(Photo/SFVS Staff) Volunteers are hard at work planting native vegetation at the Rudy Ortega, Sr. Park in San Fernando.

With shovels in hand and “restoration” as the goal, the community’s turnout on Saturday, Dec. 11, at Rudy Ortega Sr. Park in the City of San Fernando was impressive. 

 A diverse group of families, college students, and members of  like-minded organizations were welcomed with an indigenous ceremony of song, poetry and a blessing from the Tataviam Fernandeño Band of Mission Indians and Sueños de Oro (Dreams of Gold), a well-loved group of musicians made up of area seniors.  

With the pleasant greetings and the aroma of sage lingering in the morning air, the strong team of volunteers rolled up their sleeves and worked together to dig holes at the pre-determined locations of where the plants would be placed.

“Dozens of people have come out to put their hands in the soil,” said Cindy Montañez, CEO of Tree People and a City of San Fernando council member.

“This park is about the community, it was built by and for the community and is being restored by the community,” she said. 

Rudy Ortega Sr. Park, named after the late chief of the local Tataviam tribe, was originally landscaped and designed in 2006 with a vision to landscape its acreage with native plants.

That point of view gave the park grounds a very different purpose and appearance — very different from a typical park with its standard mowed green grass, and a kid’s play area.  

That difference was sometimes unappreciated.

When the park first opened on Fourth Street, residents unfamiliar with native and drought resistant plants described the park as “filled with weeds.” The park was also designed with walking trails and outdoor space that includes a small amphitheater used for education.  

The tribe, with the support of City administrators, had visions of creating a park with a balanced, low maintenance eco-system reminiscent of how the land in the Northeast Valley may have appeared many generations ago. 

However, many of the native plants originally planted at the park died due to irrigation failure, and the park was also damaged by theft and vandalism. 

For local tribal members, land rights and the equitable use of land continues to be a current issue.

“This land here — this 2 ½ acres — was part of the original 20 acres that was given in a land grant to our tribal elder Rogerio Rocha back in the Mexican period,” said Mark Villaseñor, vice president  of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians.

“Charles Maclay wanted the land because it has a natural spring on it and [he] forcibly removed Rogerio Rocha [from his home],” Villaseñor said.

The tribe maintains that Maclay — a state assemblymember and state senator in the 1800s — illegally removed Rocha along with other members of the tribe from their land. Maclay who purchased a 56,000-acre land grant in 1874, used the land he took to become the founder of the City of San Fernando, the valley’s first city. A local middle school in Pacoima still bears his name, as does the City of San Fernando’s main street.  

Over the last 20 years, Tataviam members have re-established their presence with a tribal office located in San Fernando, and have taken a position to remove the Maclay name from the City’s street. While that process is arduous, the restoration of native plants was a success and exceeded expectations. 

“We initially thought of [using] 100 plants but when we saw the excitement from the community with volunteers signing up and confirming attendance, we added another 100. And honestly, the volunteers could have probably done 300,” Montañez said, with a big smile.  

The partnership with the local Tataviam tribe, Tree People and the Theodore Payne Foundation for this event is said to be the first of more.  The Theodore Payne nursery first offered to donate 100 native plants to Rudy Ortega, Sr. Park earlier this year, which helped give the restoration its needed support and push. 

Volunteers were given information about proper planting, and  learned how to properly dig, replant, and use mulch and water for native and drought-tolerant plants.

“There’s a shift in the landscape industry towards an environmental model and that’s where native plants come in because they are adapted to the climate we’re in here in Southern California,” said Evan Meyer of the Theodore Payne Foundation 

“It’s catching on and it’s growing. But it’s still not the mainstream garden style, so if you walk into a Home Depot garden center, you’re not going to see many native plants. We’re excited to see it grow and hopefully, it will catch on and become the norm, not the exception,” Meyer said.

“We always want to encourage the community to be participatory and enjoy the park as much as we do,” added Villaseñor. “So it’s been good and we look forward to working with both San Fernando and the community in general. Because we lost pretty much all of our land doesn’t mean we have to be bad neighbors; we always want to be good neighbors.” 

“This event brings awareness that there are still indigenous people here — it brings education and acknowledgement to the tribe, the first people of these lands,” said Tribal President Rudy Ortega, Jr.

“It was beautiful and powerful to have Sueños de Oro sing [at this event] and have El Señor Juan perform the poem called ‛Sembrador’ (Sower). It was perfect for this kickoff and more park restorations to come,” Montañez said.