I recently posted an article on the issue of the Puerto Ricans leaving the island and the little-known fact that Puerto Ricans are also returning. Apparently that article caused a bit of a storm on both sides of that issue. Many folks congratulated me on the article, and others asked how much I was getting paid to write such a distorted view of what is really happening on the island. For all of those on both sides of this issue I submit this second post.
As a New-York-raised Puerto Rican, I began to appreciate Puerto Rico's abundant land that gave so many fruits and food items that I only saw in supermarkets back in the Bronx when I first visited my home island at the age of 16.
It was crazy. I remember driving through state roads that twirled around steep hills and mountains to get to my birth town of Guayama on the extreme southern part of the island, about a two-hour drive from the San Juan airport. Leaving the Bronx for the first time on a plane to see the place that I was born was so exciting that I did not remember sleeping the night before the flight. My mother wanted me to rest in the car, but I quickly found out what everyone who rode that same route to cross the island knew, that you were going to get carsick and throw up whatever you had in your stomach somewhere in the middle of that trip.
Sure enough, that happened to me as well, but not even that could keep my eyes from closing as my face was glued to the car window looking in awe to the beauty of the island with all the bright colors and so different from the monotone color of grey that I was so used to seeing in my neighborhood and throughout New York.
One thing that struck me immediately was the number of fruits and other food items that I saw growing wild almost everywhere. I remember driving through the main road leading into the town of Guayama. The road had a beautiful canopy of trees unbeknown to me, they were all mango trees. I had never seen so many mangos on the road. At first I thought a truck full of mangoes had lost its cargo. My mother explained that it was mango season and those were the ones that had fallen from the trees above. I could not believe it. Mangoes were my favorite fruit and in the Bronx I could only get them once in a while from the local supermarket near the apartment where we lived on Westchester and Cauldwell Ave. Being poor was the other issue. We could only afford to buy some if we had extra money, as milk, bread, cereals, meats and items like that were the priority. So here I was driving through thousands of beautiful mangoes on the floor covering the road and all I could think was how could I get my hands on these mangoes from the floor?
That was my experience back in the 1960s, and today in 2015 I am always shocked when I go into a supermarket in Puerto Rico and see that most of the fruits and vegetables and root vegetables are all imported from other Caribbean islands and countries in Central America. That's when I decided that I would not buy anything imported because I knew that the island had to have island-grown products that unfortunately many of the supermarkets were not selling. That's when I found La Plaza Del Mercado. Most towns have one, usually not advertised and they are usually off the main road. However, there you can find all local grown products and to my faith, the money I pay for the products stays on the island, thus helping the local economy.
Now in my senior stage I am proud that I have a house and a small lot in the town of Cabo Rojo. However, what makes me feel really good about the house is that my yard has two mango trees, each a different variety and that came with the land. Man is God great! Rewarding me with two trees of my favorite fruit. It can't get better than that. But it does get better. I also have bananas, plantain, papaya, panapen, and there are some incredible pumpkins growing at the edge of my property. My wife and I were elated when we cooked for the first time in the new house with many of the items right from our land and our neighbors' land. I must say the food tasted much, much better than what I was buying in the states.
On that note, I recently read an article in the New York Times titled "Reclaiming Puerto Rico's Food Paradise" that specifically detailed how many young Puerto Ricans are reclaiming Puerto Rico's natural food resources. It was refreshing to read such an article in a respectable mainstream stateside newspaper. This is an indication that this movement of returning to our home and investing our energies in what we have rather than on what we don't is real and slowly taking hold. Focusing only on the problems of the island and not giving any attention to those that are staying and trying to make a difference with those that are also moving back is a disservice to the reality.
I congratulate this younger generation of cooks in Puerto Rico that are focusing on only cooking from products locally grown, or caught from our surrounding waters. I look forward to this movement spreading throughout the island and seeing locally grown products in every supermarket and not just in a secluded market where few can patronize on the island, but in Puerto Rican communities throughout the states as well.
Hopefully some of the folks who wrote negative comments on my previous piece on why they can't live there, or why they left the island can see my point, which is that if you love the island, let's look for alternatives to change it for the better. The fact is that the island has many untapped resources just waiting to be developed.