Palenke Greens

Posted on Thursday, 12 May 2022 under Stories

Ariel Reyes Antuan radiates passion, joy, and seemingly inexhaustible energy.

Reyes Antuan describes himself as a community builder and connector. Along with his partner, he is the co-founder of Iyé Creative, a grassroots collective that focuses on food justice and building relationships in their community. They center their work on supporting and ensuring the participation of racialized and marginalized people in the local food system in Greater Victoria.

Through the Palenke Greens initiative, Iyé Creative works to support people who are Indigenous and of African descent to grow food through the traditional technique of burlap sack gardens.

For the past 10 years, Reyes Antuan has contributed to various community projects and initiatives that focus on “long-term, reciprocal and respectful relationship building for communities in Cuba and what’s currently Canada,” the Iyé Creative website describes.

“I connect people; I connect stories; I connect places,” Reyes Antuan says.

Photos by Iyé Creative

Reyes Antuan was born in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. He moved to Victoria five years ago. Spending his childhood and early adulthood in Cuba, Reyes Antuan describes, “I’ve seen so many crises, and I understand what it means to go hungry and not know what I’m going to eat the next day.” When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Reyes Antuan and his partner, Jess Reyes Barton, decided to grow food.

They started a small garden in their backyard but soon recognized a need to engage with the diverse community around them. Reyes Antuan believes deeply in the necessity of resilient and supportive communities. He says, “If we don’t lift up each other, start collaborating and get together as a community, for me, we are in trouble.”

Around the same time, Reyes Antuan learned about traditional burlap sack gardens, a method of gardening in burlap sacks that originates and is practiced across East Africa. The idea resonated with Reyes Antuan as a way to connect with his identity and engage with the “ever-changing diverse communities” that he was encountering in Victoria.

Reyes Antuan and Barton use burlap sack gardens to represent marginalized communities in food systems work. Click To Tweet

Reyes Antuan describes how many people in marginalized communities do not have access to food systems work, agriculture, and local food in part because they are not represented in the local food community. Through burlap sack gardens, Reyes Antuan and Barton saw an opportunity for “Representing these voices and holding a space for them to show what they are capable of.”

Reyes Antuan says, “You can see the resurgence of agriculture led by Black people, Black ecological stewardship in the states, and that’s something that we are very interested in pursuing here on the island.”

Reyes Antuan wants to give people hope, showing them that it is possible to regain agency and grow some of their own food. He believes that the climate crisis needs to be tackled with inspiration. He says, “We need to give people hope. Because when people see hope, people see change. When people see change, people get connected.”

Reyes Antuan and Barton launched a fundraiser and within one week had the funds they needed to start the Palenke Greens initiative. Since 2020, the initiative has helped create more than 90 burlap sack gardens and distribute 100 seedlings.

With a dolly, a sack, soil, and […] a shovel, we went out on the city going to apartment buildings everywhere, teaching people how to grow food in a sack.”

Photos by Iyé Creative

The history of the name ‘Palenke’ is culturally significant and communicates the heart of the initiative’s mission.

Palenques were communities created by Africans who escaped slavery in the Caribbean, South America, and elsewhere during the seventeenth century. Reyes Antuan describes that they were established “Based on mutual aid and agriculture.” He explains that “Many became so successful that they were able to trade with the colonizers.”

The close relationship to land, resilience, and sense of resistance that Palenques embody carries much of the inspiration behind the Palenke Greens initiative. Reyes Antuan says, “We call it Palenke to keep connected to how our ancestors were able to survive and also to thrive.”

The gardening and education that Palenke Greens does is a “Pretext to bring people together, share stories, build resilience, and connect with our ancestral wisdom- that’s the main goal of Palenke Greens,” Reyes Antuan describes. At the center of Palenke Greens is the mission of “Reconnecting people back to the land,” he says.

Reyes Antuan describes how the agency of people who are Indigenous and of African descent has been taken away as they have been oppressed and marginalized. He says, “Our mission is to keep uplifting those voices.”

If we are not able to dismantle those systems of oppression that are in place by design, our people, how are they going to participate?”

“If we are able to mentor, to teach them, to inspire them and to recognize their contribution within our local food systems, those people are going to participate,” Reyes Antuan describes. “And when those people participate, they bring those communities and the wisdom that they represent” to fighting the climate crisis and building local food systems.

“This is long-term work. I’m saying to everyone, this is a marathon,” Antuan Reyes emphasizes. “Maybe in my lifetime I won’t see all the changes, but I know I’m planting seeds of sovereignty. I am planting seeds of abundance and we are planting seeds of hope. Now, that’s what our generation needs, hope.”