Pedro is a big man. Any NFL team recruiting for a strong center would be blessed to have him. So to witness this burly man with hands that look like baseball mitts break down and cry in the middle of our interview, to hear him talk about his depression after having to bury more than fifty percent of his farm animals and losing his house to Hurricane Maria is to appreciate the depth of the pain that he, and other residents of the Caribbean islands, have suffered in the aftermath of the storm.
The fifty three year old farmer went to his compadres’s cement house across the street from his wood frame house to weather the storm. He took his mother, who has Alzheimer’s and his wife. It was the practical and smartest thing he did he says.
The next day he woke up to devastation. The storm, which he describes as monstrous, destroyed his home of forty years.
“Its not easy to have something you worked so hard and in a matter of seconds to have nothing. For forty years this was my home. It’s all gone.”
And he is, understandably, traumatized.
“I remember everything. I am trying to forget everything.”
“The winds howled. The storm looked like a tornado– like a white cloud moving up and down, blowing off roofs and trees, taking everything in its way. It was hard, very hard to be in it. It sounded like a rabid dog, with screams and horns that sounded like trucks. It came with so much noise. I was with my compadre, his grandson, and wife, and my family. We were blessed to have survived.
Hurricane Maria left him homeless and while they have been offered to leave the countryside to a hotel somewhere in the mainland US, they have refused. Instead they sleep on couches in homes of friends and extended family of this tight community called La Jagua located in one of the many mountain neighborhoods of Peñuelas.
“I love this region–it’s tranquil, you can raise any animal you want, to have a rooster that sings and no one complains, to have a dog that barks and your neighbors don’t mind, or a horse that neighs and people don’t lose it. I love to plant, I love animals. I work doing anything, I do not fear work.”
He and his siblings and aunts and uncles inherited a small farm from his late father.
“I had horses, geese, sheep, roosters, chickens, goats, corinas, a special kind of messenger pigeon, bees. I had over 300 farm animals. I have one hundred twenty five left. The goats left and came back after the storm. I had to bury my sheep and covered the carcasses of my chickens with the earth, The horses survived. My animals were traumatized. We could not touch them. I bought medicines, the horses needed infusions, they were dehydrated. I love my animals. I am moving forward, keep planting and taking care of the animals.”
Life, for a small farmer, is hard. It’s even more difficult after a hurricane devastates the farm and the government does nothing to help.
His family does the best they can to keep up with planting and harvesting, plantain, bananas, avocado and coffee. And something strange has been happening in the once fertile region.
“There are no more oranges. At one point our farm produced 48,000 oranges and now we can’t even get ten. Hurricane Hugo was so rough it strangled all our fruit trees and they all perished . The grapefruit trees also died.”
He said after Hurricane Hugo the farmers of the island noticed a plague that began killing citrus trees. The trees bear fruit that is rotted on the inside. It’s also affected the cancer-curing guanabana, (soursop) fruit.
“We’ve never seen this.”
He said farmers are catching the insects by leaving open bottles of Vel, a dishwashing liquid popular on the island, but the problem is so huge it barely helps one or two trees.
“We have no idea where this plague came from, the government must know. Plagues just don’t come out of the blue. It’s eating all the fruits and continues to ravage the lands. Our farms were very fertile. The only thing that is not attacking are the avocado and banana trees. Its happening in farms in Adjuntas, Utuado, Guayanilla, Lares, and Mayaguez.
We are hoping that Maria took the plagues.
One thing Hurricane Maria brought was the community together. Now on Sundays they meet at Josies, local bar restaurant that closes on Sundays.
“We started with eighteen people, now there are forty eight. We have asked the mayor to come visit. We area talking about what is happening with water, electric power, and the future. We are taking about solar power.”
Peñuelas has been forgotten he says. They read about relief assignations, Federal relief, and private donations, none of it has arrived to his neighborhood. He says that it’s like the northern cities the island, the rich municipalities, gobble all the money and relief.
“I want to see government stop politicking and to see us as human beings not part of a party. To stop red, green blue party colors and see us all as children of god.
Words: Sandra Guzmán
Photos: Sandra Guzmán and Rebecca Gitana Torres