In 2000, Lucia Hernandez was homeless. Now Hernandez is queen to a green kingdom, the Bryant Hill Community Garden in Hunts Point.
She’s planted jalapeño peppers, daffodils, tulips, eggplant, pumpkins and callaloo, and dreams of transforming the garden into a Taíno diorama.
“Gardening is therapeutic,” Hernandez said. “It’s fun. It’s my therapy. I sweat and my back hurts, but for the first time in my life I feel like I’m accomplishing something.
Taínos are the native inhabitants of the Greater Antilles, including Puerto Rico. Hernandez grew up in the Bronx – on Beck Street, St. Mary’s Street, Daly Avenue, the Grand Concourse and Thieriot Avenue – but identifies as Taíno.
According to her research, the Native American tribes who called the Bronx home – the Wappingers and Siwanoys – could have entertained Taíno visitors. A Native American scholar told Hernandez that the Wappingers in Clason Point possessed a Taíno-like culture.
Hernandez joined the Bryant Hill Community Garden in 2007 and invited her Taíno friends to join. When they declined, she raked and scraped alone.
An ex-masseuse and fashion designer, Hernandez stopped working in 2000, crippled by disease. She suffers from fibromyalgia – a painful muscular disorder – sciatica, carpal tunnel, a bulging disk, high blood pressure and a bad bladder.
Hernandez bounced from couch to couch. She spent time in a homeless shelter. Finally, a friend set her up in a Hunts Point basement apartment. Out back, Hernandez discovered a tiny garden.
“I had a breakthrough,” Hernandez wrote in an essay. “I started pulling weeds. That I could create such a beautiful flower and vegetable garden…brought me happiness.”
Two years ago, Hernandez moved to Longfellow Avenue. Lost without a garden to tend, she contacted NYC’s GreenThumb, the nation’s largest urban gardening program. Green Thumb pointed Hernandez to the Bryant Hill Community Garden, a .34-acre slope between Seneca and Garrison on Bryant Avenue.
Since then, Hernandez has installed vegetable beds, woodchip paths and a new fence. The garden boasts honeysuckle, rose bushes, a rare hemlock tree, wood benches, garlic plants and a brigade of pest-catching cats.
On Earth Day 2008, volunteers from the New York Botanical Garden, City Year and Sustainable South Bronx landscaped Bryant Hill. Non-violent Bronx offenders join Hernandez every other Wednesday, thanks to Community Solutions. When the weather cooperates, Hernandez spends all day in her garden.
“People walk by and comment, ‘Wow, great job!’” said Hernandez. “It makes me feel so good.”
Hernandez is always in pain, but she finds the garden soothing.