Plot Development

The Mary Zepeda Garden looks nothing like the before-photos. A year ago, an abandoned, rusted-out car stood guard over a vacant lot; toxic soil sprouted unsightly weeds. Today, gravel slopes and freshly planted greenery frame the perimeter, and the previously contaminated soil hosts delicate milkweed.

El Hogar del Niño Daycare’s new garden has taken root–and will soon take flight with a monarch butterfly sanctuary as its centerpiece.

While the monarchs will be used for educational purposes–teaching the life cycle of a butterfly to pre-schoolers, for example–they also will serve as a cultural link between Pilsen and Mexico. Every year millions of monarchs migrate to the Michoacán province and back again. In the predominately Mexican-American community of Pilsen, the 2,000 mile flight has symbolic weight.

“The monarch butterfly is essential to Michoacán culture not only because of its migration to the province, but also because it represents the migration of our people,” explains Diana Olivares, administrative director of Casa Michoacán, an organization that promotes the culture and well-being of Mexican immigrants in the Midwest. “The monarch is an extension of that because the butterfly doesn’t have any borders when it migrates. So for us, the monarch represents freedom of movement and choice.”

The garden was planted by a coalition of cultural and environmental organizations that recognized a need for more safe green space in Pilsen. In January of last year, El Hogar, Casa Michoacán  and the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) teamed up with the Field Museum’s community outreach program known as Environment, Culture, and Conservation (ECCo) to get the project underway. ECCo and Casa Michoacán conducted surveys to gauge the interests and needs of the community. While Pilsen had less green space than most communities in Chicago, the surveys showed that its residents were enthusiastic about participating in neighborhood conservation and environmental protection efforts. Parents were especially interested in establishing more public parks and gardens to create outdoor spaces for their kids to play.

“Parents become closer to their children through playing with them on a regular basis,” says Jerry Mead-Lucero, a representative of PERRO. “But in order for them to have that high level of interaction, you need a space that’s both healthy and safe for children. Unfortunately, Pilsen didn’t have enough outdoor spaces that were kid-friendly, which is why we wanted to build the garden.”

Now all they needed was a spot to break ground.  A vacant lot near 17th street and Loomis–only half a block away from El Hogar and easily accessible for children at the daycare–proved to be the perfect place. The coalition of organizations was able to find funding through government grants and donations. With money and space set up, the construction was ready to begin.

But then the project stalled. Buying the lot proved much more difficult than imagined, since the owner of the land was initially skeptical of how the team would treat the property. Even after getting the land, soil tests revealed high concentrations of mercury and lead in the soil–a health risk for young children.

These setbacks delayed the garden’s completion deadline by almost six months, which Olivares said was “discouraging” for the organizers. After extensive research to detox the plot, the team built a raised bed garden, covering the contaminated ground with fresh layers of gravel and soil. Batches of milkweed have been planted and fresh mounds of grass provide a soft surface for kids to play.

In the spring, the last flowers and seedlings will be planted. The months of work will begin to sprout and blossom. And, eventually, the first monarch butterflies will arrive after a long journey north.