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Lincoln Heights urban gardener using his green thumb to restore an Occidental College hillside

Diego Zapata | Photo by Jasmine Chapman/ Occidental College

By NATHAN SOLIS

EAGLE ROCK — Diego Zapata is rooted in his community. The Lincoln Heights native has worked to establish urban gardens throughout North East Los Angeles since he was a teenager. But now as a biology major at Occidental College, the 20-year-old Zapata is taking on his biggest project ever.

As director of the Food, Energy and Sustainability Team (FEAST), Zapata and the campus club will be planting native flora on an undeveloped campus hillside referred to as Mt. Fiji.

“We wanted to green the campus,” said Zapata, and “provide a viable green space both recreationally and in the academic sense.”

Zapata is constantly working with his hands. While on the phone for this interview he was building a wheelbarrow. He speaks with reverence for botany as though the subject and garden were close relatives.

Do you have an elevator pitch on what you plan to do while at Occidental and what you plan to do after?

Well … I could try, but I’m an interdisciplinary person. I’m passionate about many subjects and projects. I have a trajectory that I’m kind of pursuing. I really like gardening. I was really active in community gardens throughout North East L.A., and I really love community organizing. I started doing that in high school. I’m into urban planning – I don’t know – they’re discrete passions, but they combine into this amalgamation to make a better world.

Growing up in Lincoln Heights, what stood out to you about the plants, trees and the general shape of your neighborhood?

I would say the configuration of Lincoln Heights in general is partly the reason why I’m pursuing biology and striving to organize the community — because Lincoln Heights is uniquely at a confluence of the urban and the natural. To most, Lincoln Heights consists of a lot of  empty lots and humble storefronts and that kind of thing, and [they] wouldn’t typically see the natural in this weird amalgamation of concrete and urban sprawl. But if you look closely, you see Debs Park and the Arroyo Seco, which are teeming with urban wildlife–even the empty lots have native plants, migratory birds, and active pollinators that do their best to thrive in this kind of fragmented habitat.

Did anyone in your family introduce you to the plants in their garden?

Oh yes. My family comes from a long line of agrarian people. I would say like agriculture and botany are really embedded in my family history and why I’m pursuing these things. I would say my grandmother really ushered me into revering plants and gardening and urban agriculture. I have a vivid memory of her showing and giving me a pack of seeds as a 3-year-old. She brought out this little pot and helped me sow the seeds and we watered it a couple of days and I thought it was stupid, but I was a toddler. But within a week there were petunias popping up. “Woah what are those!” To bring life to something that is inanimate was special to me. The ability to bring life and propagate beauty in the world is something that really became part of my identity. Growing up my father [and family] had a garden and they’ve had a garden since they moved to the states. It wasn’t really because it was a hobby, but because of a need. We are of humble origin. My grandmother, my dad really contributed to it all. He always had something growing in the yard.

What’s your motivation to regrow the hillside on Occidental’s property?

We wanted to green the campus. Provide a viable green space, both recreationally and in the academic sense. With that we’re going to tap into the 40 acres of undeveloped land on the Occidental property. As a club we’ve started several gardens and they’re all successful, but relatively small and isolated among the dorm buildings. And they’re awesome and do help, but we wanted to provide a continuous habitat. We’ve somewhat started already. We have a test plot, but we will be starting two new restoration sites with the help of other clubs and students in the spring.

Occidental is full of newcomers to Los Angeles. What surprises them the most that you took for granted growing up here?

People who have visited Lincoln Heights and other neighborhoods in NELA kind of have two conflicting assumptions: One, that they’re in a relatively unsafe, dangerous and ratty looking neighborhood. There is a kind of acknowledgement that they’re communities of color and the resilience is there. The polarizing perceptions of my community stem from the disconnect many Occidental College students have with others unlike their own. I can understand why someone may see the need to “redevelop” the streets I grew up on, or why some may see only neglect and decay, but it is kind of my goal to get others to see the other side of things. I am convinced that everyone has a right to the city, especially those, like my community’s longest-living, low-income residents that have carved their own niche out of the urban decay and have made it their own.

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4 comments

  1. Cool story.

    “Discrete” passions, not “discreet” passions. Unless there is a clandestine love triangle between him, his community organizing, and his urban design interests.

  2. Viva Zapata, what an inspiring young man.

  3. Love this profile! Proof that we don’t have to ‘makeover’ every neighborhood, when there are people like Diego Zapata who recognize the beauty in small things and expand upon them. There really is beauty everywhere – it’s those who take the time to see and nurture it who make a community special.

  4. Really inspiring, thanks!

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