Starting 2018 in Puerto Rico

After months agonizing over news coverage of the 2017 Hurricane Maria passing through the Caribbean, I was finally on my way to Puerto Rico. After landing, as I walked towards the airport exit, I was hit by a sudden trepidation of not knowing what to expect on the other side of the airport doors. I imagined a landscape devoid of greenery, a deep darkness in the streets, and overly aggressive drivers. Happily, I was mostly wrong. Nature was revamping. Trees were blooming and palm trees rocked in the warm Caribbean breeze. Darkness remained, but restoring power is slowly lighting up the island. The few homes with Christmas lights illuminated their neighbors a few blocks away that remained in the dark in a way sharing some of the season’s spirit that people long for now more than ever.

Weeks before my trip, I was interviewed by the New York Times about the food situation on the island, with a particular concern over the availability of pasteles in a year post-Maria. The hurricane had devastated the local production of the main ingredients for the traditional pastel de masa – the plantain. Granted, pasteles were the least of my concerns when I thought about the situation in the island and what I would encounter during my holiday visit. When the reported asked me about whether I would eat pasteles this Christmas in Puerto Rico, my response, as quoted, was simple:

“in difficult times, one thing that defines us is that we keep positive,” Ms. Fuster said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people found a way to make pasteles.”

And I was right, evidenced by the pasteles feast we enjoyed in the New Year, seen here at the peak of boiling:

pasteles boiling

Three months after Maria, Puerto Rico is slowly returning to normalcy – even if at a new kind of normal. Agriculture is slowly coming back, as (hopefully) you can see from these quick snapshots taken from the road.

ag snapshots

Farmer’s markets are also carrying on. I visited the Mercado Orgánico at La Placita de Roosevelt, pictured below in its late hours. The market had some organic produce, including a variety of greens and a variety of hot sauces, including pique de acerola (hot sauce made from West Indian Cherry, one of my favorite things in the world). The Placita at Plaza las Americas was also running, selling limited amounts of produce, such as root crops and peppers, as well as pasteles, coffee, maví, and orange juice – all from local production.

roosevels snapshot

While the restaurant industry was negatively impacted by the hurricane season, this industry has played an important role of feeding many in the aftermath of María. This role was beyond the publicized collaborations with Chef José Andrés and Chefs for Puerto Rico. Many eateries, for example, quickly opened their kitchens serving low cost breakfast and lunch. Sadly, the delay in restoring the electrical grid, combined with issues of food access, the worsening economic crisis, and the exodus of many in the industry has caused many to close their doors or reinvent themselves. For example, Chef Xavier Pacheco, who was featured in a recent episode of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown in Puerto Rico, reinvented his popular restaurant, Jaquita Baya, into Comedería, Fonda Urbana. Chef Pacheco explained this shift in an interview for El Nuevo Día,

In essence, it is the transformation of a restaurant that was a culinary platform inspired in reviving Puerto Rican recipes, motivated by the development of local products sponsoring gastronomic artisans and nourishing the pride in our cuisine. Our goal is to create a space where we can offer quality food, delicious, and real for the Puerto Rican pocket after this hurricane aftermath. (My translation)

Based in my visit to Comedería, I can testify that the food offered meets this goal. Just as Chef Pacheco did in Jaquita Baya, he continues to offer local produce, but at much more accessible prices at Comedería. Some of the delicious food we enjoyed were the hummus de gandules (pigeon peas), vianda gnocci, pastelón de verduras, and breaded chicken over coconut rice and topped with a fried egg.

Comederia

My favorite restaurant, Orujo Taller de Gastronomía in Caguas, opened its doors right after the hurricane, serving low cost meals for the surrounding community. Alas, as time went by, Chef Carlos Portela temporarily closed its doors taking the time to try a new concept at Lote 23 – Lolo’s Mac & Grilled Cheese. Chef Portela explained the new concept in an interview for Sabrosía,

Orujo’s essence will always be present no matter what we serve or the food we cook.  All of our company’s new concepts, will be based in Orujo.

Below, a “taste” of the offerings at Lolo’s. During our visit we had a lobster open-faced sandwich and a mac and cheese topped with salmon. Click here for a quick view of Lote 23 and the amazing food served by Chef Portela at Lolo’s.

lolos

Thankfully, Orujo is set to open early in February, with reservations strongly encouraged. Opting for a different direction as that taken by Chef Pacheco, Chef Portela will carry on with his high-end cuisine, continuing to elevate Puerto Rican culinary traditions and offerings to new delicious and beautiful levels.

orujo queso

Texturas de Queso (source: Orujo, Facebook page)

Orujo and Comederia are two of the hundreds of restaurants in the recovering culinary landscape of Puerto Rico. Other popular places remain, such as La Cueva del Mar, which even expanded to a new location. Eating at some of these establishments one can easily forget the ongoing crisis. Yet, at others there are sudden reminders of the underlying scarcities – particularly of plantains. Anecdotes of the long lines or things lost are common are part of the daily conversations with friends and strangers alike.

This post sought to highlight the recovery of the island. This is not to minimize the ongoing needs and chronic crisis exacerbated by the 2017 hurricane season. There are many still living in darkness, with limited physical and economic access to food. Yet, not all is lost, as US news media tend to portray (if it bleeds it leads). The island is open for business, and this business is highly needed. One of the best ways to help Puerto Rico in its recovery and strengthening is by visiting and enjoying what the island offers.  In these visits, you will get to experience the delicious culinary offerings, excellent hospitality and breathtaking beaches and landscapes, as well as witness the hard work of many seeking to bring the island afloat and reinvent its future, in spite of the politics that continues to cloud these efforts.

And to end this post, I’ll leave you with this image from a T-shirt found in the southern town of Guayama, illustrating the ways we keep positive in times of strain:

camisa

Thank you for reading and Happy 2018!

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Weathering the Storm: A note of the event

On September 30th, 2017, Brooklyn College hosted the event, Weathering the Storm. The event started with the keynote address from the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz. She arrived to the venue to a standing ovation, in a basketball ball court full with fellow faculty, students and community members, including this group that proudly displayed the flag and sang a quick parranda to the mayor during the Q&A.

I was given the amazing opportunity to chair the lunch panel, “Feeding our people” which presented an interdisciplinary look at the food crisis post-Maria, through the perspective of Puerto Rican historian Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra (University of Puerto Rico – Humacao) and public health nutritionist, Uriyoan Colón-Ramos (George Washington University).

Prof. Ortíz Cuadra shared his experiences during the immediate aftermath, analyzing the development of the food crisis, as things started to grow scarce and the lines for everything got longer. Prof. Colón Ramos shared results from her ongoing research assessing food aid in the aftermath of Maria, including looking into the FEMA boxes. In her presentation, Colón Ramos reminded us the importance of the nutritive quality in foods during times of crisis, especially in a context where obesity and diabetes is prevalent.

My panel was followed up by two more afternoon conversations. The first, “Race, Sex, and Disaster Response”, was a roundtable discussion bringing in psychology experts from the island and NYC, to discuss the emotional stress from the hurricane, not only in Puerto Rico, but also among the Diaspora community, waiting to hear from their loved ones. The second panel, “(Re)building Resilient Communities”, ended the event with a look to the future.

Events like this one have been happening across the city, and many other locations in the United States. They have served as a reminder of the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico, tending to Mayor Yulín’s pleads, “no nos olviden” (do not forget about us). The events also serve to shed a spotlight on the underlying factors that led to the crisis, including the political situation of the island, a topic that becomes harder to avoid.

My gratitude to Brooklyn College Professors Reynaldo Ortíz-Minaya and Liv Yarrow for their amazing work of putting this event together, as well as the support from the Mellon Foundation and the City University of New York.

See this link for the complete program of the day’s event and the complete video of Mayor Yulín’s talk; and this link for a short article published by Brooklyn College reviewing the event.

Maria

My last post was a celebration of one dish that always reminds me of home, the arroz con salchichas – what I called “el arroz del resuelve.” I described the dish as “nostalgic”, a dish that I enjoy on special occasions, by choice, from my table away from home. My choice contrasts with the more usual occasions the dish is consumed – that is, during times of need and limited possibilities, such as right after a natural disaster. A few weeks after I wrote my post, Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico, followed, a week later, by the historical devastation brought by Hurricane Maria. Today, almost two months after, most of Puerto Rico remains without electricity and water, in what has turned out to be a humanitarian crisis with repercussions for years to come.

In an interview published by the Association for the Study of Food in Society, Puerto Rican Historian Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra provided an insightful historical and contemporary assessment of the ongoing crisis,

Food crises have been with Puerto Ricans through history. During the Spanish conquest, when the majority of Taino Indians were forced to work in las vetas auriferas [gold mines], reducing cassava cultivation for a long period, those who could escape to the mountains probably resorted to eating marunguey (Zamia pumila, Zamia debilisi), a poisonous tuber that the Taino had learned to use by making a bread from its roots. Older rural people followed a tradition where, once the bread was ready, it was put out in the open until it began to ferment and bugs started to eat it. Informants say the bread is then ready to eat, as the poisons have been extracted by the insects. [After hurricane Maria] it has been reported that people are using what remains on the ground–plantains, bananas, breadfruit, and other fruits as their sole daily food–eating them raw, because water, often used to boil them, is scarce. – See complete interview here

Since the hurricane, long lines have become an everyday activity. People have stood in lines for hours to enter  supermarkets, often requiring lines beforehand to get gasoline and cash. At the end of the line, people have encountered empty supermarkets, and many foods were rationed. What are people eating in these times of crisis? Ortiz Cuadra provides some insight “from the ground”,

In the long lines I have been in, while waiting for a bag of ice (only 45% of the running water system is in place and practically no electricity), I have asked this question and various women have answered “mac and cheese” with Spam (we call it jamonilla) and also with Vienna sausages.

These processed foods – the salchichas (Vienna sausages) and jamonilla (Spam) – have been provided by FEMA, as part of the controversial food aid in the island,

JoshSanchez FEMA tweet

Oct. 12, 2017 viral tweet by sports journalist Josh Sanchez. 

FEMA’s aid has been controversial in its inclusion of skittles, and other “junk foods.” The local newspaper El Nuevo Dia reported FEMA boxes including inapt products, such as packets of ketchup, cooking wine and meat thermometers. As such, Hurricane Maria has grabbed the news attention not only for the size of its devastation, but for the severe mismanagement of the recovery efforts, including the appalling (yet not surprising) mediocre response from the sitting president. Still today, the number of deaths remains unknown and rising, with hundreds still unaccounted for and the deaths continuing to accumulate as a result of the slow recovery efforts. The situation is compounded by the ongoing exodus. Two weeks after the hurricane, 20,000 Puerto Ricans were already on their way to Florida. Others are choosing New York and other various destinations across the States where families and friends continue to receive loved ones on a daily, often rotating basis. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies provide sobering estimations of the post-Maria exodus,

Between 114,000 and 213,000 Puerto Rico residents will leave the island annually in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. From 2017 to 2019, we estimate that Puerto Rico may lose up to 470,335 residents or 14% of the population. In other words, Puerto Rico will lose the same population in a span of a couple of years after Hurricane Maria as the island lost during a prior decade of economic stagnation. – See Research Brief by Melendez & Hinojosa (Oct 2017) here.

The outflow will have political and economic consequences not only for the island, but also in the United States, particularly  in Florida.

Despite the continuing crisis in the island and the consequences in the States, the news cycle has since moved on from Puerto Rico. Thankfully, many continue to work to address this chronic crisis. Of note is the work of George Washington University Public Health Nutrition Professor Uriyoan Colon-Ramos who is working to  document food aid in Puerto Rico, and develop needed nutrition guidelines in these trying times, in collaboration with people on the ground. I am also following the work of Casa Pueblo, a local organization working hard to address the electricity crisis, with the potential of bringing solar power as a sustainable solution. Community kitchens have also opened up providing needed food, including and beyond the (now concluded) amazing effort led by Chef Jose Andres in collaboration with local Puerto Rican chefs.

Still, the recovery continues to be painfully slow and quite difficult to follow from a distance. If this post inspires you to help or get involved, check out this recent Take Action article by Ariana Rosas Cardenas on The Nation, along with many others articles providing a variety of ways to help (see here and here, among others).