New Place, Old Roots

Photo courtesy of Nuestras Raíces

HOLYOKE, MASSACHUSETTS — In the 1960s and ’70s, Holyoke’s paper-mill industry and floodplain tobacco farms along the Connecticut River drew many immigrants who had grown up on farms in Puerto Rico. As these jobs vanished over the last thirty years, the Puerto Rican community, more than a third of the city’s population, found itself increasingly isolated from rural land in some of Holyoke’s lowest-income neighborhoods. Unsatisfied with this situation, a small group of elder farmers-at-heart created La Finquita community garden from a rubble- and trash-strewn vacant lot in South Holyoke. Then in 1992 they established a nonprofit called Nuestras Raíces — “Our Roots” — to pass on their agrarian knowledge to children, improve their community’s health, and honor their heritage as they established new roots in Holyoke.

Nuestras Raíces has since become a far-reaching grassroots organization that helps reclaim and revitalize the Puertoriqueño community through urban agriculture projects relating to food security, health, and economic development. Its members, the residents of downtown Holyoke, work together to promote greater awareness and empowerment in how they live and eat. Leading a more than seventy-member coalition of community organizations, the group recently won funding from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation’s long-term Food & Fitness Initiative. By supporting and providing greater access to locally grown, healthy, and affordable food, the network in Holyoke has become a model of inner-city community collaboration.

The nonprofit owes much to Daniel Ross, who began as executive director in 1995, at the age of twenty-two and just a year out of Oberlin College. “When I was hired,” he recalls, “Nuestras Raíces consisted of one community garden, twenty garden members, and half of an office in a nearly condemned community center. In some ways it’s lucky we didn’t know what we were doing because we didn’t know what we were and weren’t supposed to do. So we just worked together to make the things happen that our members felt were important.”

“Now we have nine community gardens in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city,” Ross adds, “and the incidence of vandalism has been almost zero.” In addition, Nuestras Raíces runs La Finca, a thirty-acre riverside farm near downtown that hosts a youth-run petting zoo, a farm stand, pig roasts, and small “incubator farms” for aspiring farmers who complete an eight-week training program. “During the summer you’ll find a dozen guys sitting on tables and benches, shelling beans and telling lies about the size of their tomatoes,” says Ross.

Several community member–owned small businesses have launched with assistance from Nuestras Raíces. One is El Jardín, a successful artisan bakery. Other local restaurants, like Mi Plaza, cook with vegetables and fruits from the gardens and farm. A local nutrition and health center works with and teaches local residents through workshops and free clinics coordinated with Nuestras Raíces. Community coalitions now help to shape policy on public health and social justice.

Meanwhile, Puertoriqueño youth learn from elders, grow food, and build community in ways reminiscent of traditional villages. Sixteen-year-old Nathan Diaz joined Nuestras Raíces two years ago. “I was working in tobacco fields, liked it, and wanted to stick to farming. I can get a career in landscaping,” he says. This year, as a summer youth supervisor, he worked with seven teenagers, ages thirteen to sixteen, who helped clear and maintain farmland, plant crops, and sell produce at farmers’ markets.

Julia Rivera came to Massachusetts from Puerto Rico in 1974. A grandmother, community organizer, resident services coordinator, and now Nuestras Raíces board president, she established the Count On Me community garden in 2000 to replace an alley behind her apartment building — and “to let kids know what a garden could do for community.” Julia adds, “There are still people in Holyoke who think we’re here to damage and destroy. That’s not true. We left almost everything behind in Puerto Rico but we didn’t let go of our heritage. Here we give opportunity to remember our country and enjoy. I believe in an organization that does what they say they will do for community, for people like me, who want to do it.”

 

In the face of climate change and energy challenges, what creative ways are you finding to forge healthy and durable lives and communities? Send submissions — five hundred words or fewer — to Orion, 187 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or via {encode=”[email protected]” title=”e-mail”}. Submissions become property of Orion.

Lauret E. Savoy is a teacher, geologist, and writer. She has edited a number of books focused on human’s interaction with the natural world and to one another. Savoy served for two years as the director of Mount Holyoke’s Center for the Environment, and she is on the board of directors of the Center for Whole Communities. Savoy’s column appears in the on-line journal Terrain.org as “A Stone’s Throw.” In her book, The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World (Milkweed Editions, 2011, co-edited with Alison Hawthorne Deming) provocative essays weave diverse experiences of place to create a larger and more textured cloth than the largely monochromatic tradition of American nature writing or of the mainstream environmental movement.

Comments

  1. We are so proud to have Daniel Ross in the Ashoka-US Fellowship! His work epitomizes what a leading social entrepreneur can do when addressing entrenched social challenges in creative new ways!

  2. wow, memories, when I was the first Resident Service Coordinator @ Sargeant West Apts-marken Properties and the first tenant I took under my wing, trained Julia Rivera, amazing after being a great volunteer, she proceeded me as a SRC, and did a great job. I alway belived that if we trained the tenants they could continue the work we started back when I was hired on October 16, 1995. I also work with daniel back when they started the program at Nueva esperanza, In, I also worked at Nueva Esperanza, Inc a great place to work, Working within the Holyoke, and Springfield communities gave me great experience. I love my people and community. Miss all the great people I had the honor to work with between 1988 to 2003. I also was a Advocate/Counselor for 9 yrs with Stavos, with with many agencies in Western mass, and collobrated with all and any agencies that provided services to our communities I moved to Florida a know attending college to first what I left all those years to get my law degree.

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