Marin and immigrant monuments

Dale Bechtel, swissinfo.chI don’t want to leave San Francisco before I visit a neighbourhood known for its recent immigrant population. Only in this way, can I get a true impression of what it’s like to be a new arrival in a strange place.

I’m directed to Mission St around 17th Ave. It’s a multicultural area, but Latin American culture is dominant – from the Guatemalan cubby-hole restaurants, to the Latino music blaring out of the discount clothes stores and the broad Spanish spoken on the streets. But another telltale sign that many immigrants land here is the very visible presence of money transfer businesses (“Envios de dinero”) and basic lodgings (rooms to let by the day, week or month).

I take pictures of the colourful displays of oranges and mangoes outside the many grocers, wanting to know what ends up in a recent immigrant’s shopping bag, compared to the purchases of a well-established, college-educated American shopping at one of California’s largest farmers’ markets.


A day later, I visit the Marin farmers market in San Rafael. Citrus fruit is on sale here too, but green produce, preferably organic, is the big seller.

The descendants of the Ticinesi still control large swaths of farmland in Marin County, and while dairy farms dominate the countryside, it’s the crop growers who are helping uphold the region’s reputation for agricultural excellence. I meet Jim Fenton A short chat with Jim Fenton (mp3) of the non-profit company that runs the market and several others throughout the county. He tells me the food fair is continuing to grow in popularity.

Jim with a seller of local cheese

The San Rafael market is now seeing about 10,000 visitors a day, up from 2,000-3000 only four or five years ago. The market, Jim says, has not been affected by the economic slump, and may even be benefitting from it, as people move from global to local, choosing crooked, chemical-free carrots over pesticide-treated, generic vegetables shipped in from thousands of miles away. And some of the Marin dairy farms are returning to making their own cheese – just like the emigranti did 100 years ago.

Driving towards Point Reyes Station near the coast, I get directions from a ranger at the National Park center to the Olema cemetery. Following a tip, I learned that many of those first dairymen are buried there: Ottolini, Muscio, Righetti, Franzi, Grossi, Martinelli and Tomasini – to name a few.

Many of the monuments are quite grand, befitting the contribution these Swiss-Italians made to the region. It makes me think of the monuments – in graffiti form – that I had seen a day earlier in an alley off Mission St. The recent arrivals are already marking their presence.

One thought on “Marin and immigrant monuments

  1. One question that came to me was what did the Mission District shoppers buy that was different from the Marin farmer’s market buyers.

    My guess would be ethnic foods that are not available at the Marin market such as those delicious freshly made tortillas and tomales. Other than ethnic foods, there are residents of the Mission who are working to bring in locally grown foods, promoting organic, and monitoring pesticide and other contaminants. There is intense activism in the Mission.

    Marin also has is a large population of folks from Mexico and Central America who would be drawn to the Marin farmer’s market because markets are a way of life for them. In addition to making purchases, markets are places to meet friends, and catch up on the latest.

    My friends go to the Palo Alto farmer’s market to buy fish freshly caught right off our coast, fruits and vegetables, and look for the sellers who they have gotten to know. They love to swap stories with them about their products, how they are grown, composting techniques, effects of the weather on their crops, why certain fruit trees did not produce much this year–all that stuff.

    Of course, you can exchange a few pleasantries with the checkers at big chain grocery stores like Safeway here or Migros in Switzerland, but how different that is from talking directly to the farmer and being offered a “crooked carrot” or out-of-round tomato to taste test! Yumm.

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