Row by row, Adrián Jordán García and his three workers move through the neatly planted papaya forest. The day is hot and dry, and everything is tinged with the yellow of sunny, dusty landscapes. Some workers wear long sleeves and gloves to protect their bare skin from the caustic papaya sap; others are less sensitive to it. They pop fruit off the trees with their hands, or with long tubes to access the fruit that is too high to reach.
To the untrained eye, it is difficult to see why they select some fruits and leave others behind. As soon as they’ve collected an armload, the workers whistle to García, who is stationed up on the tractor bed. They throw him the fruits, which he catches like footballs and inspects one last time before gently tossing them into the bins. Later that morning, they will be sorted and packed into waxed cardboard produce boxes, which a truck will take to a local Walmart, where they will be sold.
García grows a handful of crops to sell to the larger grocery chains on the island: papayas, watermelons, eggplants, and cucumbers have been some of the most lucrative for him. He used to grow okra as well, but it’s a crop that takes more skill to harvest properly, and he lost the only two workers he could trust with the task — one retired and one died — so he had to give it up.
García is one of many farmers in Puerto Rico who believe the way forward for the island is to reclaim food sovereignty. Whether it is to have food on hand in case of a disaster or to strengthen the poor economy by keeping dollars in local hands, to them, growing more food on this fertile island is the most important action Puerto Ricans can take.
But it’s a struggle. Reliable, skilled farm labor is incredibly difficult to find on the island. Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector was primarily focused on growing cash crops for export, such as sugar, coffee, and tobacco, since its colonization, first by Spain, and then the United States. By the 1940s, what…