We found Beatriz emptying her deceased brother’s home on Calle Granate, a ten minute drive from the port in the Isabel II neighborhood in the small island of Vieques. The two bedroom cement structure was surrounded with fallen trees and debris. Hurricane Maria totaled the island of 9,300 residents and its only hospital.
Beatriz’ brother, Quique, died two months after Hurricane Maria. Renal failure. Most of the the residents on the island are on some sort of dialysis, either have or know someone with diabetes or cancer. By the time medical help came in the way of a helicopter to transport him to the mainland (Puerto Rico), it was too late Beatriz explained, her brother was in a coma. He died two days later. When asked if he was killed by the hurricane Beatriz said, “not directly. He was killed because after the hurricane the island was a disaster and officials couldn’t get it together.”
It was Day 79 when we visited Vieques, located six miles off the coast of Puerto Rico. The once thriving tourist island had no electricity or access to clean water. The ferry was still not working properly coming and going whenever the captain felt like it.
All the wealthy people protected their mansions and left. Uprooted trees revealed more mansions than residents knew existed. It also revealed the dire poverty.
Inside the house there was mold everywhere. There was one photo of a group of men in uniform, none of whom Beatriz knew. The US Navy occupied Vieques and used it for its main training site for over than fifty years. The US Navy squeezed families into the middle of the island, robbing them of their precious coastlines. The US Navy stole their land and coasts and proceeded to practice live bombing as children went to school, fishermen went to sea, women went to church. Every day for more than fifty years the US Navy live bombed. Sometimes the US Navy invited other countries such as France, to train in Vieques. Years of local protests and with the help from the rest of the main island and pressure from the Puerto Rican diaspora finally pushed out the Navy in 2003. Still, there are metals everywhere in the ocean surrounding the island, in the earth. And many people have cancer or are on some form of dialysis.
With machete in hand, Beatriz’ 9-year old grandson, Arnaldo Rivera Media, was cutting branches strewn all over the small patio. They were selling the house. Directing the cleanup was her husband, 78-year-old Mario Torres Concino.
“My brother was a good man. He served his country. He was 65.”
Words: Sandra Guzmán
Photos: Sandra Guzmán & Rebecca Gitana Torres