by Joshua Bay
photography by Breanna Ulsh
Walking around with the authority of a supervisor, a short Guatemalan man with burn marks across his face and right arm approaches me and asks if this were my first time visiting the La Verne Farmer’s Market. Reluctant to answer, I nod my head. Quickly, he introduces himself as Oscar De Leon, farmers market manager. He proceeds to give me a tour of the farmers market and explains what makes each vendor unique. Grounded by his warmth and goodwill, I could tell he was the kind of person who cares about others. Genuinely nice people help for the sake of helping because they understand that the world will become a better place because of it. They are a rarity to find because they are not transactional, and it is not a tit for tat world to them. Oscar is the exact man I am looking for to help me understand the La Verne Farmers Market. “I enjoy creating partnerships and the difference that it makes,” Oscar says, summarizing his association.
La Verne is not his only job. Oscar serves as a farmers market manager in Riverside (two days a week), Moreno Valley and Claremont. He explains how the city of La Verne in particular had been craving a farmers market and unsuccessfully tried to create one about six times. It was when Oscar came into the picture that the idea flourished. In conjunction with Xela AID, Oscar was able to have the humanitarian organization be the official sponsor of La Verne. Xela AID pursues integrated solutions to remove obstacles to education for impoverished children. Some of these solutions include health care, mental health care, hygiene programs and emergency services. Although Xela AID has been helpful in Oscar’s work efforts, he also carries the organization close to his heart.
Growing up in the developing country of Guatemala, Oscar had two goals: reconstructive plastic surgery and school. “I got burned when I was 6 months old in Guatemala.” Based on stories he was told as a child, his burns were a result of being trapped in a house fire. “I don’t really stop and think about it as weird as it is for some people because it’s not an issue for me,” Oscar says. “It may be an issue or obvious to some people, but for me it’s not and hasn’t stopped me from doing what I wanted to do in life.”
Nevertheless, Oscar’s hardships left him no time to focus on school. Multiple surgeries were performed four hours from his house, and his parents did not have the money to drive him back and forth. “They would take me to Guatemala City on the public bus, and I would have to stay in the hospital for three to four weeks at a time,” Oscar says. “That didn’t really help the idea of me going back to school because I was away for so long.” It was not until he was 9 years old that he was put in school by the recommendation of one of his surgeons. At age 14, Oscar’s parents had a goal to get him further reconstructive surgery in the United States. To achieve this, he explains how a couple from the United States, one being the director and founder of Xela AID, adopted him. “My adoptive parents were always very good at staying in touch with my family in Guatemala,” Oscar says. “When I started going to school, they got me involved in martial arts and the boys and girls club and tried to make me as comfortable as possible.”
As Oscar grew up, his adoptive parents encouraged him to attend college. He first attended Pitzer College for a year, but transferred to the University of La Verne because of the Communications Department. Oscar finished his undergraduate degree in journalism and later received his master’s degree at La Verne. “During those years, I wrote for the Campus Times and La Verne Magazine, and I was part of the International Student Organization,” he says. “I was very involved with the Campus Times because I loved writing stories.”
Post graduation, Oscar’s adoptive father introduced him to managing farmers markets. Working for Casa Colina, Oscar’s adoptive father led an agricultural program for people with disabilities, where they would grow a variety of plants, including herbs and succulents. To sustain the program, the produce is sold at farmers markets. Oscar started volunteering for him, and then he was the one who, along with community members in Claremont, opened the Claremont Farmers Market. “I started volunteering there for so long that I started moving up the ladder and became the assistant manager.”
Oscar says he appreciates most speaking with the vendors and learning their stories. “Everybody that I get to work with has a life experience and a unique background. Each and every one of them brings in a different story that makes me love what