It’s a completely quiet summer afternoon except for the occasional, unmistakable song of the ice cream truck or the rare honk of a car horn outside the community garden on the corner of E. 157th Street and Brook Avenue. Lucy Arroyo waters different bushes, flowers, even trees as she walks the inside perimeter of the batey, or garden. “I feel like I never left,” she says, talking about home as she wields her hose.
“Home” is not Melrose, the South Bronx neighborhood surrounding this leafy oasis, even to many who have lived here for years. Most people are talking about Puerto Rico when they reference “home” inside this park’s gate. Vegetable plots, rows of matching green chairs and card tables surround a small, elevated one-story building with an exterior resembling a country cottage. A wooden stage sits ready for performances. Today I am relaxing with some of the regulars under the hanging branches of trees separating us from the busy life on the street; they have picked grapes from overhead and are making wine.
I came here with César Colón-Montijo to experience plena, a musical genre indigenous to Puerto Rico. In his scholarship, Colón-Montijo, an ethnomusicologist who the regulars consider part of la familia, describes plena as a way through the South Bronx’s difficulties. Plena has always been a call-and-response form of song; its origins are usually attributed to striking workers. The music evolves with the lives and travels of pleneros—the name given to those who practice this art—as they sing to and with each other. Words are improvised and music is played on drums. Here in this courtyard and house, and previously in its first location nearby, plena has been living and changing for decades. The space, both the actual casita—little house—and the surrounding gardens, is known as La Casita de Chema, after the nickname of its founder and steadfast caretaker.
In 1978, the original Casita de Chema emerged among the first wave of community gardens in the city; today it is probably one of the only ones specifically equipped to roast a pig. The community is especially proud of the garden’s longevity, and in telling me about it, Arroyo conveys a sense of a pioneering effort. Don Chema—now in the role of elder statesman at sixty-eight and thus often addressed with the honorific “Don”—does not actually live in “Chema’s house.” Don Chema, whose given name is José Soto (“Chema” is a common nickname for Jose) built la casita not far from where it is now, back when there was hardly anything else standing. Then, in 2006, the community gathering spot was displaced for a city housing redevelopment project, part of an effort to rejuvenate the neighborhood. Undaunted, they picked up and transported la casita to occupy its present lot. When those here tell stories about plena and people, time can be determined by place, whether it was “over there” or “here”; at the old casita or this one.
Some frame this musical form as a conscious alternative to written news. But when Colón-Montijo applied his knowledge of plena to this casita, what resonated most was anthropologist Ramon Lopez’s idea that this music is about lifestyle and rootedness. When I approach what seems to be a giant rock, Tito, an exuberant storyteller, explains it is a map they’ve made depicting Puerto Rico, with each region’s name in the indigenous Taino language. “Who’s in that ship sailing to the island?” I ask, pointing to a replica of a masted ship positioned above the replica of the island. Tito chuckles. “It’s Christopher Columbus.”
Tito, a stocky man wearing a tank top, is extremely rooted both here and there. He knows the geography of the island: what’s in the west, the east, the center. Many regulars enjoy the idea of the Puerto Rican jibaros, those who dwell in the countryside. The casita, nestled in the city, is a place that transports us out of it without requiring travel. It is an intoxicating, calming state.
* * *
Puerto Rico, like the Bronx, is not a homogenous place. The island’s racial and social class tensions were especially high as its identity was reshaped when the Spanish were defeated. Plena emerged from the Afro-Caribbean culture, evidenced in la casita’s official name displayed on its sign: El Rincon Criollo—the Creole Corner.
Tito’s memory contains a map of Melrose’s racial geography in the days before it was notorious as a neighborhood on fire. As we sit next to each other in plastic lawn chairs, he points in each direction. “On that block was the whites, then you had the Italians. There was another block for the Jews. In the middle here was the parking lot of burned-out cars. Then, on the other side, you found the Puerto Ricans. And over there, those blocks were black.” The casita and its community seem to transcend these lines today; candidates for local office of any ethnicity make visits here, according to one tale that both Tito and Edwin, another regular, are keen to share. A spectrum of skin colors is a facet of today’s impromptu gathering.
I first spot Tito soaking up the late afternoon sun in a corner of the garden, as if alone in the world, observing as I strike up my conversation with his girlfriend, Arroyo. I take the empty chair next to him. We talk for several minutes before introducing ourselves, maybe because names seem secondary to experiences here. Despite the turbulence, segregation and violence associated with the area, Tito, fifty-eight, speaks fondly of his early days here. “You’d dance,” he says. “Nobody would fight when they’d play the Temptations, Gladys Knight.”
Tito remembers Don Chema as an organizer who helped younger generations. They’d play handball, listen to conga and take trips to Bear Mountain. Whatever troubles he alludes to, Tito says he would not trade them for all the memories. “Those were the best times,” he thinks. Tito, one of seventeen children, has worked as everything from a bricklayer to a plumber. Now he’s the one mentoring the younger generation: “When you have grandkids you’ll love them more than your own kids. Starting all over again feels good.”
His arms are covered in ink that suggest dozens of complex narratives—later, he tells us of being in a coma, of falling from a high story of a building, of wanting to know the value others might find in his story if it were written in a book.
Tito’s life story shares some elements with prominent pleneros who have earned this unassuming corner refuge its reputation as the place to go to hear Puerto Rican music in New York City, to encounter the grandmasters, to jam where plena has been made spontaneously in whatever conditions the day brings, lyrics generated spur-of-the-moment, born from what is on one’s mind or under one’s nose. Most of the casita’s pleneros do not record their songs, but they do regularly make music for hundreds on the stage here. On Mother’s Day, on the weekend of the Puerto Rican Day Parade and on Labor Day, big parties of young and old come through the gate. Like me, some will take the subway from other boroughs; others will walk. Someone is always coming through from the island or on their way back there. Except for these annual traditions, it’s hard to predict when the music will happen, and that’s what makes it both magical and ordinary, something done for its own sake.
* * *
La casita is the classic liminal space: neither Puerto Rico nor New York; neither a secular sanctuary for all nor a performance place for legends. It is all four. Puerto Rican flags fly and an original album cover of John F. Kennedy’s 1960s speeches is displayed along with other memorabilia. No topic is too big or small for plena’s repertoire; there’s even a plena about JFK. After the city’s Puerto Rican Day Parade every June, the music royalty of the island flock here. The walls of the actual casita in the center of the courtyard are lined with autographed photos of famous Puerto Rican and Latino musicians who have played here; Celia Cruz is the one most likely to be recognized by casual music aficionados. Bronx-born Puerto Ricans, some who have not been to the casita and whose music sounds nothing like plena, are celebrated too: There is even a poster of J-Lo.
El Rincon Criollo is the best-known of several casitas that have been built in the city; Don Chema explains that he volunteers to build them for anyone who is interested. East Harlem has several, and Syracuse University’s La Casita Cultural Center is a multi-million dollar project whose architect modeled it after La Casita de Chema. Don Chema even designed a casita for an exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institute, a testament to his ability to seamlessly navigate different worlds.
In his everyday place, Don Chema relaxes with his wife, Amparo Prado, by his side. Prado, one of the only women here, jokes with the thin, chatty, buzzing-with-energy Arroyo. Prado’s bearing is also gracious but more reserved, befitting the partner of a man often chronicled as a movement-maker. She has a large tattoo of a much younger version of la casita ’s founder; his eyes twinkle from her left shoulder. As I’m admiring the remarkable likeness of the tattoo, a man in a suit comes into the garden and makes a beeline for Don Chema, shaking his hand as if receiving a benediction.
Now that winter is approaching, this is the season for sitting inside the unheated casita building, telling jokes, making up new lyrics and repeating their favorites. For Tito, the weather might change but he will continue to find his familia at la casa. “Here, in el batey, your mind is outside,” he says. “I leave my problems outside.”
* * *
My hosts genially press me to enjoy more of the grape wine; the most serious matter on my mind is how to politely decline their kindness after sampling one cup. But Edwin, a regular who walks Tito to la casita every day, is facing his mortality. Unlike the others, Edwin moves slowly. Like Tito he is also in his fifties. Edwn laughs heartily, but the sound comes out as if it hurts, as if it were a reflex his body rebels against.
He leans down so he can talk more softly, to tell me of his COPD—chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—and how much time it takes him to walk, step by step, from the garden’s gate to the steps of la casita. The trip feels arduous. Edwin has family who live in upstate New York and neighboring Connecticut. As we’re talking, his giant cell phone rings—it’s his daughter. He speaks to her briefly, but is eager to return to the moment in la casita. He refuses to leave his apartment and the place he says has given him everything after he left the island: a job, friends, happiness.
Edwin, more so than most of us, is slowly dying while we squeeze grapes, and yet he is the most vocal person about how content he is. “I’m going to die in the Bronx,” he says, vehemently. “I’m so happy to be here. I’m so happy.” His eyes are shining, whether from a breeze or tears I’m not sure, but he never ceases to be the gracious host. His is the most contagious happiness I’ve ever felt.
* * *
Among the plots of vegetables, each individually planted with someone’s favorite food or decorated with the emblem of a political party from a home region, Arroyo pauses at one where the harvest has not yet been picked. It’s waiting for its planter to come back from a trip “home”—Arroyo remembers now the young man who usually tends this one is Tato Torres.
Tato, founder of contemporary plena and bomba band Yerbabuena— which gained widespread popularity through regular gigs at the legendary Manhattan club Nuyorican Poets Café—credits la casita as the birthplace of the group.
Another successful band, Los Pleneros de la 21, is made up of memory keepers and disseminators of the plena tradition. This internationally-known group calls El Barrio, East Harlem, home. These pleneros make it an explicit goal to promote knowledge and education about Afro-Caribbean musical traditions as they tour the world.
The importance of tradition being acquired experientially as much as inherited is embodied by a dead tree in la casita’s courtyard. The tree was replanted from the first lot, but did not thrive. It symbolizes the community’s persistence in the neighborhood, roots they planted and transplanted, once again to a space whose value they created.
When I ask Don Chema why he built this casita exactly as it is, his eyes dim as though seeing something far away. This one, he tells me, is modeled after his grandmother’s house. Don Chema speaks of her with a reverence that young pleneros reserve for him. His grandmother and three sisters raised him. She knew when to send him to school in the morning by how high the sun was in the sky. “There are still people who possess that kind of knowledge,” he says. I wager he is one of those who tells time by the colors of the heavens, in this city of flickering Jumbotrons. “There are things you live and you cannot explain,” Don Chema says, his voice thinning and getting higher as he breaks into song: “Hay cosas se viven y no se pueden explicar.” Plena is about physical movement, too; dancing, swaying while standing, gesturing to the chorus, nodding to them, feeling the music in your body. When he sings this, it’s with a shrug of resigned wonder.
Most of the call-and-response that happens throughout the afternoon is not music. It’s a dialogue between me and the regulars. The chorus I hear when I ask them about life, about la casita, is “Ask him, he knows everything about this place, better than us,” pointing at Colón-Montijo, the intermediary between guest and familia. The refrain goes this way, with the unassuming Colón-Montijo refuting them: “No, no.” I break down the insistence of the chorus with a call of my own, telling the regulars I’m not interested in what he knows. Then, their stories flow. Eventually, when we’re sitting near the stage, Edwin and Tito tell me I’m familia; I can come anytime; everyone can come, it is an open invitation. La casita is for the people.
* * *
When someone has mushed all the grapes we can fit into the plastic detergent container—recycled, as almost everything at la casita is—and the men are playing cards, Don Chema takes out a homemade slingshot and directs me to an empty beer can perched on a beam post near the garden plots. With much instruction and friendly heckling from the others, I take aim, but am no match for the maestro. After my first round is a flop, I approach Don Chema, holding the slingshot out to him, gesturing for help. He takes it like a wishbone, positions it in my hand, and then walks away to keep an eye on what’s happening over by the stage.
I take aim again, and after his guidance, my luck is better. The pebbles we’re using, ones we’ve picked up from the gravel, hit closer to the mark. Don Chema turns his head in time to see and gives me his characteristic eyeful of a smile. The guest is learning: if not the musical tradition that he has spent a lifetime mastering, at least the childhood game of his hometown.
As I say goodbye to his wife, Prado, I look again at her tattoo capturing Don Chema’s youthful facial expression, like a talisman proving that Jose Sóto did not need age to acquire his wisdom. It’s been with him a long time.
On the walk from la casita back to the subway, the energy changes as I transition to another world. To my surprise, I feel almost as if I’d been to la casita before, its familiarity created by the rhythms of stories told many times before—if not out loud to others, certainly to ourselves.