8.16.23 New Moon
In the 1980s, I lived in Washington, DC, where I volunteered to teach English to immigrants in my neighborhood. Most were Salvadorans and Guatemalans who fled the bloodshed of US-backed wars in their countries. I remember walking home once, alongside a young student as he pieced together English words to tell me about his home, where every day he would pull delicious fruit from the trees to eat. Beaming with happiness, he reached up toward a bare autumn tree to show me what he meant.
Sometimes I think of that young man on walks in my new home of Puerto Rico, where fruits and vegetables grow in breathtaking abundance.
I want to tell you about Puerto Rico, but let me begin with Michigan, where I went back to live for a few years after decades in California. In summer in southern Michigan, every roadside, every fence, every park, is covered with wild grape vine I’m told is native to the region. Most people treat grape vine as a weed, fighting it back when it starts to invade a yard.
But, as I learned that summer, immigrants from places like Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen know better. For these Arabic speaking communities, wild grape vine leaves offer a free and accessible food source. Around southeast Michigan you can spot women dressed in abayas gathering wild grape leaves in public spaces.
So, one hot July day, I walked with a canvas bag and garden shears to a nearby park, gathered mounds of wild grape leaves, and carried them home to make dolmas. I looked up grape leaves' extraordinary nutritional value. Until then I never knew that wild grape leaves – preserved for year round – could provide enough nutrition for everyone in my town.
On my first day here in Puerto Rico, I discovered a pretty round fruit growing on a tree outside my door. I later learned it was parcha (passionfruit), which is an everyday thing for Puerto Ricans. When I later cut into a parcha, I recognized the color and seeds, finally learning the source of a juice my grandmother made when I would visit her in Ecuador.* Since my arrival in Puerto Rico I feel like I’ve made a new plant friend every day.
I think the first was a weed I yanked out when it appeared in a pot where I’d planted tomato seeds. As I carried a bunch to the dumpster, I remembered how little I know of plants here, and decided to look it up. Thank goodness I paused to doubt my actions, because the plant turned out to be verdolaga (purslane), which grows everywhere here, is highly nutritious, and, my sister tells me, is a fancy item on restaurant menus.
A new friend here loves to walk at sunrise, before the heat. We walk and he points out the plants that have been with him since childhood, the ones his mother made tea with, the ones his grandmother sent him to fetch to soothe an ailment. On our walks I discovered uva de playa (sea grape), quenapas (Spanish Lime) sold by vendors at red lights, streets carpeted with fallen mangos. Every walk my friend introduces me to more foods, such as bright orange cundeamor, pretty pink pomarosa (rose apple), enormous elongated avocados, aji dulce (sweet chili peppers), guayaba, guayabana, and perhaps my most beloved new friend, pana (breadfruit).
Generations of Puerto Ricans have fed themselves and their families with pana that thrives on every block. Pana is incredibly healthy and simple to cook in all kinds of ways. Friends leave a couple at my door and I have meals for a week.
There’s a tragedy to this story, which is that few of these beautiful fruits and vegetables ever show up in Puerto Rican supermarkets. As a recent New York Times article explains, most of the produce in Puerto Rican grocery stores is imported, leaving grocery shoppers like me with few options beyond sad, bruised nectarines from California. In the face of this, Puerto Rico’s extraordinary restorative agricultural movement is reviving Puerto Ricans roots and reminding people of the natural splendor that is this place.
There’s soul crushing truth too. Like Maui and all our hometowns, my new hometown in Puerto Rico may someday burn to ash. Shifts to rediscover wisdom and practice are happening, and I hold deep gratitude for those who are accelerating this return.
I’m working, and praying, that we see, care for, and protect abundance – of plants, of relationships, of spirit – whose powers we may not yet recognize, and that we take reverent steps toward regenerative culture and economy, that are our best and only hope.
*In Ecuador parcha is called maracuya.
Donate to community-led efforts in Maui,
such as Maui Food Bank