Sociologist Explores the Connection Between Migrants Workers and American Gardens

In a new immigration study, USC professor and sociologist Pierette Hondagneu-Sotelo has analyzed the connection between immigration and gardening — not just as a career choice, but also as a hobby which is able to provide comfort and tranquility for immigrants who are having trouble adjusting to a new culture. If her new book called Paradise Transplanted: Migration and the Making of California Gardens (University of California Press, 2014), Hondagneu-Sotelo looks at different ethnic and socioeconomic groups, ranging from Mexican gardeners who make their living as professionals attending to elite American botanical gardens, to immigrants who contribute to community gardens in the poorest neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

As a self-professed gardening fanatic and the daughter of immigrant gardeners, Hondagneu-Sotelo has had plenty of time to analyze the connection between gardening and the influx of migrant workers in the States. The classic image of Southern California which likely comes to mind when the name is mentioned — from palm trees to sparkling pools — is merely the product of what Hondagneu-Sotelo calls “a symbiotic relationship” between the land and migrant gardeners. The majority of the landscape in migrant-heavy locations (like Southern California) would not exist if it had not been for early immigrant gardeners — in fact, only one species out of the hundreds of palm trees growing in California is native to the area. The vegetation for which the state is now known had to be imported from other regions, and immigrant gardeners were largely responsible for making this possible.

As Hondagneu-Sotelo notes, it is also important to be aware that the landscapes we so often associate with pleasure may symbolize, to groups such as immigrant gardeners, the socioeconomic gap that has divided the country for so long. Many Americans see gardening as a therapeutic hobby, but there is still a group of wealthier homeowners who see extravagant gardens as a symbol of power and prestige — and there is one particular group of workers who is tasked with maintaining the gardens without reaping any of the benefits.

So how does Hondagneu-Sotelo provide a narrative about the garden-immigrant relationship without focusing on the subordinate position that many migrant gardeners have faced (and still face today)? “I choose to articulate a narrative that emphasizes the talents and radical heterogeneity that multiple migrations have spawned here,” Hondagneu-Sotelo says. “[There is] the promise of social change that may foster a more ecological and democratic Eden on Earth.”