Photo: Ambar Castillo. Rafael Ocasio Barreto shovels in front of Rainbow Garden in March.

Garden activists bring ideals from Puerto Rico to Melrose

On a Sunday afternoon in March after a snowstorm, a lone figure in sweatpants, a fanny pack and a knitted gray plaid cap shoveled chunks of ice from the sidewalk entrance to the Rainbow Garden of Life and Health at the corner of E. 157th Street and Melrose Avenue. The red letters on Rafael Ocasio Barreto’s white polo shirt read: “DOT Strategies: Developing Organizational Transformative Strategies.”

Recognizing a massive gap between the needs of Melrose’s people and the services offered by businesses and government, Ocasio Barreto, 51, and his longtime friend Ana Melendez created DOT Strategies earlier this year to help locals navigate complex city bureaucracy and get the crucial services they need. 

Ocasio Barreto, 51, was a board member for a land trust in Puerto Rico before coming to New York in 2017, when he was displaced following Hurricane Maria. Back home, he had spent years teaming up with local farmers to preach self-sustainability—encouraging urbanites to grow, eat and market their own food to overcome catastrophic events climate change was likely to cause, even as local officials insisted that threats of natural disasters in Borinkén were overblown.

Melendez, now 48, has worked most of her adult life to help New Yorkers avoid the same kinds of bureacratic struggles she had to navigate when she was a mother of three, navigating New York City’s confusing public housing policies. A former program manager for iconic Melrose-based housing advocacy group Nos Quedamos, Melendez and Ocasio Barreto have now launched the grassroots organization to help South Bronx tenants weather the latest storm—-the pandemic.

When Melendez moved from East New York to the South Bronx five years ago, she made it her business to strike up conversations with everybody she met and inform them of their rights, no matter how long each impromptu chat took.

“I was out there to the point that one day someone was like, ‘How many employees are there in Nos Quedamos?’” said Melendez. When told there were just three, one said, “I thought it was like 50 of you. You guys have been everywhere!’”

Street level is where Melendez feels most comfortable.

“She taught me how to teach community organizing,” said Hector Soto, professor of Public Policy and Law at Hostos Community College. “She taught me that it’s about people, and feelings. It takes someone special to make people believe in themselves and in hope, and in change.”

After decades working as an organizer, a light went off for Melendez in 2017 when she flew to Puerto Rico to learn about a sustainable agro-urban initiative at a San Juan community land trust that the UN had recognized for its work restoring water quality in local streams, and educating the community about stewarding its own natural resources. Inspired by what she learned there, she returned to Melrose, determined to put those lessons to work with community gardeners at local gardens like The Rainbow Garden and others nearby, to encourage them to share resources with each other.

“Aside from the beautiful flowers, food, and agriculture, it’s also a space where people gather,” said Melendez of the local gardens. “They represent homeowners, residents, small-business owners, retirees, veterans, so many people in our community.”

Though they didn’t know it at the time, the two were about to team up again. When Hurricane Maria’s devastation altered Ocasio Barreto’s ability to continue working with community gardeners in Puerto Rico, friends booked him a one-way ticket to the US so he could bring his message of self-sustainability to the mainland. After a short stay in Miami, he came to New York and eventually moved to the Bronx, where he saw the opportunity to link other displaced Latin American refugees to available resources, just as he had been doing back home.

Ocasio Barreto fell in love with the South Bronx, and has harnessed his design and engineering skills to make Melrose’s green spaces accessible for more residents. At Rainbow Garden, he has built wheelchair-friendly benches and tables and cut down ivy that once obstructed views of the garden, easing access for disabled people and children, working with the garden’s head organizer Maxie Rivera.

In the garden, he pointed out brightly painted pots near wooden compost bins and child-sized handprints on the water basins; all signs of an intergenerational crowd that has become more involved with the garden’s upkeep since he and Melendez came in.

Taking a page from his organizing work back home, Ocasio Barreto now shares tips and tricks with locals about how to grow food and reuse discarded materials, or “up cycle.” Even the name of the Melrose project, “Acércate,” or “Come Closer,” is borrowed from the name he used in San Juan, to reflect the closeness he seeks to create between people and plants.

Their synergy is palpable as they sit in the Melrose apartment they share, plants rising out of water bottles around them. Melendez chuckles at Ocasio Barreto’s lectures about community self-sustenance, and laughs when he recalls times when Melendez has similarly chided politicians whose views she found disingenuous. 

Their present goal is to find funding to install solar panels at Rainbow Garden, as a way of providing power for Melrose. In addition to Rainbow, the duo is working with Melrose community gardens El Coqui and Rincon Criollo. 

After his 9-to-5 job as a voting machine mechanic, Ocasio Barreto spends evenings and weekends helping maintain Rainbow while leading a project with Citi Bike to help local restaurants impacted by COVID offer deliveries. He is pushing for the bikes to be used to deliver food from local pantries to seniors and homebound residents.

They hope to eventually convert DOT into a nonprofit, but for now, will continue operating it as a small business so they have the freedom to partner with many organizations. Ocasio Barreto has come to see advantages to working in Melrose. 

“In Puerto Rico we have to fight for these green spaces. Here we don’t,” he said. “Imagine what we as a community could do with more resources. We want people to realize that you can really do a lot with very little.”