Transplanted Backyard Farmers
posted: November 24, 2008
Sara and her mother, Assunta, in the backyard...
This is part of an ongoing series of portraits and interviews with people who grow their own food in New York City.
Sara, 41, has spent most of her life trying to run away from her peasant farming roots; now, with her mother Assunta's help, she's got them firmly planted in her backyard vegetable garden in Brooklyn.
"I grew up on a farm in the middle of Naples, in a little house with three families: my mom’s parents, my parents and my aunt's. Naples is an urban area now, but it used to be all agriculture. My grandfather’s fields were right in front of our house and they were as big as two city blocks. As they built up the city my grandfather always refused to sell the land. Residential buildings were being raised all around us, five to ten stories tall and entire blocks long, but we kept our land.
“It’s still heartbreaking for me to remember, that right before he died he had to sell half of his land to make sure that three of his seven children who did not farm the land would have an inheritance. They built a large paper factory 30 feet in front of our house in 1975 and when we come out on our balcony we face a two story high and 100 feet wide brick wall, not a beautiful field of green and blue sky anymore!
"The elementary school that I went to was right next door, and the children could look out the window and see my mom and aunts working on the farm and they called me a peasant and I was ashamed.
"Unfortunately none of our cousins in Italy kept this tradition going and when my one aunt who takes care of the land dies, there will be no one left to take care of it. I'm really scared that they'll make a parking lot out of it. My dream is that when she retires, she'll donate the land to that elementary school, Lombardo Radice -- the name means roots! -- to teach the children how to cultivate and grow vegetables and how to appreciate where Naples comes from: that we were all peasants and we all took from the land and gave back to the land. That being a peasant isn't something to be ashamed of!
"My family first came to America when I was eight. My parents had been having a hard time forgetting about our brother who had died when he was five -- everywhere they went remindedthem of him -- and my father wanted to just go away and start a new life on new land. So we moved to Brooklyn for 4 years and I loved it.
"Then, when I was 12, we went back to Italy. My father was asked by his mother to come and help out his brother whose pastry shop, cafe and gelateria business that my father had helped start up before he came to America, was failing. His brother was in debt and he needed a partner to keep the business going. My father took his $40,000 life savings and moved us all back to Italy. My uncle was the manager and my father was the pastry chef, but as the business recovered, the Camorra [Neapolitan Mafia] became more and more aggressive and greedy. My father fought back and they kept threatening him. It was terrifying.
"My uncle who was here in America, heard the story and he said, 'Why don’t you just come back and forget it." He offered his house in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn for us to live in. My dad felt a great weight off him from this offer, and once again had a chance to realize his dream of giving his three daughters a better future. So we came back to America when I was 18.
"For a long time there was a part of me that pushed gardening away; I called it 'peasant living'. Even when I was a teenager in Italy I used to be made fun of because I was a peasant so I wouldn’t touch the dirt because it made my hands dirty and I didn’t want to be made fun of.
"Also, my mom was very demanding in the house and I had to do a lot of housework. So I kind of went the other way: I didn't want to do anything that she told me.
"As I got older, I was no longer so afraid of what other people thought of me. I think now I can be who I truly am. And growing things is part of my DNA. My mother says, 'If I touch a plant they love me.' And now I feel that love, too.
"What really sparked the gardening for me was when my husband became a high school principal and he was coming home late, which meant I had to do the cooking. I had never cooked. I had no idea that you have to plan ahead to buy and prepare food. I just didn’t have that kind of thinking. My husband would come home and say, 'What did you cook today?' And I’d say, 'Oh, I didn’t think about it.' So we had these terrible fights.
"My mother wanted me to learn to cook when I was a little girl and she often said, 'If you don’t know how to cook, how are you going to get married?' And I answered, 'Mom, what do you think? I’m going to marry someone who knows how to cook!' And I did. And not only that, I had him hang out with my mother and learn how to cook. So he cooked all my favorite Italian dishes!
"So when he became a principal, we were fighting about the cooking and I bought this beautiful $3,000 stove but I wasn’t cooking at all.
So I said, 'Listen, I’ll go to Naples for 8 weeks and hang out with my aunts and I promise I’ll come back with all the recipes.' And that’s what I did. I sat with my uncles and my aunts and I took pictures of all their great dishes and it was like all this love coming back; it was like I found something in me that I had lost.
"Gardening has changed my relationship with my mother a lot. It has given us more in common. I feel like I want to know more about her and I have so much more pride and I am so proud of her and I don’t fight her anymore, and instead I feel like, 'God, I messed up, I lost out on a lot and now there's a lot of catching up to do."