As crowds of more than two million are expected to gather on Fifth Avenue this Sunday for the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade, some are opting to pay tribute to Puerto Rico in a place that commemorates the island’s colourful environment and traditions year round- in the city’s casita community gardens.
Casitas – or ‘little houses’ in Spanish – are scattered throughout the five boroughs in many of the city’s most economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Surrounded by gardens that are reminiscent of the Puerto Rican countryside, casita community gardens have become synonymous with the island’s rich heritage and cultural achievements.
“These Casita gardens have become so important to our community, “ explains Gloria Feliciano, coordinator of the El Flamboyan Community Garden in the South Bronx. “It allows us to celebrate and remember our cultural roots back in Puerto Rico, and even pass on our traditions to our children,” she adds while weeding her vegetable bed full of cilantro, onions and tomatoes, among the many other plants which will be used to cook ‘Sofrito’- a sauce which serves as a base for many traditional Puerto Rican dishes.
In addition to providing communities with green spaces and fresh vegetables, these community gardens also provide testament to the Puerto Rican migrant experience; one shaped by resilience in the city. By taking control and improving their immediate environment, casita gardeners have transformed vacant, trash and crime – infested lots, into beautiful oases that celebrate Puerto Rican culture.
These community gardens have also served on the front lines in helping to combat decades old feelings of displacement and cultural marginalization. “There are not many public spaces in the city where we can celebrate our cultural values on a regular basis,” said Ivan Correra of the United We Stand Community Garden.
The fate of casita community gardens – as is the case with nearly all other community gardens in the city – is in even greater limbo now after new threats loom over its existence from the possible budget cuts to federally funded community development programs, such as GreenThumb. The GreenThumb program has provided educational and material support to nearly 600 community gardens in NYC. According to the New York City’s Community Gardening Coalition’s Board of Directors’ President, Karen Washington, “GreenThumb is the lifeline for all New York City’s community gardens.”
In line with this year’s parade theme; “Celebrating the Natural Beauty of Puerto Rico,” there really may be nothing more appropriate than paying tribute to and supporting the preservation of the city’s community gardens. Many casita community gardens, such as El Flamboyan, will join in on the festivities by providing music, food and dance in the garden this weekend. Such events, nonetheless, are not uncommon during the summer months, and are typically attended by many in the community. “Why should we go down to the crowds,” asks Feliciano, “when we can- as we always have- celebrate being Puerto Rican in the shade and comfort of our beautiful garden!”