northern San Leandro and encompassed every stream, redwood tree, live oak, and meadow from San Francisco Bay to the hills, including nearly all of what is now the cities of Oakland and Berkeley.
The house has been restored to its original beauty, and is open to the public as a museum, with a few rooms arranged to appear as they might have when occupied by the original Peralta family. Other rooms are outfitted with exhibits interpreting ways of life at this location both before the Peralta tenancy and into the present, multicultural era. The vast agricultural landscape that once surrounded the house is now a dense urban expanse, but Mey Yan and her Mien friends have helped keep the soil around the house rich and fruitful in what has ripened into a unique community garden.
Each of the women involved has her own small plot, demarcated by makeshift fences crafted from an eclectic array of scavenged materials. Strips of garden hose, the headboard of a crib, old pallets, and electrical wire are just some of the things separating Mey Yan’s plot from her neighbors’. The fence of urban detritus serves a more important purpose than distinguishing ownership; it protects her crops from the depredations of careless neighborhood children at play.
Mey Yan, a small woman in her 60s, with strong, callused hands and a wide, determined gaze, tends the garden several times a week. On an unseasonably warm day in March, she surveyed the mustard greens, broccoli raab, cilantro, green onions, and garlic that grew thickly in her small plot, no doubt envisioning the big harvest of beans, squash, peppers, and cucumbers she can expect in the season ahead.
“It’s a place where I can come and spend time,” she says, through a translator. “It’s a glimpse of back home.”
Mey Yan, like many of her fellow gardeners, arrived in Oakland about eight years ago by way of Thai refugee camps. At the end of the Vietnam War, the communist regime in Laos gained power and sought reprisals against the Mien and other ethnic minorities who had aided American and South Vietnamese forces. Thousands of Mien fled their homeland. Most had been farmers and were forced to relinquish the rice fields and cropland that had sustained them for generations. With the help of a local resettlement agency, nearly 4,000 eventually landed in urban pockets of the Bay Area.
Like many of the resettled women in her community, Mey Yan initially found that living in the city made one of her strongest skills—farming—largely unmarketable. When she and her family first arrived in East Oakland, she spoke no English, and didn’t know how to read or write in any language. While the men in the community found jobs as laborers, and the children entered local schools, Mey Yan and other Mien women spent the days holed up in their small apartments, increasingly isolated in this new concrete-bound reality.
Six years ago, the land behind the Peralta house lay unused, since the park’s management lacked the funds to build the Victorian gardens initially planned for the site. When approached by the social service agency, Lao Family Community Development, the management agreed to let Mey Yan and her peers garden there. The women quickly established their plots and began regularly tending the space, planting whatever seeds they could find, and protecting their crops with makeshift fencing.
The fence has made some neighbors and city maintenance workers uneasy, says Holly Alonso, executive director for the Friends of Peralta Hacienda Historical Park. To some, she says, the fence “connotes decay instead of construction; blight instead of positive reuse.”
Those in the neighborhood who grew up on farms generally like the fence and what it symbolizes, while hardened urbanites often view it quite differently, Alonso adds. “Those who don’t get the need to reuse hate it.”
Alonso wants to resolve the issue, but feels strongly about keeping the fence’s roughshod integrity. One idea is to adorn it with stories and photos of the Mien community. She has also spoken with a well-known local architect about rebuilding the fence in a way that maintains its character.
Smiling shyly, Mey Yan admits that she’s a bit embarrassed by her fence, and would have little objection to replacing it with a nice new one. But her pride in the garden is unmistakable.
“It’s good to have a garden here—not to be depressed at home and worried about kids and grandkids,” she says. “Spending time here is a relief. . . . To have the harvest, the opportunity to eat fresh food instead of store bought; to be able to pick whenever you want.”
Visiting Peralta Hacienda Historical Park
Peralta Hacienda Historical Park is located at 2465 34th Avenue (corner of Coolidge Ave and Hyde St) in Oakland. The park’s museum inside the Peralta House is open Wednesday through Saturday, 2:30–5:30 p.m., with 45-minute guided tours at 2:30 and 4. The museum is run by the Friends of Peralta Hacienda Historical Park, whose mission is “to promote understanding, historical healing and community amid change and diversity.” The Friends are especially interested in the community’s food traditions, both past and present, and have created many fascinating food-centered audio and visual exhibits that can be enjoyed both at the museum and online at peraltahacienda.org. You’ll find a kitchen tour, audio food stories (both historical and present day), as well as recipe cards and a cookbook representing the community. Several recipes by the Mien women show how they use items harvested from their gardens. •
www.peraltahacienda.org , 510.532.9142
In addition to writing regularly for Edible East Bay, Matthew Green has been a frequent contributor to the East Bay Express and San Francisco Chronicle. He also manages a high school garden program in East Oakland, and last year ran a nationwide food access and childhood obesity prevention campaign. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Cooking with Fire at Peralta Hacienda Historical Park
On a blistering hot day last June, the Friends of Peralta Hacienda Historical Park held a “multicultural cookout” on the park grounds. Called “Cooking with Fire,” the event featured demonstrations of past and present open-fire cooking techniques appropriate to the locale.
Anthropologist Wells Twombly and a team of docents prepared Ohlone seedcakes, open-fire tortillas, and Gold Rush–era hoe-cakes (cooked on the top of a garden hoe), while Mey Yan Saechao and some of her friends supplied the present-day component using their own local harvest and Mien traditions, cooking over an open fire in a pit dug into the ground.
An improvised piece of equipment for barbecuing strips of spice-rubbed pork was made by pulling down some leaves from a nearby palm tree: The women split the palm leaf canes, wedged in the pork, and then lashed the canes closed with strips of palm leaf before placing them over the fire.
Another Mien dish provided an even greater revelation: That morning Mey Yan and company had plucked young leaves and vines from the pumpkin plants in their gardens and they braised these in a pot of water flavored with fat, salt, and hot pepper. The preparation was delicious, and I highly recommend trying it. If you don’t happen to be growing squash (or can’t bring yourself to harvest the vines), watch this summer for Southeast Asian farmers selling pumpkin vines at local farmers markets.
There’s a good chance that the Friends will hold the cookout again this summer, but it had not yet been scheduled as of Edible East Bay press time. However, readers are invited to attend the Peralta Hacienda Historical Park Community Meeting on May 14, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at 2488 Coolidge Avenue, Oakland, where you can learn about and discuss the future of Peralta Hacienda’s gardens, nutrition programs, and history exhibits. Otherwise, just keep tabs on the “events” listings at www.peraltahacienda.org.
—Cheryl Angelina Koehler