Amanda Zenteno playfully bickered as her quick fingers skillfully tied rope to a hanging bar to hold up tomato plants.
Telma Aguilar and Silvia Jeronimo, planting vegetables between rows of onion nearby, spoke to one another in their native Pocomam language. Aguilar’s little boy, 2, tried to mirror their movements, lifting a shovel nearly the size of his body.
Four women tend the 600 square feet of city-owned land at Marra Farm in South Park’s Marra-Desimone Park that the community food project known as Salsa de la Vida rests on.
Marra Farm supports land for a P-Patch as well as large tract farming, which several community organizations, along with Salsa de la Vida, partake in.
Promotoras, who serve as liaisons between the community and resources, took over the project around 2018 from Monica Perez, a longtime community organizer, after she and other leaders were approved for use of some of the city-owned land that sat unused for about a year.
Salsa de la Vida was born from a project centered on food justice and is dedicated to dismantling some of the barriers that prevent low-income Latino families from accessing organic produce they use in their cuisine.
Before taking over the project, Zenteno herself found it difficult to access organic produce due to high prices and its lack of availability near her South Park home.
“It’s a beautiful thing to connect the community with existing resources,” Zenteno said.
Salsa de la Vida’s section is divided by sections, with the area closest to the entrance dedicated to medicinal herbs.
Rows of onions and other vegetables line the land, only interrupted by boxes filled with heads of lettuce. On the west side of the garden is a small wooden shed housing chili plants.
Zenteno, Aguilar, Jeronimo and another companion, Santa Pablo, hope to establish Salsa de la Vida as an official gardening cooperative that would continue to provide membership for people to buy boxes of fresh vegetables and donate to food banks or organizations helping low-income families access healthy foods.
The goal of the group, since the inception of Salsa de la Vida, has been to bridge the gaps in access to healthy foods prevalent among immigrant and Latino communities.
Perez said she undertook efforts to get South Park’s Latino community involved in planting and agriculture around 2013, when there was minimal to no access for Latinos to plant in Marra Farm.
She and other community leaders created several projects, one of which involved families growing vegetables collectively for one season in the farm’s P-Patch area.
Trust among organizers and the community flourished from those efforts, Perez said.
“We used to say, ‘Just come over, you’ll enjoy it and there’s purslane growing all around,’ which they often were amazed about,” she said, adding that the plant grows wildly and is cultivated in Mexico and other countries.
Perez said she then learned that a space exclusively for growing produce to sell, where Salsa de la Vida sits now, was opening up in 2017 and efforts to create the project began.
Organizers held meetings, looked for grants and connected with existing groups to access resources and build up Salsa de la Vida, Perez said.
Zenteno then entered the picture and took over that project in 2018 alongside other promotoras — most of who have remained, Perez said, and everything else just fell in line and it transformed into a women-led effort.
“My ideology has always been to create opportunities and get new people involved,” Perez said. “It was a little painful to leave the project but that’s part of the organizing.”
In the early years, five families participated in growing produce and helping with Salsa de la Vida, allowing the project to expand. The idea was to keep inviting families, but unfortunately there wasn’t much response when the pandemic hit, Zenteno said.
People were initially excited to grow food like in their homeland, but they grew too tired to continue because of familial duties, work or other commitments, said Luz Cardenas, one of the original members alongside Roxana Rivera who no longer work the plots.
The women cleared the section meant for Salsa de la Vida, a massive effort as many plants and weeds had reclaimed space, Zenteno said.
The work transitioned into a paid job a few times a week, which still gave Zenteno and the other women time to drive their kids to school or care for them.
The promotoras worked to engage Latino community members in growing their own fresh produce and bridging the inaccessibility to organic produce among low-income families.
Aguilar began working with Salsa de la Vida last year and puts in on average about 20 hours a week, leaving her enough time for her 2-year-old son.
Though she loves the ease with which the work is done, she appreciates most being out in the open air and cultivating the land, just as she did in her Guatemalan home, she said.
“We used to take walks to the hills and tend to our milpas,” Aguilar said about the traditional intercropping system of regional vegetables practiced throughout Mexico and in Central America. “The work here feels similar to that.”
Aguilar learned how to plant and grow food — corn, carrots and other staples — from her grandfather, she said.
Jeronimo, Aguilar’s stepmom, began working at Salsa de la Vida a year before Aguilar and said she loves being able to work at her own pace, comparing it to the rush at fast food restaurants where she worked at for more than a decade.
The work gives her the flexibility to continue being present for her 4-year-old son, who she took care of full time before joining the project.
Jeronimo, who has grown her own vegetables in her backyard for years, enjoys learning new techniques to grow produce and having the opportunity to spend most of her time outdoors.
Learning to grow
The women were able to grow Salsa de la Vida in part with assistance from Villa Communitaria, a nonprofit focused on equity and social justice, which provided grants, workshops, help with licensing and other resources, Zenteno said.
Before joining Salsa de la Vida, she was already working in community organizing, volunteering her time with organizations including Villa Communitaria and Duwamish Affordable Housing.
“Mostly everything was new to us, and we knew we had a lot of learning to do,” she said.
Growing in urban spaces like Seattle is vastly different from the kind of planting some of the women did in their Latin American homelands, Zenteno said.
But they adapted to the climate differences and dived into learning about the soil and plants.
They grow cucumbers, zucchini, carrots, beets, lettuce, green beans and all the essentials for salsa — red tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, cilantro and chilies.
Aside from vegetables, they also grow medicinal herbs, some of which include camomile, salvia, calendula, lavender and epazote.
The group has access to a greenhouse donated by the University of Washington, also used by other groups, for planting chilies, tomatoes and other sensitive plants.
The space is available to all community members, especially Latino and immigrant families, said Zenteno, who hopes to expand outreach.
Already, several organizations have helped boost and support their work, Zenteno said.
“We feel listened to, but we still have a long ways to go with that,” she said.
A central focus is to get more Indigenous people from Guatemala involved, a community that has been growing in population in the Seattle area in recent years, Zenteno said.
While Perez said organizing may not be easy, with organizers often faced with classism, racism and other barriers, creating access to resources is “beautiful.” As is “planting seeds” for others to rise up to the challenge, she said.