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Green Boricuas: Everyday Conservation Choices in Food and Lifestyle

My mother was the first environmentalist I ever met. She did not make it to middle school and grew up in poverty in the Puerto Rico of the 1930s. Despite these challenges, or perhaps because of them, she always seemed to have what I can only describe as a visceral knowledge about the earth. In the kitchen, she would whip up a meal with anything available; stepping off to the backyard, pulling a few viandas, fruits, veggies or herbs and fixing dinner was one seamless daily routine. She strained greasy tostones in paper bags and planted seeds in old cans. Vegetable peels, cores, and coffee grounds did not stand a chance in our home, as my mother tossed them to the backyard as fertilizer. She used to strategically position fans around a room to ventilate it better and save leftovers in those Parkay containers that still today have a Pavlovian effect on my hunger. All her life she dried our clothes on a line, under the scorching sun. She would cut some sábila and place the slimy part on our wounds, cuts or scrapes. Wounds healed and coughs disappeared thanks to her personal mejunjes. She learned many of these remedies from my grandmother and many others are just concoctions born out of necessity.

Unlike my mother, I did not grow up with a pressing need to reuse, recycle, reinvent. I came of age in the 1980s, where processed foods reigned supreme, where Burger King was the place to see and be seen, and where sustainable practices were yet not sexy to the media. Fast forward to 2015, and today I gobble all the documentaries about commercial foods, climate change, oil, water and energy depletion and conservation efforts. My mother’s antics suddenly seem visionary. Like her, many other mothers, grandmothers, and role models have inspired Boricuas everywhere to get closer to the earth, feed our bodies better, cure ourselves naturally and conserve resources. From volunteering in a community farm in Brooklyn, to shopping at family farms in Chicago and repurposing old furniture in LA, Boricuas are making strides across the nation in the realm of ecological conservation, taking part in green activism and making greener lifestyle choices everyday.

Tari Ayala is a holistic health coach, owner and founder of Tierra Sana Holistics, a health and wellness practice in Brooklyn providing guidance in the areas of nutrition, detoxing the home and body, urban farming and gardening. Tari, who was born and raised in New York, worked in the magazine industry for 14 years in a job that kept her tied to her desk, eating three takeout meals a day and clocking in over 60 work hours per week. Rather than succumb to stress, she enrolled in a program at The Institute of Integrative Nutrition and became a health coach. She then began an apprenticeship at The Youth Farm, a community farm in Brooklyn that offers training to students and community members, and eventually graduated from its Urban Farm Training Program in 2013. When she stepped into the Youth Farm, she felt an unexpected connection. “I felt so at home. I started making these connections with my grandmother; she always represented food for me. Her food was made with love…” she remembers. Tari holds sweet memories of her grandmother Benita, a strong matriarch who raised her three children as a divorced migrant in 1950s New York, and then returned to the island to build a house in Rincón. “I used to visit her often during the summer and we would go to the backyard to pick fruits. She would always know what to pick and when, and had these contraptions designed to pick the avocados from the tallest branches,” recalls Tari. While working at the Youth Farm, she understood her new lifestyle choices were highly influenced by the love of food and nature her abuela instilled.

A familial connection to Puerto Rico also inspired María José Aponte, a journalist, blogger and advertising creative now living in Chicago. Growing up in a family of seven children, both of her parents were busy lawyers who used to feed the kids canned and microwaved foods more often than María liked. She taught herself how to cook when she was seven, with the help from her grandmother. “Learning to cook from scratch with fresh ingredients teaches you to make healthier decisions. I started making the same dishes my mom would cook on the weekends: rice and beans, stews and soups,” recalls María. Today, together with her husband Nabol, she cooks local and seasonal foods, plants and harvests a small terrace garden, and develops healthy recipes at Verdelicias.com. Maria and Nabol found inspiration in their own upbringing in Puerto Rico to make better decisions on the way they eat. “Living a wholesome life is what helps me stay not only healthy but focused, grounded and inspired. Sharing recipes and stories is my way to stay connected with what’s important,” said María.

Tari, Maria, and Nabol’s story hint at a growing concern about the environment and the health issues that affect Puerto Ricans in the United States. For instance, Mayra Rodriguez is a homeschooler mom of two in Los Angeles, California who started a vegan/green lifestyle for health reasons after years of exploring which foods make her feel better physically, mentally, and emotionally. She has made a habit of finding treasures in thrift shops and garage sales to refurbish and repurpose, vintage fabrics to make crafts, unique items to decorate her house and clothing pieces to add to her wardrobe. She shares about it on her blog VeganArtesana.com, which she describes as “a personal space where I share my two passions: handmade art and vegan food.” Gladys Perez, a life coach and actor from the Bronx, embraces the use of homeopathic medicines with her husband as a way to avoid conventional medicine for minor symptoms. They take ferrum phos (or phosphoricum) for inflammation when they feel like getting sick or feverish. “We drink anise for belly aches and take peppermint and ginger for digestion,” said Gladys whom learned many remedies from both the Peruvian and Puerto Rican sides of her family.

Photo by Zoe Schlanger

From making a difference with everyday lifestyle choices to involvement with green causes, Boricuas are distinguishing themselves also in certain areas of green activism. Melanie Forti, for instance, is the director of Health & Safety Programs at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), a non-profit providing training and employment services to migrant and seasonal farm workers in Washington, DC. In addition to overseeing the development of programs, Melanie also teaches farmworkers how to break old habits and start incorporating green practices into their lives. Through both her work and personal choices, Melanie follows her calling. Others voice their concerns through activism. For instance, Jessica Albino, dance teacher at Bomba Body, led a float at the Fair Food Parade and Concert in St. Petersburg, Florida on March 21st. With drums, dancing and singing, her group honored the accomplishments of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in the fight for social responsibility and the partnership among farmworkers, Florida tomato growers, and participating retail buyers. Indeed, Puerto Rican activists have been all over the news, including the giant mother earth puppet surrounded by signs reading “DEFIENDA A NUESTRA MADRE TERRA” at the People’s Climate March, a massive demonstration demanding action on climate change that took place last September in New York City. Some 300 members of El Puente marched, mostly students and their families. Under their national grassroots organization, the Latino Climate Action Network, El Puente helps organize Latino communities in Puerto Rico and in the states focused on promoting local and national strategies and policies that respond to climate change in a social justice context. “Following our 2013 first Leadership Summit on Climate Change in Puerto Rico, our objective is to lead in the creation of a network of leaders across the states and in PR and solidify LCAN as a major Latino voice in support of national policies to assist the people of Puerto Rico and PR/ Latino communities stateside as well as the entire nation in climate change mitigation, adaptation and resiliency,” said Luis Garden Acosta, founder and president of El Puente.

Small and big choices, as well as life changing decisions, can become habits that improve our health, and that of our communities and the world. Last spring, I grew  tomatoes, basil, wheatgrass and mint with my children in our small Brooklyn backyard. This year, we are starting the same crops plus peas and corn on the kitchen windowsill. We are also joining the CSA at the Youth Farm and seriously considering going solar. One step at a time… I know that our children can be even better, more responsible and greener Boricuas than us, but let none of us stop being green now.

Green Tips from Green Boricuas:

  1. Start growing food: even from a windowsill, plant easy to grow crops like collards, greens and herbs even in average sun.
  2. Go to a farmers market. Get what is in season and freeze.
  3. Join a CSA: Community Supported Agriculture programs support your local farmers and your well being.
  4. Volunteer: gardens and farms hold volunteer days which are a great ways to meet same minded people, learn and offer your help. 
  5. Support local businesses and family farms.
  6. Plan ahead and cook in advance: Prepare weekly meals during the weekend and have easy go-to recipes to prepare during the week.
  7. Upgrade to energy saving bulbs, make sure to turn off lights when not in use, walk and ride your bike for short trips.
  8. Reduce, Recycle and Reuse: donate unused clothes, turn glass jars into terrariums, and use egg cartons for seed starters.
  9. Wash produce naturally: clean produce with a mix of water and vinegar, it will help eliminate residues of pesticides and the wax used to help maintain products fresh.
  10. Make your own cleaning products: to clean bathrooms and ovens use baking soda, hot water and a touch of vinegar and wash white clothes mixing water, lime and borax.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 10 April 2015.