Nestled between the Major Deegan Expressway and Metro North train tracks in a gritty section of Port Morris, musicians, dancers and Mott Haven residents braved a mid-July rain to soak up the pleasures of an urban ecosystem in the unlikeliest of locations.
La Finca del Sur, a community garden at the corner of 138th Street and Grand Concourse, collaborated with Pregones /Puerto Rican Traveling Theater to host the July 17 Stage Rumba. The event was the latest in a series of 10 Saturday afternoon cultural events, aimed at taking the arts outdoors at community gardens around the South Bronx. The presenters included poets Frida Grace Jones and Jane Grenier, the Bombazo Dance Company, activist Nieves Ayress, and Jorge Vazquez of Bomba y Plena!
The event was intended not only to entertain and to celebrate the area’s rich Latino identity, but to draw attention to residents’ fear of displacement under a wave of upscale housing development.
“What will keep us strong, and will keep us here for the community is the unity we have in this community of farmers,” said Nancy Ortiz, who co-founded La Finca in 2009. “Our ability to connect and meet the needs of the people in this area that this [community garden] was created for.”
Women of color who live within walking distance are the brains and braun behind La Finca del Sur [translation: the farm of the south], many of them with close ties to farming traditions in their native countries. Its website states that local community groups “had a vision that an empty, unsightly lot on 138th Street could become a beautiful, community-led farm,” in forming the garden.
“It brings together nature, it brings together feeding our community, it brings together art. The commonalities, and the specialness of our cultures,” said Ortiz.
Knowing how to grow produce is a skillset that paid dividends throughout the pandemic. Volunteers from the neighborhood worked alongside the farmers to plant and maintain the garden, and community members are encouraged to rent a plot of their own. The produce is sold at farmers markets across the area, and the revenue is then used on the garden.
But feeding hungry residents was just a small part of the value La Finca provided the community during the pandemic’s toughest times.
“This meant being able to leave their apartments, the one safe space that they had to go to,” said Ortiz, adding that many members “live right down the street, right on 138th Street, the heart of this neighborhood.” The garden was a refuge “where their children could play, where they could continue to cultivate these crops that would have been lost if not for them.”
Jorge Merced, Pregones’ associate artistic director, said the series provides residents a chance to “to harvest food, to come together and find out resources in terms of either human rights or housing rights to other places, where a lot of our communities that don’t have access to offices or to other places. They come here and they listen to each other and they connect.”
“I think it’s really important for us to support the efforts of community leaders, like the ones that took over this garden and made it into such a beautiful place for our community,” he added.