Places that Matter
Casita Rincón Criollo
Place Matters Profile
Casitas are small houses surrounded by gardens created to recall the look and feel of the Puerto Rican countryside. One of the city's oldest and largest, Casita Rincón Criollo, currently occupies its second city-owned site in the Melrose neighborhood of the South Bronx. Also known as “La Casita de Chema” after founder José Manuel “Chema” Soto, or simply “La Casita,” Rincón Criollo was built in the late 1970s, when Soto and his neighbors reclaimed an abandoned, garbage-filled lot on the corner of 158th Street and Brook Avenue. 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.
In 1987 La Casita de Chema joined the city's GreenThumb community garden program, but a decade later the City’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) announced it would put half of GreenThumb’s gardens on the auction block. With the decline of the Green Thumb program and imminent redevelopment in the Melrose area, La Casita was caught in the too-frequent urban conundrum of good causes competing for the same scare space. In 2006, Rincón Criollo's lot was reclaimed for low-incoming housing. However, loyal supporters fought to keep La Casita in the neighborhood, and the grassroots cultural center was reestablished on another city-owned property down the block at 157th Street and Brook Avenue.
Folklorist Joe Sciorra has thought deeply about the importance of New York’s casitas. He writes, “Rincón Criollo is a forum from which its members make a public statement of Puerto Rican identity.” Casitas are derived from vernacular housing from Puerto Rico’s countryside. Balloon-frame shanty houses were constructed in the 1920s and 1930s in rural regions of Puerto Rico, when many were forced off their lands by the large sugar companies that were established following the 1898 takeover of the island by the United States. Though it was illegal to build these houses, there was a law maintaining that if the house was completed, it could not be demolished. The houses tended to be constructed of scrap materials and were easily erected and taken down, if necessary. This history of the casita is reflected in the casitas that dotted vacant lots throughout the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn.
The casita at 158th Street (which replaced an earlier structure that was destroyed by fire in 1986) was constructed from recycled scrap lumber and other found objects. The single-story, aquamarine house was fronted by a generous veranda, and by the mid-1990s, there was a kitchen with running water and a ramp for visitors in wheelchairs. The lot featured fruit trees and gardens of flowers and vegetables. As in Puerto Rico, a small, clean-swept yard without vegetation, known as a batey, surrounded the house and was separated by a fence from the gardens.
When it was reborn on 157th Street and Brook Avenue, La Casita was constructed entirely of wood. This casita is smaller than its predecessor, but like the original, it also has two rooms– the large front room serves as place to gather, play music and display community honors and memorabilia, and the smaller back room is used as an office. The porch that runs along the front of the little house features a ramp, as well as a diagonal cross balustrade similar to the one that graced the original casita's veranda. Chema says this design element reminds him of houses built in the Puerto Rican countryside. The casita's bright teal exterior references the 158th Street structure, and it is reminiscent of color palates commonly found in Caribbean built environments. Neighbors who grew up on Puerto Rico, and those who have visited family there, say that crossing the threshold from the street into La Casita’s property marks a transition from a feeling of being in the Bronx to that of being on the island.
Although the new site is smaller than the first, the community has lovingly replanted an iconic apple tree from the 158th Street lot (over the years that particular tree has inspired numerous songs and poems), as well as fig trees, and rows of tomato, pepper and mint plants. They have also constructed a grape arbor that bears tiny, juicy clusters in warm months. In peak outdoor season, casita members gather almost every day of the week to relax in the arbor’s shade, play dominoes, or hold plena or bomba jam sessions. A roofed outdoor platform, constructed from wood from the original site, serves as a bandstand for both impromptu performances and larger, planned concerts at events like Mothers’ Day and Father’s Day, when hundreds of people convene at La Casita for festive afternoons of food, family fun and music that you won’t hear in many other places around New York City.
La Casita is peopled and run by its members, who range in age from young adults to seniors, and who maintain their membership and welcome by adhering to group standards of proper behavior. The casita is a place for urban gardening, hanging out, and mounting formal and informal gatherings. It’s also a place where music and dance – particularly plena – are played, danced, and taught. Both bomba and plena are percussion based and are rooted in West and Central African traditions and movement. Plena became known as el periódico cantado (the sung newspaper) because its lyrics narrate and comment on community goings-on, gossip, and political news. Early on, it became a forceful tool for labor and community organization and activism.
The New York casita and batey are an attempt to evoke a specific place and time, that is, Puerto Rico of the recent past. The re-creation of a tropical, pre-industrial landscape in the northern, urban environment is achieved through close attention to detail.
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.
The legal status of Rincón Criollo has been in contention since the beginning, and although the city allowed the casita to reestablish on their new site, community members still worry about the future. Rincón Criollo was one of hundreds of green oases created in what Sciorra called “life-affirming responses to the political negligence and economic tyranny that reduced the South Bronx (and other poor neighborhoods) to rubble.” For a few years the city’s GreenThumb program regulated the unofficial use of city land. But Mayor Rudolph Giuliani did away with GreenThumb when he tried to do away with the city’s community gardens – many of them started, like Rincón Criollo, in grassroots efforts to reclaim abandoned and dangerous lots. When the mayor’s plan was stopped in the courts, many of the gardens gained official status and caretakers. Rincón Criollo was not among the victors, but its tenacious supporters were able to keep the garden going, and to fight for a new corner lot in the same neighborhood. Countless other gardens and casitas, from the Bronx to East Harlem to the Lower East Side to Brooklyn, were closed as a result of housing development on their lots.
Happily, Rincón Criollo has survived and continues to play an important role in the 21st century Puerto Rican community, both in New York City and around the world. According to ethnomusicologist Roberta Singer and folklorist Elena Martínez, Rincón Criollo is the heart of traditional Puerto Rican music in New York City. They call La Casita “a traditional context for the transmission of a traditional culture” -- traditions that have been passed down through three generations and which are showing no signs of stopping. In fact, these traditions have grown stronger due, in large part, to Rincón Criollo. Twenty-year old Mathew Gonzalez, whose grandfather, Benny Ayala, was one of the casita’s founding members, says that La Casita continues to provide the foundation for his own musical career. Mathew learned to play and love bomba and plena at Rincón Criollo, and he now plays in the city’s premiere salsa and Latin jazz bands, as well as his own group, Cumbayala, which carries on the tradition, albeit with a dose of innovation, or what Mathew frequently calls “expansion.” This attitude of accepting innovations on tradition seems to have been passed along from La Casita’s own members, as former Rincón Criollo president José Rivera said in 1989 in regards to adapting Puerto Rican traditions to New York City, "You've got to keep on inventing."