Outside the windows of Peck Middle School, you can still see a few muddy piles of snow leftover from this year’s endless New England winter. But inside one second floor classroom, it’s warm, moist and green.
Amid leafy rows of tropical plants, you hear the sounds of falling water, the songs of wind chimes, and the chirping of a coqui —a tiny tree frog native to Puerto Rico.
Okay, the coqui comes out of a CD player. But the plants are real — more than 300 of them …. from avocado and cilantro, to coffee and sweet potatoes, to green bananas and a brilliant red flame-tree …
“This is the flamboyan. most of the pictures you see from puerto rico got the flamboyan on it….”
School outreach worker Gerardo Munoz — a Puerto Rican transplant himself — created this mini-rainforest from seeds he’d been cultivating at home for years.
“Some people bring them to me, the secretary bring me some different seed,” Munoz says. “A lot of family send me.”
Last Fall, Munoz took over an empty classroom for his plants. He added a heater and a couple fountains and gradually, it grew into a tropical garden. He calls it El Yunque, after Puerto Rico’s national rainforest.
“This is pineapple here, and the mango, lemon here….” Munoz points out.
Holyoke’s roots are irish – and to pay respect, Munoz tucked a few leprechauns among the guava. But today, Puerto Ricans make up half the city’s population. Munoz says he wanted to give new arrivals a tactile way to hold onto their culture and climate… and he wanted those with more distant connections to learn about their origins — starting with his own teenage son, who came to the mainland at age 4.
“He never go back to Puerto rico, so I have to teach him, this is orange, this is this, this is that,” Munoz says. “And the same thing I do with my kid, I want to do with other students.”
But there’s more to El Yunque than an enhanced botany lesson.
“This is a school that has too many kids with behavioral problems,” Munoz says. “They come into here to calm down.”
Bralian is a 13-year-old who recently arrived from Puerto Rico. “It’s beautiful here,” she says.
Sometimes, she says, she gets into fights with other girls in her class. When that happens, she’s sent to El Yunque – and she says it settles her.
“Because it looks like Puerto Rico and she can think about that,” she says, as her teacher, Digna Hernandez translates, “and also because it’s peaceful and calm.”
Some kids end up here on their own. School counselor Ida Ortiz says it’s not uncommon for students to get agitated and disappear from their regular classroom — only to be found in the rainforest.
“They said, I go there when I have a problem with a teacher, and I escape to that room and it make me feel better, you know,” Ortiz says. “Even adults here, they come and breathe. Counting me.”
Ortiz — like many of the staff and faculty — came from Puerto Rico years ago. She still misses it – especially her home town of Aibonito which literally means – ‘oh how pretty.’
” The vegetation is beautiful there. So (coming to the rainforest classroom), it make me feel like OK, grounded, in other words,” Ortiz says. “And the kids, the way they explain to me, they feel grounded. For a little while.”
School counselors hold therapy sessions here. And even Massachusetts’ social service agency has gotten wind of the classroom’s soothing properties. Social workers who come to investigate potential child abuse now use El Yunque as their interview room. Munoz says that’s because the kids often feel too scared to talk in a regular office.
“When they come into here, they start looking everything around, the electric butterfly over there….and the social worker got more opportunity to asking something, because they don’t feel afraid anything,” Munoz says.
Some social workers have even given Munoz personal donations for the garden. With that money, he bought a statue of an angel, and taped a sign on it that says, ‘DCF: Department of Children and Families.’
“This is angel for the kids,” he explains.
In his own way, Munoz is another angel for the kids. He buys most of the gardening supplies himself, and tends to the plants on his own time. He’s asked the city’s school committee for some additional pay, but hasn’t heard back yet. If they say no, he’ll do his best to keep El Yunque going.That’s not just for the students’ sake — but for his own. As I’m leaving, he tells me why.
“I got terminal problem, I will maybe be dead in two years, three years,” he says. “I got cancer.”
There are times, Munoz says, when he starts the day in chemotherapy, and ends it under the lush green canopy of El Yunque. If one day he’s no longer around to teach the kids about their native island, he’s hoping the living, growing plants will do it for him.