Finding relief in garden of generous shade, splashes of cooling water

It seems that there’s only one thing on our minds these hot days of summer — escaping the sweltering weather.

In some Latino communities people turn to traditional ways of dealing with tropical heat, especially in homes where only one room might have an air conditioner.

I went looking for an oasis — a cool outdoor place in Philadelphia — and I remembered going to a celebration in a large community garden in North Philadelphia near Norris Square.

Sure enough, under the canopy of trees, in the shadow of a small “casita,” or Puerto Rican country house, with banana plants and all, I found a perfect cooling place. So did a few neighbors, including 10-year-old Luis Melendez

“The coolest place is under the trees because, when the wind blows, the leaves are flapping and that’s really the coolest place,” Luis said.

Luis was born two doors down from the casita and practically grew up in the garden when his grandmother started bringing him here.

The Norris Square Neighborhood Project and community gardens were founded almost 30 years ago by Iris Brown and Tomasita Rivera.

“We wanted trees so we could sit under the trees and be cool, whatever, and we got them because this was an empty lot like that one,” Rivera said. “These trees grew so fast. It’s a blessing.”

Restorative brew include garden herbs

Every day, neighbors and volunteers work in the gardens usually early in the morning or after work. To keep them cool, garden director Rafael Alvarez, prepares enormous containers of sun-brewed tea. He adds mango juice, lemon, some sugar, fresh mint and other herbs grown right there; and plenty of ice, of course. It’s what keeps gardener-educator Raisa Slutsky-Moore hydrated and cool.

“It’s so important because when you work in the sun at a certain point you are exhausted and you are too hot to eat,” Slutsky-Moore said. “Then you have some tea and it has some lemon and sugar and it gives you what you need … because otherwise I would die.”

A few blocks down on Norris Square, a man sells mango, coconut and lemon ice cream — made by his daughter — out of a small cart he built and decorated. Nearby, a food vendor shares a secret as she rests comfortably under the tree shade. She keeps kitchen towels nice and wet in her cooler and wraps them around her neck.

“Siempre tengo una toallita mojada en my cuello,” she says.

Her friend says people don’t remember how to find the cooling breezes around the river edges or in parks. They stay in small stuffy apartments with an air conditioning unit only in one room. Too stuffy, he says. No air circulation.

“Porque no se van para el parque or al rio o a ningun lado,” he says.

Better to ask permission from the fire department and open street hydrants for the kids, he advises.

A range of refreshing waters

In South Philly’s Mexican neighborhood near the Italian Market, vendors sell horchata, the iced Mexican drink made of rice, milk, cinnamon, vanilla and sugar.

From my own South American childhood, I — and thousands of others — still keep the custom of having aguas frescas, fresh waters, in the refrigerator. It’s simply water with some fresh lemon (not a lemonade) and a hint of sugar. Another version has water with watermelon, tamarind or pineapple chunks. One more Mexican delicacy to keep you cool — pieces of mango sprinkled with chili power. Sweet and hot and cool!

Water of course, works in any culture.

As for me, now I’m trying to find one of those old Spanish folding fans called abanicos.

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