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Gardening as a form of political protest in San Antonio 


Four years ago, there was nothing more than an empty lot behind the buildings at 1416 East Commerce and a convenient spot for illegal drug use and prostitution; an open plot of land just begging for use and purpose and transformation. In 2007, the land’s potential was realized when the Southwest Worker’s Union (SWU), an organization that unites workers, communities and youth in the struggle for dignity and justice (also located at 1416 E. Commerce), launched an offshoot of their environmental and food justice initiatives: the Roots of Change Urban Garden and Co-op.

Roots of Change (ROC) although officially run by the SWU is also run in large part by members of the local community who have an interest in not just voting at the poll, or with their wallet in the grocery store line, but also with every fingertip in the dirt -- seeds planted and sown, fruits, vegetables, and herbs watered and harvested, all fertilized and cared for using organic methods. Dianna Lopez, coordinator at Roots of Change says, “We don't use chemicals or pesticides because of how they affect the human body. SWU works to fight against contaminants that cause illness. We garden naturally because that's the way the earth heals, instead of pumping in more chemicals; we don't use things that don't benefit Mother Earth. We want maximum healing for the earth.” Lopez has been working as a main operator of the garden since its start-up in 2007 and sees it as a statement about what can be done with something that was once undervalued. She also sees it as a space for community building and engaging people so that San Antonio residents feel the gratification that comes with connecting ourselves to a more global perspective (food safety, justice, worker health and welfare, environmental preservation). She says, “People aren't used to growing their own food in their backyard. People aren't used to getting their hands dirty, they're not used to building things with their hands. For me it's important for people to see what it takes to truly make food. At the same time, we're changing and transforming land that was formerly not used, in an empty lot where people would do drugs and prostitute. We’re transforming the environment.” After all, she’s right -- very often, we choose fresher produce, natural foods, or organic products it’s at the hands of a “Big Organic” corporation (take Whole Foods for example). These corporate organic retailers are a convenient option when we’re making an effort to be more healthy and green, but they also put the consumer in a passive, detached, and hands-off position. We’re buying organic products but have little sense of the time and effort it took to create them. And part of the food fight exists in what we can do ourselves; it’s experiential satisfaction and good old-fashioned hard work. It’s where we get our hands dirty -- learn, experiment, and actually enjoy it. Or, as Lopez says, “Even if you don’t feel comfortable protesting in the street, you can be in the garden protesting and transforming. Gardening is a form of protest.” Indeed, it is. Becoming a part of Roots of Change and volunteering your time and efforts in the garden definitely has its benefits. Contribute a few hours of your day on Wednesday and Saturday mornings from 9 to noon, and you’ll be sent home with whichever produce is in season and ready for harvest that week (think rosemary and mint, carrots and cabbage, rows and rows of tomato varieties -- some so small and ripe you’d think they were candied -- onions, peppers, nectarines, vines of sour grapes, and many others). Free organic food, grown locally, in season, feeding the San Antonio community and educating us at the same time -- it simply does not get any dreamier than that. Though if it makes the deal any sweeter, Lopez says, “There's laughter. There's some form of music. There's food. It’s a relaxing atmosphere that lets people create things; it welcomes and heals." Connect with Roots of Change on its website, and on Facebook, or via Southwest Worker’s Union.   Liz Schau is a Certified Holistic Health Counselor who specializes in nutritional changes for women with thyroid disease, food allergies, autoimmunity, and digestive health concerns. You can find her at

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