Casita Rincón Criollo AKA La Casita de Chema is a beautiful garden sanctuary in the South Bronx on the corner of 157th and Brook Ave. It once used to be an abandoned, garbage-filled lot in the 60s and 70s. Founder José Manuel “Chema” Soto used to pass by this lot regularly with his daughter. Finally fed up by the sights of rampant destruction and neglect, he and fifty other residents decided to clean up the lot – a land that they did not own – and turned it into a casita reminiscent of the Puerto Rican countryside. The lush space has been lovingly maintained by volunteers and community organizers since.
I had the opportunity to meet José who was one of several volunteers tending the garden on a sunny Sunday afternoon. A natural talker and entertainer, José showed us around the garden lined with lush pear and lemon trees. His eyes glimmered as he talked about their abundant harvest year after year. In a corrugated metal shed, another volunteer was setting up a makeshift meat smoker for a massive pig roast that they were planning to put on for Mother’s Day. “You’re all invited,” José told us warmly as he led us into the main casita.
The main casita was adorned with portraits of the great Chema as well as group shots of past and present members brimming with smiles and camaraderie. Sun-bleached frames and memorabilia hung from the low ceiling; in the center of the room were a row of fold-out tables with plenty of chairs to go around. Hell of a club house if you ask me.
Rincón Criollo serves as a thriving music venue and a mainstay of Puerto Rican identity in the South Bronx. The pure dedication of community members turning a dilapidated lot into a lush gathering space for their fellow countrymen is one of the many things that I love about this city.