Gladys became a ethnobotanist because of the mountain. She moved to Utuado, a municipality located in the central part of the island in the Cordillera Central, when she was 20 years old from the capital city where she was born and raised. She said the elders and nature took care of teaching her about plants. Back then, the town’s roads were lined with flowers called miramelindas. It was a magical place. In fact, the First Nation inhabitants of the island considered the region sacred and held  many spiritual ceremonies there. Just down the road from where she lives is Caguana Ceremonial site with ball courts that date back to 1200 to 1500 A.D.

She went to the University of Puerto Rico to study botany and has spent thirty years teaching it to new generations.Her knowledge of indigenous plants is encyclopedic. Her passion for nature is contagious. Many of her former students are part of the agrarian revolution taking place on the island. We met one, Eliza, who is part of the story and who runs a farm in Vieques. She talked about an inspiring teacher and to our joy, it was Gladys.

Gladys has returned to the mountain full time after three decades of teaching botany and ethnobotany on the Rio Piedras campus. The two bedroom cabin she shares with her husband Papo was intact after Hurricane Maria. But the town where it sits was not.  Utuado was torn apart by the storm. Residents were cut off from the rest of the island when all its bridges broke and rivers overflowed. Without food, access to water and electrical power, many families in desperation, wrote SOS on the roofs of their homes and sidewalks.

When the storm made landfall, Gladys was in Rio Piedras where she and her husband of forty years have an apartment. They did not think that their country cabin would withstand the strong winds since it is perched on top of a mountain. To her relief, all the trees that surround the house were still standing– leafless, bare, burnt– but standing. On day 90 when we met, the trees looked like they been had bad haircuts.  She now can see past them for the first time in forty decades and into several of the sacred lakes in the valley below.

“The hurricane was terrible, just devastating, The trees dissapeared. But it was also extremely magical too. The way nature behaved. The way trees behaved. There are people suffering, without food and water. But this was the best thing that happened–it was a necessary revolution. The hurricane was a necessary evil. People were too lost in technology, in the phone world. And now everything has been exposed. People are trying to do things together–that was not happening before the storm.

Nature is responding so well. And people are going back to basics. People are talking more, getting together, doing things together. They are realizing how bad things are here. Politics is really, really bad, lots of corruption in government and everywhere.

We needed something like this to become aware of all the things that were happening and to stop it. I have hope in the students and in the youth of Puerto Rico– they are reacting in a marvelous way.”

We needed to get out of our comfort zones just to realize that we have around us. And to realize that we can do it by ourselves.  We didn’t trust ourselves before. We realize all we have is each other.”

Words: Sandra Guzmán

Photo: Sandra Guzmán & Rebecca Gitana Torres

See all the profiles of the Holy & Wild: Puerto Rican After Hurricane Maria