The South Bronx Mutual Aid Program Providing Sustainable Solutions to An Unsustainable Issue

Bruce “Blue” Rivera (Left) and Lorean “Ludi” Valentin (Right) are the founders of Mission Helping Hand, a mutual aid program that is addressing the need for healthy, affordable food options in the South Bronx — a need that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rivera and Valentin started the Garden Liberation Project, an initiative under Mission Helping Hand, after seeing a need in the South Bronx community for more sustainable food options and green spaces. Before they took custody of El Coqui Liberation Garden, it was abandoned for about a year and a half after the previous custodian, an elderly woman, rescinded her license when her husband fell ill. The Parks Department had no intention of reopening the space until the summer of 2021 when Rivera reached out. “It was overgrown and became a trash dumping sight for hypodermic needles, vermin, you name it. It was so overgrown that you couldn’t even walk on the sidewalk,” says Rivera. The hypodermic needles in reference are most likely related to the heroin epidemic currently plaguing the South Bronx neighborhood. A few blocks away from El Coqui Liberation Garden lies the intersection of East 149th Street and 3rd Avenue, a neighborhood that has been coined “the Hub” for having the highest number of drug overdoses in the city.
El Coqui Liberation Garden has been around for over 30 years. Before it was abandoned, it was previously commissioned by the Parks Department for use as a community garden. Its original name, A. Badillo Community Rose Garden, can be seen printed on the signage above along with the name of Edward I. Koch, who served as the mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989.
Every Thursday at El Coqui Liberation Garden, located on East 163rd Street between Melrose and 3rd Avenue, volunteers distribute produce to members of the community. These produce items are donated by various community partners and include goods such as carrots, melons, red potatoes, cabbages, and squash.
Mission Helping Hands started out as a small group of concerned friends trying to help feed people in need. “We started out with 36 families — we were just pooling our money together and providing for people. Then it went up to 70, then to 130, then to 200, and right now we are providing food to about 1,600 families a week,” says Rivera. As a collective, Mission Helping Hand serves a largely immigrant and Latinx community. Of the roughly 40 percent of South Bronx residents who are foreign-born, 52.5 percent hail from the Dominican Republic.
Jordy DeLeon, 25, is a regular volunteer for Mission Helping Hand. He got involved with the organization at its inception in April and since then spends most weeks, every Wednesday through Sunday, volunteering at the garden. When asked why he decided to get involved, DeLeon says, “I was at home and out of work and I’ve always wanted to be able to grow my own food, and I have always been [a fan of] nature. When I saw this opportunity, I came because I wanted to know how to grow food and work in a garden, [but] then once I came here I realized that it was more than that. It was about giving back to the community, so that made me stay.”
(Pictured above.) Boxes of warm meals — chicken, veggies, and rice — donated by a local restaurant for Mission Helping Hand volunteers to distribute to community members.
Old bricks with various writings such as, “Waterproof,” make up a path that leads to the garden beds.
Various crops are grown in the garden, including Shishito sweet peppers, white eggplants, bell peppers, lettuce and tomatoes.
(Pictured above.) A pink flower blooms in the concrete jungle.
Katina Muñoz, 37, is a veterinarian and regular volunteer for Mission Helping Hand. She has been with the organization since its inception and learned about the program through Facebook. Karina helped launch the Free Pet Care Project, an initiative which once a month distributes free vaccinations to pets in the community as well as free dog and cat food to struggling pet owners.
Various artwork, such as a graffiti piece with the words “Bronx” (Top Left) and a frog (Top Right) as well as a sun (Bottom Center) made out of ceramic shards, can be found throughout El Coqui Liberation Garden. The founders of Mission Helping Hand make it a priority to showcase the creativity that exists within the South Bronx community. “I think we’re changing the mindset of a lot of our neighbors. We’re coming to understand that [within] this seemingly barren wasteland of crime and drugs, there’s creatives, there’s artists, there’s a plethora of culture and humanity,” says Rivera.
A creative and friend of Mission Helping Hand is currently working on a mural on one wall of the shed where volunteers keep their supplies. The mural not only helps to beautify the shed, but also serves as additional artwork for the space.
(Pictured above.) A closer look at the mural.
Christian Montaro (Left) is a floral designer and the founder of The Concrete Jungle BX, a campaign that aims to help build a garden in the borough. Shay Whitney (Right) is the administrative manager for The Concrete Jungle BX. Montaro and Whitney are currently collaborating with El Coqui Liberation Garden to build a garden of their own and were visiting to speak with Rivera about logistics and design.
(Pictured above.) A wheelbarrow used for gardening sits atop a sparse patch of weeds.
(Pictured above.) Although soiled by dirt, the bright sunshine yellow of this signage still stands out.
Kaila Paulino has been working at El Coqui Liberation Garden since the day Rivera clipped the locks. She remembers the opening day fondly. “Coming here for the first day, everyone was just working together and cleaning everything out. [There was] a lot of love in the air and a lot of respect and just a lot of sharing. It really feels like people have been supporting each other to get through the pandemic, and I feel like that’s very important [in order] to keep the community alive,” says Paulino. Before making her move to El Coqui, Paulino used to volunteer at Friends of Brook Park, another community garden in the South Bronx located on East 141st Street.
(Pictured above.) Greenery peaks through the gaps between these colorful wooden panels that sit atop the black gates that enclose the garden.