There’s a 100-year-old algarroba tree (Hymenaea coubaril) in the Chícharo neighborhood of Santurce that stands out among other centennial native trees that make up the small urban forest, like a 70 foot tall natural interruption in the city’s growing matrix of concrete. Pools of shade from the immense trees cool the alleyway lined with wooden houses, some empty and half-destroyed by hurricane María in 2017. I volunteer at the San Mateo Community Garden nearby, and sometimes frequent the neighbouring bars, but this is the first I’ve noticed these giant trees in the middle of the city.
“I’ve seen that tree since I was born,” says 75-year-old resident Ángeles Venancia Torres Correa. “Chacha,” as she’s known to all her neighbours, was born and raised in the tree-lined alleyway of el Chícharo where she still lives. She remembers her mom saying that the algarroba tree was there when she was born. I visit Chacha at her apartment to talk about a traditional Puerto Rican game called gallitos. The game consists of two players, each armed with a dark brown algarroba seed with a string tied to it. Each person takes turns swinging to hit the other player’s seed while it lies on the ground. The goal is to break your opponent’s seed.
There’s another tree next to her apartment, around the same age, growing in a large parking lot a few feet away. We pick up some large pods from the ground. “They can break car windows,” she says with a chuckle. She remembers loving to eat the pulp inside the algarroba pod and then using the seeds for gallitos. “I would take the hook of a metal hanger and use it to make a hole in the algarroba seed. First, I would flatten the tip of the hook with a hammer or a rock. We would make a hole and tie a string, and that’s it! We would play in the backyard for hours.”
When Chacha’s home was destroyed by hurricane María, a friend lent her a small apartment across the street to live in while her house was being reconstructed. Today, an empty lot sits where her house used to be. Only the tiled floor and the kitchen remain. We walk over and she shows me the hiding spot in the kitchen where she keeps a half-dozen bottles of moonshine fermented with fruit. Beneath her gentle and slow demeanour, Chacha hasn’t lost her fire or her youthful spirit. But the neighbourhood has changed dramatically over the years. “This was a community with many families. I had a formidable childhood with lots of love. The only one that remains here from all those kids that played together is me. The rest have left and those who live here have done so for some time, but not as long as I have.“
“Making gallitos showed me how to share and socialize with other people,” says Chacha. “When you’re a kid you have a lot of energy, so playtime with others is essential…It’s too bad those traditional games are lost. But I adapt. I like to say I live from love.”
The song “Madeline” by Maestro Ladi, from the album El Cuatro Puertorriqueño.
A few streets away from el Chícharo, in the neighbourhood of San Mateo, Lucy Rodríguez’s (67) house sits adjacent to the Community Garden on a lot previously owned by her sister. She strolls in the garden in her flips flops while I work, smoking a cigarette, so as to keep up with the news and find out what’s been growing in the beds. Somedays, she’s joined by her older brother Carlos (72).
Lucy waxes nostalgic when recalling their childhood. “It was wonderful. We didn’t have much technology then. We spent time in the streets, riding our bikes. We played gallitos, hopscotch. A lot of hoola-hoop. Roller skating. Skip rope. Hide and seek. There used to be many children here. We would get the algarrobas from the gallitos near the 25th bus stop in Chícharo. The boys would go and get them. Since it was a big tree, only the boys could climb it. They never let me get on a tree because I was a girl, but I still did it. We would eat the yellow pulp, which smells terrible, but tastes really good!”
“There was a bar there underneath the old algarrobo,” remembers Carlos. “It was busy meeting spot. My parents would say: ‘Go get the beers at the algarroba.’ This neighborhood was very different from others in San Juan. We had sub-neighborhoods with people from different social classes close to each other. A few streets down from here there lived very wealthy families. Those kids would go to private schools, but their entertainment would be playing with us, who went to public schools.”
Everyone has their own secret gallito-making technique. My sister and I used to paint ours with clear nail polish to make an invisible protective layer. It was also something of a family tradition for Lucy and Carlos. “Our parents taught us how to make gallitos,” says Carlos. “It was always exciting to find a big, strong seed. You could tell its quality more or less by looking at the pod. We would make them more durable by submerging in oil for a week. And there were other tricks.” He chuckles at the memory. “Some people would place nails inside them. They would hide it and, when no one was looking, switch it with the one they were using to crack their opponent’s seed that was near-breaking. You would hit it and bam! But you had to hide it quickly.”
Many of the games kids in San Mateo used to play were made from local plants. “We also made our own kites,” says Lucy. “We would use those wavy sticks that grow with the coconut on a palm tree. You would make a cross, tie it securely, and cover it with a paper that people no longer sell, a kind of tissue paper. You could use newspapers or paper bags. My favorite color was pink.”
Lucy and Carlos are quick to remember the games they used to play. I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise; childhood is a time, after all, when the world makes sense. When everyday we feel a part of creating it. Lucy and Carlos used to break off papaya sticks and stir water and soap in a cup when they wanted to blow bubbles. They made blowguns out of bamboo. Every week there was a new fad: One week it was “gallito fever” and the next week it was something else. “I’m a grandfather and I taught my younger ones about these games because it’s what made me happy,” says Carlos.
Author’s Note: I grew up in Río Piedras, a suburb of San Juan near the University of Puerto Rico, with many algarroba trees, so I would often go by myself or with friends and harvest pods on the forest floor. I remember the whole street would be covered in patches of yellow pigment from pods we would break to get the seeds. The process of creating these objects felt like it was an extended part of the game. During 1st grade, my entrepreneurial spirit led me to sell pods at school during our own “gallito fever.” Boricua millennials will be perhaps the last generation to see and play with gallitos.
Later in life, I worked in a kitchen where I created desserts with the pulp, which is high in calcium and magnesium. It has a molasses-like, nutty flavor. I stand in awe at the generosity of this tree, how it provides so much, from food to shade and entertainment. I have a mission to bring this game back into fashion, even if it’s just among adults, so at least they can pass it on to their kids. When I listen to the testimonies of our elders that talk about these traditions, I have a better grasp of how our priorities have shifted in terms of creating health through recreation. Games can serve as a means to support our mental and emotional health, and what better game than one that involves all the senses, promotes botanical literacy, and creates health in our bodies as well.