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LA communal farmers fear fruit of their labor will become a warehouse

LOS ANGELES -- The cherimoya fruit -- crop of the Incas, redolent of pineapple, passion fruit, banana, mango, and strawberry -- grows in the Andean foothills of Peru and Ecuador, but few other places. It is a fragile and fickle plant that prefers the coolness of mountain altitudes and proximity to the equator.

But it grows in a small Los Angeles garden plot tended by the Vaquero family, immigrants from Puebla, Mexico.

However, the garden probably will soon be vanquished, cleared by a developer's bulldozers.

The Vaqueros' garden is one of 360 sections, each no bigger than a suburban driveway, that make up the 14-acre South Central Community Garden. Its farmers are virtually all working-class immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica.

''You forget all your problems here," said Jose Vaquero, 16, a sophomore at the local high school. He and his sister, 14-year-old Elizabeth, grew up in Los Angeles and translate for their Mexican-born parents, Alfredo and Remedios. ''Everyone gets along. It's safe. Nobody worries about gangs. They don't bother people here."

After years of legal negotiations over its ownership, the land is being prepared by its owner to become what mostly surrounds it -- a warehouse. The farmers, organized and legally represented, have failed in their challenges to the decision by the city to sell the land to attorney and real estate developer Ralph Horowitz.

Horowitz did not return phone calls seeking comment. But in previous interviews with the Associated Press, he said he was undeterred by the protest of the farmers, who do not pay rent or taxes on the land.

''They're not going to walk off voluntarily," Horowitz said then. ''They have to be thrown off by a sheriff."

His history with the land has long been contentious. In the mid-1980s, he was forced to sell it to the city, which planned to build an incinerator there. The plant was never built, and the land was donated instead to a city food bank, which lent it to the farmers. They began planting the garden 13 years ago. Two years ago, Horowitz successfully sued the city, forcing it to sell the land back to him.

The farmers are now sentries on the land they do not own, sleeping overnight in tents along the narrow road that bisects the lot, vowing to defy the owner and authorities as they continue to challenge the sale in court. The farmers make sure someone is inside the locked gates at all times in case the owner orders the locks changed.

One mile south of the Santa Monica Freeway, two east from the Harbor Freeway, the farm is enclosed by a chain-link fence, topped by barbed wire. Behind the fence are pastoral gardenscapes taken from the memories of men and women from an older world. There are scarecrows dressed in soccer jerseys and handmade hammocks slung between guava trees. Folding chairs set under the shade of an avocado tree.

''It's a sanctuary," said one of the farmers leading the legal fight, who goes by the single name Tezozomoc. ''I call it hunger of memory; it's a place you have when you want to come back to a place and time when you felt good about your life."

The families who started the farm 13 years ago first had to break, by hand, the concrete slab that covered the lot. They trucked the concrete to the dump and brought in loads of topsoil, all at their expense and effort.

Families grow crops they cannot easily buy in grocery stores, herbs like pipicha and huaje. Babies take their first steps here. Adolescent romances bloom here. Politicians stump here for votes. Doctors come seeking medicinal herbs. Urban planners take notes here. And older people come here when they feel sick.

The air is healthier, the proximity to so many plants a remedy in itself, they said.

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