In the “Parts Unknown” episode, Bourdain travels to the island of Vieques, where he visits Finca Conciencia for lunch and meets its proprietors, Ana Elisa Pérez Quintero and Jorge Cora. The group sits down to a home-cooked meal, where they discuss the future of sustainable agriculture in Puerto Rico and how it might positively affect the economy. Post-hurricane, Pérez Quintero talks about the isolated nature of life on Vieques and the growing awareness that fresh food is important to health.
A month after Hurricane Maria, Ana Elisa Pérez Quintero is planting peppers at Finca Conciencia, a farm that she runs on the island of Vieques with partner Jorge Cora. She needs the peppers to make sofrito, the base for most Puerto Rican dishes, which also uses tomatoes, onions, and garlic.
Viequenses are used to food shortages that last a week, but it has been more than a month since Hurricane Maria and the supermarket shelves still stand empty most days. There is less fresh fish as well.
“People have been stopping us on the street to ask for fresh food, because they’ve been eating canned everything for a long time,” Pérez Quintero says. She wants to start offering agro-ecology workshops so that people can start growing the basics, at the very least. “We are very food insecure—even more than the main island. … Now, with the hurricane, there’s even more food insecurity, but there is also a sense of wanting to farm and to plant again, even if it’s a small vegetable garden,” she says.
Vieques has long been left to fend for itself without much help from Puerto Rico’s central government. All the residents’ food and gas arrives via an unreliable ferry system. This often leaves Viequenses without deliveries for up to a week, so locals are used to long lines and a lack of fresh products.
“That’s sort of a normal scenario in Vieques,” says Pérez Quintero. Due to their isolation, Viequenses are also accustomed to building and repairing their own homes and clearing the roads of vegetation.
“I think it was almost a good thing to be in Vieques during the hurricane,” says Pérez Quintero. “It’s an island that doesn’t get a lot of flooding, and that is a good thing, but also because we are very resilient.” She has many friends who farm on the main island and lost everything.
“A lot of the farmers, we don’t have anything to sell, which is difficult because that is our income. … It’s a struggle to produce food and also give these classes. Hopefully the people that we’ve already trained have hopped into action.”
She said the hurricane took out her and Cora’s plants “like a weed wacker … it took everything.” Luckily, though, they weren’t flooded. “We burst into action quickly after the hurricane,” she says, and they’re already growing basil and greens in addition to tomatoes and peppers.
Finca Conciencia is a small agro-ecological farm and educational center, focused on issues such as food sovereignty and food justice. They teach classes and train people to farm and keep bees. Cora moved to the island after Hurricane Georges devastated all of his beehives in Arroyo in 1998. Vieques’ bee population hasn’t had much exposure to pesticides or herbicides and is one of the healthiest in the Caribbean.
“After the hurricane, the bee population is going crazy—there are bees everywhere. We have a beekeeping flash course this week to try to train more people to work with bees, to have sort of a beekeeper army,” she says with a laugh.
Since Hurricane Maria there has been a shortage of medicines, including insulin. Pérez Quintero mentions the high rate of hypertension in Vieques and the prevalence of diabetes and cancer, which, she says, is probably linked to the military operations on the island but also tied to people having to eat processed or canned foods. “After the hurricane,” says Pérez Quintero, “people are more aware of the need for fresh food and of the relationship between food and health.”
Pérez Quintero, like many Puerto Ricans, is in it for the long haul. “It’s easy to say, ‘I want to go to Mexico now,’ but I think we are needed here … [and] this land is perfect. We had a hurricane a month ago, and everything is already green—it’s perfect for producing food.”