I began volunteering at the Huerto Comunitario San Mateo del Batatal (San Mateo Community Garden) in late August 2020 when Puerto Rico was on lockdown and “non-essential” activities were banned in public spaces. After months of navigating boredom, social life and online work through the computer, I was anxious to spend time outside, despite restrictions. Luckily, the community garden is located at a sufficient distance from the main roads, out of sight from police and tucked between houses so it seems like someone’s backyard. I was relieved to finally spend my mornings under open skies and surrounded by plants as a way to support my mental health.
Over the course of weeks, while tending to plants, soil, spiders, and bees, the value of urban gardens transcended from a theoretical truth to a visceral one. I became more invested in defending these spaces as one of many ways to promote agroecological practices, botanical literacy, collective decision-making, and mental health inside cities. Gardens serve as a means to defend the sovereignty of a community, as in the inherent right to self-govern and shape its relationship to land and non-human species. The neighbors know well of these benefits, so when these pieces of land went up for sale, many neighbors had offered to buy the two lots from the owner to preserve the community garden. Unfortunately, both lots were sold for $100,000 in cash to Kingsley Investments & Property Management, a U.S. investment firm based in Vermont, as part of the most recent wave of investors lured by the tax exemptions granted to U.S. businesses and individuals under the local Act 60.
As a way to bring attention to Borikén’s urban gardens and defend what remains of the wilderness in San Juan, I organized a series of creative rewilding workshops with the support of volunteers and neighbors. Rewilding encompasses the retrieval and innovation of practices that protect and collaborate with the unique biodiversity of a community or region. These practices take small but significant steps towards mitigating climate change and building a future that creates wellbeing for human and non-human species. Rewilding Borikén is a series of educational and creative gatherings held in urban gardens and squats across Borikén in collaboration with artists, scientists, farmers, healers, and community activists who seek to share rewilding skills in the form of wild fermentation, natural fiber weaving, and medicinal tincture making with local plants. The Rewilding Borikén workshops are designed to coordinate with organized efforts to occupy abandoned structures across the island, which numbered over 8,000 as of 2018.
These gatherings were coordinated as part of the programming for local art and ethnobotany lab la recolecta. The itinerant lab focuses on studying wild plants as a means to support creative, medical, and food sovereignty throughout one of the world’s oldest colonies. Knowledge is gathered and created through academic, journalistic, and ethnographic research, and shared through zines, online publications, and workshops. For these workshops, we focused on rewilding our culinary, medicinal and creative strategies with plants from the San Mateo Community Garden.
The following essays serve both as expository and poetic distillations of the knowledge gathered and created in each meeting. It is a textual and visual archive created in support of sovereignty, native oral history, regenerative agriculture, trans-species collaboration, and re-thinking our material culture outside the logic of extractive capitalism.