Read the next installment: “How To Feed An Island”
I’d missed the “Monsanto Is Dead” rally by one month. It was June, 2015, and I stood outside El Departamento de la Comida, then a restaurant and grocer in the Tras Talleres neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was looking at a worn-out poster for “PUERTO RICO MARCHA CONTRA MONSANTO” glued to the closed grate, showing a skeleton figure with a knife and spoon crisscrossed over its throat–a clear sign that this place wasn’t at all quiet about its politics.
But I already knew that; it’s why I was there. El Departamento had gotten attention a few months earlier from The New York Times for its support of local organic agriculture. Here, they sold produce grown on the island and served it, too, in a café that flipped the common script on imports and exports: it’s well-documented that Puerto Rico imports 85 percent of its food, but 80 percent of the vegetables that El Departamento was serving were locally grown.
I’d come to El Departamento to profile the chef, Paxx Caraballo Moll, whose vegetarian food I’d admired on Instagram since reading that Times piece. Caraballo Moll had also recently appeared in a lush documentary called Mala Mala, which explored gender identity on the island, depicting their life as a trans chef who at the time did not have access to testosterone.
When I visited the café, it was prep day: on Mondays, produce was delivered to be sold and cooked. In the kitchen, the chef and their assistants prepared salad dressings and stock. They chopped and blasted music and gave me a taste of pitorro, the local moonshine, which a farmer had brought over. Nearby, there was a cardboard cutout of the long-imprisoned political dissident Oscar López Rivera wearing a white sweatshirt and khakis, part of a campaign called “Oscar en la calle,” imagining freedom for the independence activist.
After prep was finished, I was to travel with Caraballo Moll by bike to pick up trays at a music venue near the university for a school-lunch-themed dinner happening in a few days. While I was waiting, an older woman came over and sat down at my table, holding a plastic bag of acerola, a tropical cherry. She’d picked them from her yard. “I can’t afford the food here,” she said, of El Departamento. “Is it good?”
At the time, I was only six months into my food-writing career. Before then, I’d been a copy editor and a vegan baker, focused on using the most local and ethical ingredients available. This was how I came to understand the global food system’s problems with sustainability, biodiversity, fair labor practices, and accessibility. I had come to Puerto Rico naively thinking I’d found a place that had already found solutions. But when this woman–who knew where the local food was, and where she might be able to off-load her cherries–told me she couldn’t afford prepared dishes, it finally occurred to me that no one had answers. All we had was hope, community, and work–a drive to identify problems and fix them.
When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September, 2017, it destroyed much of the island’s agriculture–and it seemed as if all the work done up to that point could have been decimated as well. On a recent trip to the area, I talked to community farmers, mushroom cultivators, chefs, rum-makers, bread-bakers, and others. There’s still an incredible amount of work to do, as Puerto Ricans struggle to attain food sovereignty, and to make sure that people like the woman with the acerola can afford a well-cooked meal made from local produce. But 18 months after the storm, it’s clear that any fear of Puerto Rico’s food-sovereignty movement’s failure was unfounded. Instead, the cause is thriving.
Once called Borikén by the native Taíno people, the island was rechristened San Juan Bautista by Christopher Columbus in 1493. (It is technically an archipelago–a main island and some smaller ones–but has long been colloquially referred to as a singular island.) Eventually, it acquired a name that translates simply to “rich port,” for its reputation among visitors and merchants. Spanish colonization followed soon after Columbus arrived and continued for 400 years, until the U.S. took control of Puerto Rico in 1898, via the treaty that ended the Spanish-American War.
Puerto Rico is often referred to as “the world’s oldest colony”: the people of the island have not been allowed to fully govern themselves since the time that the Renaissance was happening in Europe. For half a millennium, the land has been exploited by successive rulers. In modern times, mainlanders have looked to Puerto Rico for everything from sugar, coffee, and tobacco to GMOs and pharmaceuticals. In recent years, it’s become a tax haven for the super rich–and this continues today, even as much of the island struggles to get basic amenities after the storm.
Puerto Rico is officially a U.S. territory, but everyone acknowledges that this is still just a nice way of saying “colony.” In 1917, the Jones-Shafroth Act gave Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship, but if they lived on the island, they still could not vote for president or for congressional representation. (These electoral limitations remain in effect today.) It’s another story if islanders move to the mainland and establish residency there; Puerto Rican families have traveled between the island and states like Florida and New York for decades.
In 1920, the island became subject to the Jones Act, which required all goods transported by ship between U.S. ports to travel on U.S. vessels that are owned and crewed by U.S. citizens. Known as “ley de cabotaje” in Puerto Rico, the Jones Act has helped American companies maintain a firm grip on the island’s imports. As of 2017, Puerto Rico was the U.S. locality with the most permits for experiments in seeds. The agrochemical giant Monsanto owned 31 percent of usable agricultural land in the municipality of Juana Díaz–1,711 acres–while Dow AgroSciences and Mycogen Seeds alliance controlled 1,698 acres. This massive corporate presence feels of a piece with Puerto Rico’s history.
After Hurricane Maria, the Jones Act was suspended for 10 days, but after that suspension was lifted, nearby nations could not help Puerto Rico directly by bringing over food and supplies–even though approximately 80 percent of the local agriculture had been wiped out. At the time, Puerto Rico’s economy had been suffering through a long depression, caused in part by phasing out the tax breaks that had made it an appealing home for pharmaceutical companies. In turn, the financial situation was rendered more precarious by predatory loans from Wall Street to the territory’s government. The tenuousness of the island’s economy and its lack of nation status were compounded by the storm’s damage. It seemed like an unsolvable problem–as if finally, after hundreds of years of colonization, there would be no fight left.
In 2015, the island’s median income was $18,626. As of 2017, it was slightly higher, at $19,343. Yet little has changed to make locally grown produce more accessible to someone like the woman who picked acerola in her yard, and for whom $8-$10 dishes were well out of her price range. As in many places around the world, the mere existence of fresh, local produce does not guarantee its fair and low-priced distribution.
But as El Departamento had been proving before Hurricane Maria, there has always been Puerto Rican resistance to both the United States and the reliance on imported and genetically modified food. Crowds were marching against Monsanto before my first arrival as a reporter; farmers and chefs were selling and serving local produce even when it was not yet fashionable. Oscar López Rivera, once a two-dimensional image as he served time for seditious conspiracy against the U.S., now waits for his car in a parking garage in Old San Juan, like anyone else–at least, that’s where I saw him in 2019. Paxx Caraballo Moll, now a friend of mine, has been named a Food & Wine Best New Chef.
Much has remained the same, though. When I visited the island in 2018, while the hurricane’s effect on the food supply was palpable, there were no plantains, a staple of the local cuisine. When, in early 2019, I saw a pickup truck with a lone stalk of the thick green bananas, I almost began to cry. Plantains, though, are not everything, and Puerto Rico’s recovery from Maria has been just one agricultural hurdle amid centuries of struggle. The story of agriculture in Puerto Rico is the story of colonialism, and every plodding step toward food sovereignty and sustainable industry is a push toward a self-realized future.
When Puerto Rico came under U.S. control, Vivian Carro-Figueroa writes, the island was a “food-deficient society,” relying on imports. But by the 1950s, it was producing a majority of its own food–at least, the starches, rice, beans, and pigeon peas that compose the foundation of the local cuisine, which once sustained an agrarian lifestyle. Meat and cereal imports would take over in the latter half of the 20th century, as the population also moved toward industrialized work.
Under Spain’s control during the 18th century, the island’s fertile agricultural land had been mainly devoted to sugar and coffee for export. But by the 1950s, “Operation Bootstrap” propelled the Puerto Rican economy away from agriculture, toward manufacturing, industrialization, and tourism. This pushed the local diet toward animal protein and nontraditional grains. A mere 25 years later, all cereals and two-thirds of meat supplies were imported.
Local food has always had its champions, though. Restaurants like El Departamento are less accessible to many populations, but these businesses have been able to buy directly from farms, building systems of necessary financial support for the territory’s agricultural future. Jose Enrique, arguably the most famous chef on the island for the last decade, made his name serving Puerto Rican cuisine using European techniques. Recently, Natalia Vallejo opened a restaurant in San Juan called Cocina al Fondo, where she’s resurrecting older cooking traditions and working directly with local farmers and fishermen.
Juan José Cuevas, chef at 1919 in San Juan’s Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, spent much of his professional career cooking in New York City restaurants like Blue Hill. He believes that there needs to be more discussion about the significance of producing food on the island. “Even though I don’t believe in the government, the government has to get more involved,” he told me during a recent conversation. “The media have to talk more and more. I think the media in the States is doing a good job with that with us, but local media should be covering it, and we need more than one article so that people talk and talk and talk. Talk to the point that it’s like, “‘Enough. I get the point.'”
The quest to find locally produced food is harder for those who aren’t buying produce directly from farms, as chefs do. Pao Lebron, working with Puerto Rico’s agroecology movement as part of the Queer Trans Solidarity and Service Brigade, has made it a rule that, while group members are on the island, they’ll only use locally grown and produced food. Agroecology is the practice of working with local ecology without pesticides in order to create sustainable systems that protect biodiversity–a natural fit for those interested in food sovereignty.
Lebron’s family moved from the island to New York City when they were 11. We spoke outside La Hacienda, a high-end grocery store and café in the Miramar area of San Juan, where the coffee was served by Hacienda San Pedro, which uses only Puerto Rican beans, but all the fancy chocolate bars were imported. Lebron detailed their brigade’s efforts over the prior few months, in collaboration with organizations such as the Center for Embodied Pedagogy and Action, to support grassroots efforts centering not just on food, but on carpentry, construction, and healing work.
“When we first got here, it was like a scavenger hunt.” Lebron said, describing the experience of seeking out local and organic food. “Our first attempt to go to the supermarket, we had a list of things we wanted and wrote down whether it was available and the price. There are some things, no matter what supermarket or accessible grocery store we went to, that were impossible to find locally.”
Lebron’s team found one or two companies selling local lettuce or greens, but the produce wasn’t organic. Butter from Cabo Rojo met their conditions, as did some bread, crackers, and tortilla chips. “The moment someone went into a supermarket and came back with something marked “‘U.S.,’ I said, “‘What is this? We have agreements,'” Lebron recalled. But even making an exceptionally conscious effort to only support local food production requires compromises.
There is a connection, of course, between agroecological projects on the island and the crisis around funding food stamps. These issues are also tied to the main reason that Puerto Rico has been in the news these past few weeks–the Trump administration’s insistence that the island doesn’t deserve more post-Maria recovery funding, despite clear evidence of the territory’s continued struggle.
As the federal government continues to withhold recovery aid, it’s clear that the U.S. cannot be relied upon to provide for the Puerto Rican people–and food will always be at the heart of that. The goal for those who are producing and supporting local food, then, is two-pronged: they must educate a broader population about why decreasing the island’s dependence on imports can have a significant impact–economically, culturally, and health-wise–while they simultaneously make the local food widely accessible.
In chef Juan José Cuevas’s view, the local farmers have been diversifying what they produce more since the hurricane, but that hasn’t meant increased support from the general public. “People aren’t thinking about these issues,” he told me. “For them, a carrot is a carrot. Even though there’s a strong push to support the local, they still choose the cheaper options.”
But that won’t stop the push to change the system. From restaurants to farms to solidarity brigades, from agrotourism-driven hotels to young entrepreneurs to sustainable rum producers, that push has been getting stronger and stronger.
Read the next installment: “How To Feed An Island”
How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. Isla del Encanto is a four-part series in both English and Spanish about the future of food in Puerto Rico. From gardens to labs, bakers to distillers, Puerto Ricans are seeking agricultural sustainability and sovereignty.