On a recent afternoon, groups of children attending the Arts, Culture, Environment Summer Camp at Peralta Hacienda Historical Park sat on color-coded tarps, a different color for each social bubble to prevent too much mixing and the possible spread of COVID-19. They watched wide-eyed as Owen Maercks from the East Bay Vivarium held up different reptiles and exotic frogs. The kids, some curious, others scared, listened as he explained where each species can be found in the world. On the other side of the park, Terry Lee Lima, Peralta Hacienda’s food program manager, and Miguel López, its marketing director, were busy showing another group of youth how to set up for the weekly free food distribution in the parking lot, which takes place every Thursday as well as on the first and third Monday of the month. 

Youth activities, gardening and food programs on display at Peralta Hacienda Historical Park in East Oakland
Children in the ACE summer camp at Peralta Hacienda Historical Park playing near murals salvaged from Fruitvale businesses. Credit: Amir Aziz

Adorning a brick wall facing Coolidge Avenue are murals that were painted on plywood used to board up businesses around Fruitvale during last year’s civil unrest. Nestled in between the side of the park on Coolidge Avenue and the opposite side across from the Victorian home on the side of Hyde Street is a community garden tended by Mey Yan Saechao. She and other elders have been growing food in the park since 2003 when Peralta Hacienda partnered with Lao Family Community Development to create the garden so that Laotian Mien women could cultivate vegetables from Laos. Currently, the Mien elders are growing green beans, potatoes, and corn. 

“She just gave us green beans to give out today at the food distribution,” López said. 

“This year is no good,” Saechao said, pointing to the soil. “Last year was better.” 

Youth activities, gardening and food programs on display at Peralta Hacienda Historical Park in East Oakland
Some of the Mien elders tend to the community garden. This year, they are growing green beans, potatoes, and corn. Credit: Amir Aziz

Operations at the six-acre park in the heart of Fruitvale are slowly resuming after the pandemic-induced shutdown. López and the park’s team have cobbled together summer programs for kids ages 12 years and younger, but part of the challenge is that youngsters aren’t currently eligible to be vaccinated. Still, many parents needed to find ways to get their kids out of their homes after being isolated for over a year. 

While the ACE Summer Camp normally hosts over 200 kids per season, López said that the team decided to scale down and host two three-week sessions with 60 kids. Attendees are divided into social bubbles, with siblings, cousins, and neighbors remaining together to minimize any potential risk of spreading COVID-19. 

“At first, it was tough to get kids to sign-up,” said Eliott Ahumada, one of the camp’s educators. “Once they were here, you can see how resilient they have been through it all.” 

Any family in the East Bay can sign up for the Peralta Hacienda’s ACE Summer Camp, but López said that the largest number of attendees is from Fruitvale, with roughly 60-70% being low-income families of color. The camp is free for youth ages 5 to 15 who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Youth activities, gardening and food programs on display at Peralta Hacienda Historical Park in East Oakland
A Thursday food distribution at the Peralta Hacienda Historical Park’s parking lot. Credit: Amir Aziz

Camp volunteers must be vaccinated. While this isn’t a requirement for the interns or the campers, López said that most of the older interns have gotten their shots. In addition, through a survey, the team found that over 60% of campers’ eligible family members had already been vaccinated.

Peralta Hacienda Historical Park also recently launched the Oakland 200, a 10-week program for teenagers to learn about the last 200 years of East Bay history and document their own stories within this context. The three teens taking part in the program’s inaugural session have been filming at Peralta to create mini-documentaries. One of them is about the park’s food distribution program. 

Launched two years ago as a one-day-a-week initiative running out of a food truck, Peralta’s food distribution has grown enormously. They serve between 150-200 families on any given day. On Thursdays, the team also gives out 200 prepared meals through a partnership with World Central Kitchen. Earlier this year, Peralta received a grant from Feeding America which will allow them to continue serving the community. 

“We don’t have a set date when we will stop the food distribution,” López said. “The community will let us know.” 

Youth activities, gardening and food programs on display at Peralta Hacienda Historical Park in East Oakland
Inside of the Italianate Victorian farmhouse that once belonged to the Peralta family. Credit: Amir Aziz

The next big project is to “decolonize Peralta Hacienda Historical Park,” said López, by changing its name to make it more inclusive of the communities it serves.

The Italianate Victorian farmhouse turned museum at the center of the park holds relics, photographs, and maps that tell a story of the once 44,800-acre ranch, granted to the Peralta family by the last Spanish governor, Don Pablo Vicente de Solá, in 1820. The lands ruled by Spain—and later Mexico before they were colonized by the United States and brought into the union as the state of California—were stolen from the Ohlone people when Spanish conquistadors and Catholic missionaries forced many indigenous people to learn Spanish and work as slaves on missions and ranchos. In 1850, three businessmen, Edson Adams, Andrew Moon, and attorney Horace Carpenter seized 160 acres of the Peralta family’s land for what would eventually become part of the city of Oakland. 

The museum will not be fully open to the public until January 2022 with a public celebration. López said that while it is important to preserve the history of how the park came to be, a name change is a way to decolonize the space and move forward.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.