Member-supported,
grassroots media.

Uplifting Black, Brown, and queer voices across the South.

On a typical Sunday morning in Miami, a not so typical thing happens in a backyard in Little Haiti. Dozens of people come together to tend the Femme Fairy Garden, a community garden organized by Fempower, a queer artist collective based in Miami.

When I visited in December several people were piling out chunks of soil, while others laid stones for a walking path or plucked weeds to make room for seedlings. Tame Impala's "Let it Happen" played over the loudspeakers. Despite the scathing Florida sun, people joked, laughed, and danced. All around there was an energy abuzz, brimming with joy and determination.

"It's a place where you can come in and just be yourself. If you want to cry, you can cry. If you want to dance, you can dance. If you want to smoke and chill, you can smoke and chill," said Saskia Laricchia, one of the early members of the Femme Fairy Garden.   

"The garden is a place of empowerment. It's self sustaining. We're trying to grow our own food, trying. We're getting there. We just want to teach people and empower them, how to do it, and that includes herbs as well," said Director of the Femme Fairy Garden, Ashley Varela.

The Femme Fairy Garden is just one of the branches of Fempower. Since its inception, the collective has grown to host a weekly Liberation Book Club, the "Girls Can Spin Too" DJ Master Class, and various art exhibitions featuring brown and Black artists.

Fempower originally began as a work of dystopian, speculative fiction, written by Helen Peña, founder of the collective. The fiction "depicted Miami being run by this Black, femme, girl-gang," she said. She wrote it as a response to Donald Trump's election, Black female death, and heteronormativity in the Latinx community. She envisioned a world where powerful, hard working women come together. The artist collective was founded to turn that vision into reality.

One of the central ideas behind Fempower is "we're stronger together." The radical group seeks to resist capitalistic notions of individuality by fostering collective relationships. The garden does exactly that.  

The radical group seeks to resist capitalistic notions of individuality by fostering collective relationships. The garden does exactly that.

"It's almost like a religion. That's the beautiful part about religion, the only beautiful part about religion, really, is community," said Laricchia. "And I feel like that's what keeps a lot of us going back."

The garden began only about six months ago, when Peña discussed ways of reconnecting to the earth with Ashley Varela, who is now the Femme Fairy Garden's director. They decided to start a community garden out of Peña's backyard in Little Haiti. "Me and Helen saw the potential, like we can really do something here," Varela said.

Over the course of a few months, Varela, Peña, and a handful of members from Fempower began to clear debris and plant seeds. "It's like seeing a baby grow up," Laricchia said, recalling the early days of the garden. "It was crazy."

Today, the garden boasts dozens of flowers, herbs, and fruits, including hibiscus, sunflowers, lemongrass, cilantro, and bananas.

Members of the Femme Fairy Garden shovel soil from a large pile in the center of the garden.

"This is totally what everyone should be doing, is growing their own food, tending to the earth, putting in the right plants," Varela said. "All this is such a benefit and a fuck you to capitalism at the same time."

"To go back to our roots, and reconnect with earth is a big radical, healing, act of resistance," Peña said. "There's nothing more, I feel, socialist, [than] growing something and sharing it with other people. It's literally going against the market and being like 'we don't need modern agriculture and industrialization to feed ourselves'."

Membership has ballooned to more than 40 people on the garden's WhatsApp chat. Every Sunday morning, dozens of those people show up to tend the garden together.

"I think it's fucking beautiful," a member said. "For not just us, but everyone here that doesn't have access to spaces like these, or food like this, or herbs like this."

Barbara Meulener is one of newest people to work in the Femme Fairy Garden on Sundays. She said access to food and herbs is limited in communities of color. "I think it's fucking beautiful," she said. "For not just us, but everyone here that doesn't have access to spaces like these, or food like this, or herbs like this."

Studies have shown the positive effects that nature and gardening have on the human psyche. In a study titled "Coping with Poverty: Impacts of Environment and Attention in the Inner City," Francis E. Kuo studied the effects of nature on 145 low-income, mostly Black women who lived in public housing. Those who lived in buildings near trees and grass showed improved attention, and could better manage major life issues, than those who were surrounded only by concrete or asphalt. Similar beneficial effects were noted by Susan Stuart in a study of the impacts of community gardens on residents of domestic violence shelters.

Meanwhile, new research shows that people who live in buildings without trees and grass are more likely to be fatigued, irritable, and have more trouble handling conflict than those who live close to plants.

For many members of the Femme Fairy Garden, the positive effects of being in the garden are palpable. Peña describes it like "a spiritual act for me, like going to church on Sunday."

"It's not that we really make an effort to bring people out, it's just that there's an attraction," said Founder of Fempower, Helen Peña. "You walk by and you see it, and something in it tells you 'oh, something is here, something big is happening here."

For Varela, who describes the garden as a "little paradise," being close to nature helped her overcome depression. Two years ago, she went through a traumatic experience that caused her to leave Miami. She joined a queer herbalist community in California.

"I would go forage for a while lavender and wild sage in the mountains," she said. She started collecting herbs with a purpose, learning about the medicinal uses of plants, and making plant-based products. "That healed me. Not my therapist could help me with that. Not the medicine I was on could help me with that, the anti-depressants. It was being out in nature that did that for me."

While Varela said that everyone's path is different, she hopes people can have a similar experience in the Femme Fairy Garden. "I just want people to have that initial spark," she said. She added that she wants people to reconnect with nature and see "the beautiful stuff that will happen when you start doing that."

"But the effort is obviously here, people love it. I love it. Helen loves it, like we're all just in love," said Director of the Femme Fairy Garden, Ashley Varela.

Hovering in the backdrop of the garden is the intersection of gentrification and climate change.

Little Haiti, a mostly Black neighborhood where Femme Fairy Garden sits, has already become the site of four projected mega developments. Recently, a food hall called The Citadel opened, drawing protests from activists and residents concerned about gentrification and displacement. Thomas Conway, another developer within Miami, also faced scrutiny after evicting local businesses from strip malls he had recently purchased. According to the Miami Herald, some of the evicted tenants had rented space there for as long as 30 years.

By 2045, one fifth of Miami is projected to be underwater. Communities of color like Little Haiti, Liberty City, and Overtown, all mostly Black neighborhoods, are already feeling the effects of climate gentrification, as developers move from low lying areas like South Beach to target higher ground.

It's hard because I don't believe the garden will be able to solve gentrification," Peña said. "But [what] we do have, is something we can lean on when it does happen."

From the start, the Fempower collective, and the Femme Fairy Garden itself, were designed as positive responses to Miami's climate gentrification– especially its unequal effects on local Black and brown communities.

"Going back to where Fempower started, there's always the idea that the apocalypse is now. It's here. So, how do we navigate through apocalypse? It's by doing things like coming together, and learning things,"

"Going back to where Fempower started, there's always the idea that the apocalypse is now. It's here. So, how do we navigate through apocalypse? It's by doing things like coming together, and learning things," Peña said.

Peña calls the garden a dream world. It is a space of hope and survival in the face of an uncertain future for Miami's communities of color.

"It's limitless," Peña said. "While we believe we have to radically change our current system… we also know that it may not happen in our lifetime. We don't know. So, what we're trying to do is be in the practice of building those dream worlds right now, and so the garden is that space. It's an alternative way of being."

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that The Citadel is owned by Thomas Conway. It is owned by the Urban Atlantic Group.

Maria Esquinca

Maria Esquinca is an MFA candidate at the University of Miami, serving as a Michener Fellow. She is the 2018 winner of the American Academy of Poets Prize. Her other passion is journalism. She is a multimedia journalist and focuses her reporting on social justice issues. A fronteriza, she was born in Ciudad Juárez, and raised in El Paso.