Out of the hundreds of “casitas” or little houses that dot community gardens across New York City, there is one that is known by folks all over—considered the oldest and largest one in NYC—and it is Rincon Criollo aka Casa de Chema named by locals for its founder, Jose “Chema” Soto who passed away Thursday at the age of 70.
When residents of the South Bronx were left to their own devices among rubble and ruin, Don Chema took it upon himself to clean up an abandoned lot on Brook Avenue and 158th Street 40 years ago back in 1975. According to ‘Places Matter’:
“One day Soto had had enough of the sights of destruction that daily greeted him in his neighborhood, known more than any other part of the city for its scope of devastation in the 1960s and 1970s. Choosing a vacant lot he passed regularly with his daughter, he plunged in and began clearing debris. Other residents joined him, and soon around fifty people found themselves taking care of land they did not own. Together they created a little home of their own in the Bronx, and called it Rincón Criollo (“Downhome Corner”). Casita members used this corner to gather, garden, hold community events, and pass down musical and cultural traditions. The bomba and plena musical group, Los Pleneros de la 21, led by National Heritage Award Fellow Juan Gutiérrez, emerged from Rincón Criollo.”
Don Chema began a movement in the South Bronx that quickly spread and made Melrose as the neighborhood with the largest concentration of such community gardens and casitas.
Once affordable housing began to rise in the rubble around Melrose, Rincon Criollo fell victim to developer’s cranes but with overwhelming support and demands by the community, the garden was able to move one block south from its original location.
During an interview with folklorist Joe Sciorra, ‘Places Matter quotes him as saying:
“Sciorra then quotes from Chema, translating from the Spanish:
…many people call it “the link.” In no other place are you going to feel as though you’re in Puerto Rico. And here you see the same things as over there, like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, plena, and the exact same house… And here everyone enjoys whistling like the coqui [an island frog]. There is nothing more Puerto Rican than the coqui.”
Don Chema was a man I got to know throughout the years and was always welcoming to all who passed by and wanted to come inside and just relax or check out the legendary garden. Last time I saw him was just three weeks ago and he was playing dominoes with his friends as you would usually find him when you walked by La Casita.
So important is the cultural legacy of La Casita that in 2009 former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion urged that New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to declare Rincon Criollo a landmark along with several other casitas. Sadly, LPC voted against granting landmark status to the casita and garden.
Song created by Tato Torres and Yerba Buena about La Casita de Chema
It’s difficult to put into words the importance that such spaces create for communities and their role in keeping an ethnic group’s culture alive such as the Puerto Rican community from which these community gardens arose.
Perhaps an article by Centro Voices of The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at CUNY’s Hunter College puts it best:
“A pair of hands, such as those of Don Chema, can start a wave of change and community awakening. The influence of musicians and their necessity to congregate and play is entwined in the history of these community spaces in the South Bronx that still today open it’s gates to gatherings focused on family and community enjoyment.
It is easy to think that the casitas and flags found in a great number of community gardens in the city are the most notable signs of the Puerto Rican community heritage. But the legacy of building green spaces, so entwined with community building, is a powerful if silent legacy that needs to be celebrated. Whether we plant cilantro, amapolas or just banderas, Spring seems to me like a perfect time to explore nature and neighborhoods, especially those that hold so close stories of community building and resilience of Puerto Ricans in New York City. Before sustainable movements were in, Puerto Ricans were knee deep in the kinds of practices that make the city today an attraction to so many. So, just come out already with the whole family, and see with your own eyes the sprouting of our community gardens and that of the Puerto Rican culture, still lively and proud in New York City.”
Hundreds gathering today to celebrate Don Chema’s life