The sixty-nine year old farmer sprinted up the steep mountain like a teenager, laughing, and after digging into the earth for yams. He turned his tee-shirt into a sack for the harvest showing a toned six-pack that didn’t arrive from work outs at a gym, rather, from years of physical labor in farms around the southern coast of the island.
Turin took us to harvest ñame, the nutritious tuber that everyone in the tight neighborhood of La Jagua ate after the storm. The father of three worked in the petrochemical company built on one of the most precious coastlines in the Caribbean robbing the citizens of Peñuelas access to their beach. The men who worked at the plant in the 70’s say that under the earth where the plant sits, abandoned and leeching toxins into the soil, there are many dead bodies. There are stories of men falling into smoldering cauldrons, gruesome accidents, and fires that were never reported. For thirty years the plant has been an eye sore, shut down and abandoned by the US-based corporation. Residents here feel duped and have been waiting for clean up for four decades. It should be on the Superfund Priorities List. It is not. To add insult to an injured population, San Juan government officials continue to send most of the island’s garbage– toxins that were outlawed in the Dominican Republic because they caused cancer and birth defects– to a Peñuelas landfill. The battle to stop toxic ashes from being dumped just a few feet away from the plant rages on.
So when this humble farmer talks about surviving Hurricane Maria, he says Puerto Ricans have been surviving worse: imperialism.
Working at various construction jobs, going off to the Vietnam War, and tending to other farms, Turin worked day and night and scraped close to $20,000 to buy a small parcel of fertile land once owned by his boss. Now he spends his days tending to his beloved family of trees and plants–mango, orange, lime, cereza, a tropical cherry, guava, coffee, guanabana, wild beans, gandules, banana and plantain among others.
“On this land is where I feel happiest, working with the earth is where I feel at home and at peace. I am enchanted by this earth.”
He weathered the hurricane in a small cement house he owns at the edge of town. And hours after the hurricane’s winds stopped, he walked several miles up the mountain to see how his beloved plants and trees fared. The hurricane ripped through his small farm which sits on a steep slope on one of the many mountains in the town known as “la tierra de los bravos.” He lost fifteen percent of the trees, and all of them left where the storm dropped them turned into food for the earth and homes to other creatures. But he says when he saw the grandmother avocado tree– his favorite–every farmer has a favorite tree–ripped from the earth, her massive roots exposed, he cried.
Turin took us to plant a baby avocado tree still mourning the loss of the one the storm killed.
“I may not be around to see this tree bear fruit but I know that it will give birth to the best avocados in the world and someone will enjoy them.”
On day 85 of the storm, he had no electricity in his humble house.
Words: Sandra Guzmán
Photos: Sandra Guzmán & Rebecca Gitana Torres