The community garden in La Perla, one of the most iconic neighborhoods on the island made even more famous by the song Despacito, was toppled when the roof of a nearby house landed on the plants. Hundreds of plants fought for their lives. Mara, whose knowledge and relationship to indigenous plants and the natural world is a joy to experience, had been running the garden five months before the storm. The garden with medicinal and edible plants was beautiful, she said. Lush, green, vibrant. Kids would pick mint leaves on their way to school and chew on them like candy, ladies would harvest recao for their sofrito, and everyone picked at the oregano brujo leaves to help heal bruises and cuts. Then Hurricane Maria arrived and everything was just charred.
“I noticed that initially there was a lot of devastation. It was very impressive to see the impact of strong winds on plants, but the same force and energy of the earth also created an incredible amount of regrowth where everything started to bloom. You’d see trees fallen over and blooming all over the place. Nature does know what its doing.”
It was not just the garden that was ruined, most of the homes in La Perla also suffered devastating damages. The community is still hobbling. The mom of a pre-teen son says that she was one of the few, lucky ones. Her home did not suffer any damages except water, which she mopped up and kept in buckets and used to flush the toilet.
While the plants recuperated in the garden, the tubers came through for the community of 300 residents days following the storm.
“We harvested malanga, tarot, and some of the the ladies had cassava, sweet potato. We made a sancocho. And then we harvested the basil, which suffered greatly but we were able to make pesto. We started a community kitchen. It’s how we survived.
Surviving Hurricane Maria empowered the urban permaculture farmer.
“It felt like we were on our own, off the grid, finding our own selves with our own help. You get a sense of the power that the community has in situations like that and how we can come together.”
A few weeks after Maria a salt storm killed more of the plants.
We arrived three months after the hurricane and the garden was showing signs of rejuvenation. Boxes were constructed and seedlings were growing. There were happy plants: ahi dulce for sofrito, arnica, lettuce greens, yanten, a medicinal plant for the flu and immunity booster, turmeric, flor escondida, good for breaking-up kidney stones, amaranth, moringa, basil, tomatoes, beans and many more.
“I am learning a lot from my neighbor Sonia who lives next to me. She is the curandera of the community. A lot of people go to her for remedies. That is our next stage, to rebuild this into a huge medicinal garden.”
Mara became the seed point person after the storm and non GMO seeds arrived from all over the US.
“We are experimenting to see if we can get greens growing faster in smaller baskets. We are helping to build farms for disasters. We are committed to creating community gardens in any community that wants them. We are especially interested in medicinal gardens too, a lot of people want to learn what plants help the body, especially kids.”
With string budgets they have done so much. She conducts workshops in schools and in the community, has created, with a small group of volunteers, nearly one hundred eco community gardens where people have access to fresh healthy food.
Now she says they are desperate for space. They are looking for a donor who does not use their land so that they can farm, and plant the seeds that they have received. They want to start a seed bank which the island does not have.
“We have to keep the seeds going. We’d love to have a land to provide a living space for seeds and plants so that we can give to other organizations and to people. We want to help design farms for disasters. So much work to do, and we are ready for it.”
*Rebecca and I dropped off most of the non GMO seeds were carried to the island to Mara. Our donations help found twenty gardens in schools so that kids and families can harvest fresh food.
Words: Sandra Guzmán
Photos: Sandra Guzmán & Rebecca Gitana Torres