While many young women her age are obsessed with purchasing their first Louboutin high-heel red bottom shoes, this 28-year old agroecologist is passionate about cisterns, growing, and harvesting her own food, and teaching others how to do it. When young Puerto Ricans with college degrees are leaving the island in droves for jobs, Ana Elisa is teaching other young people how to create jobs and live more sustainably on the fertile and beautiful island of Vieques.
When we met the millennial farmer, she was painting the outside of a 100-gallon cistern with bold yellow letters: Huerto Comunitario Proyecto Iglesia El Panal just in case someone had the idea to take it. Cisterns and solar panels are the rage in Vieques, the beautiful smallish island six miles off the coast of Puerto Rico. The idea that water catchment contraptions are more popular than red bottom shoes is both funny and exciting for the millennial farmer who’s been living and teaching sustainable agriculture since she was a teenager.
Hurricane Maria was like a weed wacker she said. Her farm and apiary suffered damages but because it is sustainable she says it suffered less than other farms.
If Puerto Rico suffered devastating damages, Hurricane Maria was catastrophic in Vieques and the neighboring island of Culebra. It’s only hospital was totaled. Most of the population lost homes, businesses, cars, and lives. The exact number of deaths in Vieques is still not known. Islandwide the numbers are coming in: nearly 5,000 Puerto Ricans died as a result directly or indirectly from the hurricane.
On the ferry ride to Vieques we rode with the coffins that carried the bodies of two elderly women who were returning to be buried on the island of their birth. A few hours after arriving, we bumped into Beatriz Miranda Tapia whose brother died because there were no way to get to a dialysis treatment on time.
Amid all the death and devastation, people are also feeling empowered. It has provided the space to start a conversation on sustainable living, according to Ana Elisa.
“People are thinking seriously how to live more sustainably,” says the 28-year old agroecologist with a degree from the University of Puerto Rico.
Food insecurity is one of Vieques most pressing challenges. The island has a long list of challenges beginning with the fact that it is still recuperating from sixty years of live bombing and ammunition testing by the US armed forces. But at the most essential– food and water are where people are hurting most.
Puerto Rico imports 85 percent of what it eats and in Vieques the figure is 100 percent. The ferry, which is the major mode of transport for locals who are not wealthy, is precarious. It is inconsistent. It beaks down, often. And there a multitude of restrictions on what residents can bring into the island. By the time food arrives to the supermarket, the meat is past its expiration date and vegetables and fruits are rotten. And this was before the storm.
To say that it’s precarious to live in Vieques is to put it mildly.
And there are many people in Vieques who are working hard to change that. Ana Elisa and her partner Cora are two. We met them in December, three months after the storm, and there was still no electricity or access to clean water.
People here suffered dark days. Weeks following the storm not only was there no electricity and clean water, and food, there was no communication with the outside world or way to leave the island.
“It was really bad after Hurricane Maria. I hope that the enthusiasm for cisterns, solar energy, and farming lasts after electricity comes.”
Ana Elisa and her partner Jorge Cora own an eco-farm, Finca Conciencia, in Monte Carmelo, a neighborhood located in the belly of the island. They were in the midst of building a community garden on the grounds of the local church.
Ana Eliza did not sit for the interview, she worked the whole time.
“We are trying to plant as much as possible. People are now starting to wake up. Now that we are living in a crisis, they are listening.”
After she painted and installed the cistern with two other volunteers, she tended to the baby banana, plantain, and papaya trees that were starting to sprout. They also planted yautia, which was one of the many tubers that grow deep in the earth and that helped sustain many of the islanders when the farms were destroyed. She had just completed planting raised boxes with arugula, radish, kale, onions, watermelon and flowers, Zinnias, which are not only beautiful but bees love them.
“We are trying to plant as much as possible The supermakerts isles were always empty or with the worst selection of food. When the food does come it’s porqueria.”
There is no word for porqueria in English, but it’s between terrible and disgusting.
The cistern and community garden is part a larger project that includes workshops and clinics on water catchment, farming, nutrition, and solar panels. They have been doing the workshops and community teaching in their farm for the last three years, eco-farming, and bee keeping for ten. Hurricane Maria has provided the opening for a wider conversation.
Since Ana Elisa was 13 years old she has been working in some form or other with the earth and the environment. Her father’s death from pancreatic cancer when she was a teen inspired her to get involved to live more sustainably.
“At first I was interested in the environment because I know that food and the environment are connected to diseases and I wanted to prevent more deaths. Then I found eco agriculture and and it combined everything I love.”
Ana Elisa and Cora’s project is part of a larger conversation around racism, gender bias, LGBT phobias, and economic and environmental justice.
In eco-agriculture it’s where everything meets:
“When you work with the earth and plant what you consume you are literally liberating yourself from the most basic necessity which is to eat. If we produce our food we are also in the process liberating ourselves. With a little land, everyone can produce the most essential for daily living. It’s the most practical way of living especially in a nation where we have been taught to depend, to receive food from somewhere else, and we don’t even know where it’s coming from.”
Many young people with degrees leave the island for work and she gets it. Life is hard in Puerto Rico, harder in Vieques. And she is not judging. But she is staying and creating reasons for other young Puerto Ricans to stay.
“There is a way to live off farms, to make it sustainable for families to eat healthy, and also have a mode of living.”
She has thoughts of leaving as her identity is deeply Caribbean she says and has projects in two other Caribbean islands she loves, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, where there is more farming than Puerto Rico. But her commitment to the island of Puerto Rico for now is rooted. Also she says, to leave is sometimes a privilege.
“I’ve decided to work in my nation. We are still the process of creation.”
*Ana Elisa Perez Quintero is a former student of Ethnobotanist and University of Puerto Rico Professor Gladys Nazario
Words: Sandra Guzmán
Photos: Sandra Guzmán & Rebecca Gitana Torres