WORDS BY JENNIFER LUXTON
Holding onto your culture isn’t always easy as a child of immigrants, but graphic journalist Jennifer Luxton shows how her abuelita’s garden helped her find joy in her heritage in this special edition of The Frontline.
Despite a Nicaraguan father and a mother of Mexican descent, I feel like everyone’s favorite qualities about Latin American heritage skipped a generation in my family while its ugliest traits hit us like a full-speed train.
Steeped in a fear of prejudice and deep-seated self-loathing, my dad changed his surname to something made-up and vaguely Anglo-sounding before my sister and I were born. He opted not to teach us Spanish because he thought we’d get further in America without an accent. And when the 1994 Northridge earthquake (a 6.7 magnitude monster) sent startled families scattering from the Los Angeles area like roaches, my father transplanted us to the outer rims of tract housing abutting the Las Vegas desert—a dearth of any meaningful community, much less a Latin American one.
These choices left my sister and I culturally bankrupt, but we didn’t know it. At least not until my mom, fed up with years of domestic assault, moved the three of us back into our grandmother’s basement in the Chicano enclave of East Los Angeles. Her childhood home became a nursery for our new lives. And my abuelita, an immigrant from rural Mexico and mother to eight kids, was a gardener tending to the roots our father tried to rip out.
My abuelita never learned English. Despite the barriers, I remember best being able to understand her in the wild garden that wrapped around her hillside house. Now, I find myself worrying how climate change and its dramatic temperature rise threatens to disrupt the cultural growth I picked up alongside my grandma.
Her backyard was canopied with several kinds of fruiting trees—tangerine, lime, loquat—carpeted with verdant ivy and fenced in by spiky yucca sentinels that dared anyone to trespass. Buckets of geraniums, mint, and jasmine greeted visitors with bright colors and the sweetest perfume. Delicate impatiens and pansies beckoned you to join them on a bench in the dappled sun.
There, she’d sit in a hand-embroidered smock, her chin slightly cocked to keep her wide tinted glasses from sliding down her face while she crocheted.
From food to folk medicine, the garden kept her family’s health within arm’s reach. And while it wasn’t a high-efficiency production the way we may think of home gardening in the era of WiFi-enabled hydroponic lettuce pillars, it was rich in ways for her to teach us to be joyful about the organic heritage that sprung from the sun and soil in her yard.
She’d weave electric yellow crowns for us from the enterprising buttercup in the ivy. Plump fuschia flowers turned into pendulous earrings. Bright blooms became little folklórico dancers in her twirling fingertips. The plants were something to adore and be adorned with. And while we weren’t flush with cash for gadgets and accessories, we had the luxury of a botanical ballet—complete with wardrobe, performers, and venue—all at a moment’s notice in the front garden.
To me, being a Latina in America is learning how to tend to trauma, both from society and from the legacy of your own mixed, messy family—and learning how to grow in new soil.
In spite of my dad’s best attempts at bleaching the reality of our heritage from our history, my abuelita shared a long legacy of turning to the Earth for nutrition, beauty, and remedy. Growing up in rural Mexico, her family would harvest chamomile to calm upset stomachs and ruda to ease menstrual cramps. My mom remembers a luxe peony-flowered jasmine plant bejeweling the front of her aunt’s adobe home. Even now, my own aunt keeps a massive jasmine bush at her gate, just up the street from where she grew up in my abuelita’s garden.
This attachment to the organic, a rootedness to the earth, is something I’ve seen manifest in Latin American immigrants across continents. Over a cup of coffee in her Seattle kitchen, my partner’s tía will dreamily describe the flesh of fresh fruit from her village in El Salvador. When she was living in California’s Bay Area, she grew avocados and citrus for guacamole at a moment’s notice. Now in the Pacific Northwest, she pines for fresh backyard lemons, disparaging the juiceless ones available at the grocery stores. She proudly shows me her front yard milpa, corn stalks reaching from behind a fence, tomatoes peeking out from beside the hydrangea bush. And, critically, a wall-climbing jasmine that checks IDs at the door.
Milpas are a traditional Central American farming technique in which corn, squash, and other veggies are grown side by side—the Mesoamerican version of the Three Sisters. Technically speaking, should there be a milpa plucking up in the weak Seattle sun? Sewn by the seeds of European colonization, migration, a changing climate, and a memory of home, it’s there now. It feeds a family and reminds their matriarch of where she’s from. And surprisingly, it’s thriving.
I don’t speak Spanish, and I don’t have a traditional Latine name—but my childhood is scored with hallmarks of the second-generation Latin American experience: assimilation, oppression, and suppression. To me, being a Latina in America is learning how to tend to trauma, both from society and from the legacy of your own mixed, messy family—and learning how to grow in new soil. It’s putting down roots where you are planted, finding gardeners who will care for you while you are tender, and thriving anyway so that you can do the same for others someday.
Now, I grow my own food and flowers wherever I can—from a rooftop in downtown Seattle to the backyard of our suburban rental. My mom and aunt tell me my abuelita, now deceased, would be proud of the blooms I grow and the joy they engender.
But this summer was tough as June’s record-setting heat dome roasted the region, stunting plants for the rest of the season. The climate crisis threatens much of the biological legacy that survived generations in ways that language and culture did not. The sun, soil, and rhythms of life felt safe from the erasure that ruined other parts of my culture, yet rising temperatures now seem to be lapping at those, as well.
But my abuelita taught me better. We don’t give up when times get hard. We put our fingers in the dirt—and we work, we dance, and we sing with the seeds beneath the soil.
We breathe, we smile, and do the labor that lets us heal. Because it’s one of the only ways we know forward.