In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, activists turned the abandoned land into a community park. They say El Huerto is only the beginning.
The structure of an old sugar mill is located on a once deserted plot of land in Ponce, a city along Puerto Rico’s southern coast. Believed to be owned by the Puerto Rican Department of Housing, the space has been used for more than two decades as an illegal landfill.
It is one of many abandoned buildings and spaces in Puerto Rico’s cities, as a result of countless ongoing social, political, and economic crises, along with a barrage of deadly earthquakes and storms.
But that land, about 10,000 square feet in size, is also one of a growing number of abandoned places that have been reclaimed by communities. Organizers of El Huerto Urbano del Callejón Trujillo, the community garden and gathering space that has since taken over the landfill, say their goal is to bring about change and take over what the government is ignoring.
María del Carmen Ramos, the 26-year-old daughter of Poncea, says she has to drive to San Juan, the capital, for work and graduate school. She says El Huerto has become a space to think about what is possible in a place where already difficult living conditions are getting worse.
After Category 4 Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017, a nearby resident named Luis Enrique “saw an opportunity to co-create a space that would provide what was lacking in the aftermath,” Ramos says. Since 2018, El Huerto has become a place that provides a supply of healthy foods to the surrounding communities and facilitates the opportunity for people to learn agricultural skills.
“One could say that there is actually no bad soil, just soil that is not properly cared for,” says Ramos, who has been involved in ecological farming efforts and has supported local farmers with her work in El Huerto.
In an archipelago where most food is imported and more than 40% of the population is below federal poverty levels and is food insecure, efforts like El Huerto show what improving access to land and food can do.
The food that El Huerto produces goes to feed members of the community, and has been grown and harvested by students who perform their service hours there as well as many others from the south of the island looking for a space to connect with the people and the land.
Member Yeira Rodriguez said on 2020 short film on the community garden. “It allowed me to reconnect with what it means to be a Purikin,” the original Taino name for Puerto Rican.
El Huerto is part of a broader movement to reclaim abandoned land on the island.
Members of El Huerto lead a new group they have stimulated called La Aldea – The Village – through which local leaders make art available, improve culinary skills, provide access to the land or connect with the community. To share organizational ideas and strategies, members recently hosted a discussion forum in El Huerto with other community groups that have reclaimed and transformed spaces throughout other cities in Puerto Rico.
“we [the members of El Huerto] We want to adopt a model that provides us with the means to protect our efforts. What is the paradigm?” asks Ramos, who helped coordinate the forum, which was attended by more than 50 participants. “Having this conversation is a start for us to exchange ideas and determine which paradigm is best for us.”
Among the speakers was Dalma Cartagena, an agricultural ecologist and retired public school teacher, who spoke about the schools she continues to work with in the Orocoves countryside that have changed spaces to produce healthy foods – one of them was one of many Schools are closed and deserted by the government.
Members of Taler Liberta in West Mayaguez also participated and emphasized the importance of “revitalizing unused spaces for the arts”, as did Bemba PR, whose efforts are aimed at “intervention” [with art] in public.” Tara Rodriguez Besosa and Kela Ilanez, of the Caguas Rural Food Department, spoke about how these community projects can serve as an “alternative for [governmental] agencies. Omar Ayala, of Urbe a Pies, also in Caguas, but downtown, discuss their group’s efforts to restore many of Caguas’ abandoned buildings and spaces, and create an ecosystem of services and opportunities.
Through these different strategies, these diverse community groups and activists, as well as all members of La Aldea, are working toward the common goal of enhancing economic security and food sovereignty for Puerto Ricans. This place “became a platform for social care and management, as well as community organizing,” said Maria del Carmen.
El Huerto and these other projects show what can still be possible in a place that is constantly deteriorating. Besides being a center for food production and sharing, El Huerto has created a space for the exchange of resources and services, providing environmental education while increasing the land’s agro-ecological diversity.
Most of all, says Ramos, it provided “the opportunity to generate well-being” for members of the community garden as well as those outside it.
Restoring, caring for, and transforming an abandoned thing is a political act. But taking spaces this way is not without risks. At any point, the space could be sold or taken back by the government. But with investors and settlers buying property in the decade-long luxury-feeding frenzy, often to Take advantage of Puerto Rico’s tax breaks, gentrification has left the local real estate market inaccessible.
Members of El Huerto say this has left Puerto Ricans with no other options. “We know we are likely to lose space, but it is also likely that we will continue to convert other similar spaces in Ponce,” Ramos says.
Luis Alexis Rodriguez Cruz brings insight and understanding of food systems issues in Puerto Rico and beyond through science and storytelling. It explores socio-environmental links and relationships, considering the effects of the climate crisis and policy decisions, as they reflect on the vulnerability of people and the environment. Lewis does this through applied research, interdisciplinary art, and food culture. He holds a PhD in Food Systems from the University of Vermont, and a BA in Biology and a MSc in Food Science and Technology from the Ponce and Mayagüez campuses of the University of Puerto Rico, respectively. He published his work in open journals, wrote for El Nuevo Día, 80grados, Science and others.