Chronicle of a Communal Brigade
by Tara Rodriguez Basosa
Translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell
We met in the recently opened Café Comunión in Santurce at eight in the morning. Ora and Luz went to the kitchen at Dreamcatcher to get the food that Liliana and Gabriela had helped to prepare for the brigade a few days before. All of the harvests that the brigade uses come from other agro-ecological farmers, who, little by little, had come in to drop off their produce. The food had been loaded into the Guagua Solidaria, to be taken to wherever we would meet up in Santurce. While the rest of the group was waiting for the guagua, we briefly introduced ourselves; names, preferred pronouns and where we were from. I asked a little bit about each participant, explained a bit about the logistics of the brigade and asked how each person was feeling right at that moment, so that I could get a better idea of how each of them was doing just before embarking on a week of brigades, camping and communal work. We all climbed into the guagua, with Sally and Lucho following in a separate vehicle. The trip from Santurce to the mountains of Aibonito took an hour and a half.
We are visiting three farms in the area. Siembra Tres Vidas, Finca Escondida and Finca Gaia. Daniella, Edwin, Limarie, Amalia, Jessica, Tony, Jeanette. Woman, man, woman, woman, woman, man, woman.
Our group is made up of Kenneth from Boston, Steve from New Jersey, Era, Tristán, Matt and Sarah from Florida, Skye from West Virginia, April, who lives in Guánica, Sally and Lucho from San Juan, Ora from Brooklyn, Tara and Chayote from Santurce. Man, man, woman, man, man, woman, man, woman, woman, man, woman, gender neutral individual, and a dog.
We arrive and set up our shelters on the new property of Siembra Tres Vidas in El Barrio Llanos, just on the edge of Cañón San Cristóbal. We have six shelters; some people share and others decide to sleep alone, although all of the shelters are grouped together in the same area, surrounding the kitchen tent. We set up the kitchen station with tables and coolers and other equipment. We set up a display case that Daniella rescued from a bakery. We set up a wash station next to a water-valve with a hose attached. To prevent it from filling up with mud – we’ve had many days of rain since the hurricane – Era and Tristan made a small swale to divert the water off in a particular direction. We use the same campsite throughout the week, even though every two days we work on a different farm. Ora is the official cook for the week, and she planned and carried out all the logistics for the brigade’s food. She prepped food, took inventory, made purchases, put in orders for farm produce. She planned to have enough food for twenty people, taking into account that there are always volunteers and other farmers who show up to work with us on different days. She ordered produce from Miriam, Josco Bravo, Siembra Tres Vidas, Benito and a handful of others. A part of the formula for the brigades is to be able to contribute financially to the very same agro-ecological farms that we’re supporting. We want fresh food to be a part of the daily life of the brigade.
The goal at Siembra Tres Vidas was to build a roof with a rainwater harvesting system and storage cistern next to the house where they will have a walk-in cooler and preparation and storage areas for the crops coming from the new farm. The roof will also serve as a plant nursery and a wash area. Ridge to Reef will soon install a solar system at the house to power the walk-in and the water pump. We cleared some areas of tall, dense grass, piling the grass to be used, once it has dried, in other areas on the farm. A team of eight cut the grass with machetes, while two others used trimmers in other areas. The materials for the roof arrived in a truck from Maderas 3C, a large, local hardware store with really friendly employees, from which we’ve gotten most of our materials. Flavio, the truck driver, is Dominican. He tells me that he’s using a small hydroponic system to grow recao (similar to cilantro). This is the second materials delivery that Flavio has made to a farm that we’re supporting. He briefly introduced himself to the group and allowed my nephew, Cyán, to climb up in the truck and honk the horn.
We sunk posts in two-foot deep holes that we had marked out with string and a measuring tape. We filled each hole with concrete to hold up the posts and connected them with wooden beams. Laying the roofing is the easy part; building a solid and well measured-out frame is a bit more tedious. Someone strung a hammock underneath the roof the moment the project was completed. It works.
To go to the bathroom we made two trenches, very similar to the swale, with a hole a foot wide and fifteen feet long. After defecating in the trench, people cover their waste with cut grass and the same dirt that came out of the trench when it was being dug, and little by little, the trench gets re-filled. This is a very simple system but there are some details that are important to take into account. The trench should not be dug within 100 feet of any body of water, and not within 300 feet of an area crowing food crops. The waste takes about nine months to decompose in a tropical climate. We are also putting any organic kitchen waste into the trenches.
Today we visited the second farm, El Barrio Pastos, southeast of Aibonito, with a beautiful view of the towns of Salinas, Coamo and all the way to Santa Isabel. We used chainsaws to cut up several fallen trees, and made benches around the slope of the mountainside, using pieces of an abandoned fence. Jessica and Tony’s farm is beautiful. Jessica’s father, son and daughter were there working as well. Three generations. We put a roof on a steel structure that was already there. One half of the roof would be used as a nursery and the other half for storage. Today, as I take a moment to write this chronicle, they are lining the sides with plastic and wooden boards.
The first night, Nelson Álvarez, who had come on his own to the farm with his machete, spoke to us about his most recent book, Sembrando en Tres Partes, written specifically about the practice of agro-ecology in Puerto Rico. The second night Onelia and Maco, two people who had participated in popular struggles in Aibonito ands Barranquitas, visited us. They told us a little about the history of those mountain villages and how they, since a very young age, had formed part of a politically-minded, femininst and grassroots anti-colonial resistance movement. It was nice to share with them some of the struggles like the one in Vieques and about how the villages in the island’s interior supported them. The third night Lucho and Sally, two participants in the brigade from Acupuntura Pal Pueblo, gave a talk about community acupuncture and wellbeing, led the group in a body relaxation session and did acupuncture in the ear. They sang, played a little music and we were able to focus on our health, something that frequently gets forgotten when working in the countryside.
Yesterday afternoon, after working under a strong, but, after so much rain, welcome sun, we went down into Cañón San Cristóbal. I carried my nephew on my shoulders for part of the way down, then Kenneth took him for the rest of the way. The trail is very steep, beautiful and silent. The only sound you hear is the waterfall. My sister noticed a few changes to Cañón wrought by the hurricane. We undressed and jumped into the cold water. The dog went swimming too. The water from the waterfall hitting you on the head and body takes all your stress away. We stayed in Cañón for sunset and early evening, then climbed out again with headlamps, spent and happy.
Every night we ate dinner and reflected on the day, offering mutual support for any situation, and we got to know each other a little better. I’ll say goodbye now, until the next chronicle, because I have to help take lunch to my fellow brigade members who are working and must be very hungry. We still have one more farm to visit and feeding the group is important given the work that still lies ahead of us.
This is a part of a series of 24 chronicles that will be published weekly in English and Spanish, as a part of www.24weeks.us.
Read here Report on Puerto Rico's Food Post-Hurricane Maria