Casitas: Places of Community Power in the South Bronx

Casa de Chema;
Casa de Chema;

We all know that in the 1970s the Bronx was burning. We don’t always hear about was the amazing organizing and cultural production that came out of the time, such as hip hop, and the focus of this blog post: casitas. Casitas, “little houses” in Spanish, were an incredible creation that developed out of the immigration waves, nostalgia, and state of affairs in the Bronx.  Built on abandoned, overgrown lots, and they transferred neglected spaces into meaningful community meeting points.  The Puerto Rican community viewed casitas a means of reclaiming the power which has been taken away from them as a marginalized immigrant community. The casitas are small houses, built to resemble rural houses in Puerto Rico, evoking memories of rural birthplaces before its industrialization in the 1950s.

In a way, casitas helped the many cultural aspects of the Puerto Rican community grow and flourish in New York City.  A 1990 NY Times article reports:

 More than a sentimental backdrop for the garden, the casita is a workshop where craftsmen carve drums and speckled carnival masks and where local children learn dance steps to rhythms that first came to this hemisphere aboard slave ships.

The casitas demonstrate the importance of a built space as a way to bring together a community.  They represented more than just current realities, but also were memories of life in Puerto Rico, of childhood. It is easy to see the influence of casitas on current movements such as Occupy Wall Street, which also illegally reclaimed space to educate the community and use collective power. Both OWS and the casitas were places where the community built their structures in order to establish their notion of an ideal world.

Like Occupy (or many other structures which challenge community norms), the casitas are impermanent and remain at risk of demolition. Many have been torn down, while others have moved locations.  La Casita de Chema (formally known as Rincon Criollo) is one of the oldest casitas in the South Bronx.  In 2006, HPD threatened eviction.  Only after extreme community mobilization with community groups like Nos Quedamos, was there a renegotiation, and the casita was moved one block away.

 In 2009, former Bronx Borough President and current mayoral candidate, Adolof Carrion, Jr. headed a campaign to make the casitas state landmarks.  While we are pretty sure that the campaign was lost, we feel confident the casitas will remain a part of the Bronx and the Puerto Rican community for the long run.  We are amazed and the incredible organizing and education efforts which not only keep the casitas in existence but flourishing.  To learn more about Casita de Chema (and to hear some music about it) click here.


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