Five years ago the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) broke ground on the plot located on Troy and 28th Street in hopes of building a community garden for and by the residents of Little Village, Chicago. On Saturday, September 23, LVEJO celebrated their fifth annual Harvest Fest at the Semillas de Justicia Garden in commemoration of that day.

Little Village is a southwest side neighborhood in Chicago that currently boasts the largest Mexican American community and LVEJO is a community based organization that for years has worked on environmental initiatives that positively affect the Little Village community.

“We still had no garden beds, but this acted as welcoming the community to this space,” says Community Organizer Viviana Moreno of the day they broke ground. Creating community space is a theme that rings loud with LVEJO’s mission as they have worked tirelessly for twenty years closing down toxic coal power plants that once resided in Little Village, among other initiatives they have realized since their inception. Moreno continues, “Our primary goal for creating such a community event is to express gratitude to our gardeners for their hard work in cultivating the garden.” Semillas de Jusiticia currently has approximately thirty residential gardeners that work together to maintain the garden active.

Community engagement is a vital reason for the yearly celebration: families, community members at large, local school teachers, and leaders from other organizations that support LVEJO’s vision were present at this year’s function. “We started the event with a ceremony that blessed the garden utilizing an indigenous method of Aztecs where the people give thanks to the land for providing the produce we consume,” explains Moreno. This year, it was important for LVEJO to bring recognition and, “pay reverence to the land that holds us, nourishes us, and allows us to build relationships.” Attendees were able to participate in activities such as the annual “Salsa Competition,” where participants compete to be crowned spiciest and/or most tasteful salsa. In addition, raffles, entertainment for children, and live music were provided by LVEJO to help celebrate. UIC engineering students were also invited to present a project they are working on, which will bring the garden solar powered lamps.

LVEJO works with Illinois State University’s Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline as part of a collaborative, comprised of other community partners, to provide reciprocal programming between ISU students and Chicago Public School students within the Little Village community.

Bayza Senbetta, an ISU senior, who is currently doing her student teaching at Calmeca Academy in Chicago attended the event after hearing about it from Miguel Saucedo, ISU’s community liaison with LVEJO. One of CTEP’s goals in programming is to foster and nurture community teachers who, as part of their practice, actively participate in their school’s communities. “After attending this event, I hope to help connect my students and families to community organizations like LVEJO to encourage them to get involved in their own communities,” states Senbetta.

Viviana Moreno explains the importance of holding events like Harvest Fest as part of her personal and professional mission: “As a community member and organizer, these types of events are important for community building, [because it] highlights the assets in the neighborhood, and demonstrates the symbolism of justice, empowerment, and autonomy of residents of La Villita.” The celebration ends with a recognition given to the community gardeners who help grow and maintain the garden throughout the year, making celebrations like these possible.