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Reaching back and looking forward

The cluster of story and a half high boulders crowned the top of a small knoll. Their out-of-place massive rounded shapes now shaded by a canopy of quenepo trees attracted Vieques' earliest peoples.

The cluster of story and a half high boulders crowned the top of a small knoll. Their out-of-place massive rounded shapes now shaded by a canopy of quenepo trees attracted Vieques’ earliest peoples. It was at this site that archeologists unearthed the Puerto Ferro Man. His bones proved to be over 4,000 years old, pushing back the known history of human habitation on the largest of the Spanish Virgin Islands by two millennia.

Angel Rivera, a native of Vieques, by guiding us up a rutted dusty road to this place, anchored our understanding of his island’s story in the distant past. A visit to the Fortin Conde de Mirasol, the last Spanish fortress build in the Americas and looking over the island’s largest town, Isabel Segunda, gave us a glimpse of the nearly four centuries of Spanish colonial rule. By reaching back we gained an insight into the rich roots of Vieques culture.

Recent history though dramatically challenged the resilience of the islanders. After the ceding of Puerto Rico and the Spanish Virgins to the United States at the end of the 1898 Spanish American War, sugar plantations came to dominate Vieques both physically and economically. Communities developed around the centrales which crushed and refined the sugarcane. Smaller squatter villages of cane cutters dotted the island.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the United States expropriated over two-thirds of the total area of the island. Only a strip down the centre was left intact. Communities were uprooted and squatters evicted from their simple homes and gardens. Initially in the early dark days of the war, military planners conceived the island’s role as providing a safe Caribbean anchorage for the British Navy should England fall to the Nazis. After the war, the island became a weapons testing range for the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station on the nearby Puerto Rican mainland.

Angel Rivera recalled hearing sirens go off to alert islanders to impending shelling. Cattle allowed to graze in former sugarcane fields within the targeted areas on the east end of the island would have to be moved down the islands roads to safe pasturages in the west. This side of Vieques still holds scores of half buried, grey concrete weapons bunkers.

Bombardments assailed landers on an average of 180 days a year. In 1998 alone the US Navy dropped 23,000 bombs on the island and its’ offshore atolls. Angel took us to one secluded beach in the former military lands on the east side of the island. There mounds of broken corals washed up on the beach lay as bleached witness to the destructive decades of bombing.

The accidental death of a Viequense civilian guard during a bombing exercise in April, 1999 triggered massive protests. Angel Rivera took us by the simple, wooden open-air chapel that served as a rallying point for demonstrators. In May of 2003 the US Navy relented and turned over its land to the Department of the Interior which declared it a wildlife refuge. Some Viequense argue that this allows military to avoid cleaning up thousands of tonnes of toxic waste accumulated over six decades of occupation.

The demilitarization of Vieques has renewed interest in the island. Off-island immigrants mainly from the United States seeking a Caribbean haven have been buying up land. Angel Rivera, looking to the future of his island, recently hosted a gathering of these new residents and native Viequense. Mutual understanding, he argues, will help preserve the island’s culture and promote the kind of sustainable development he practices on his own organic farm, La Finca Sustentable Puerto Real.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact

Namaste notes

Sunday, September 6 - 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time. A suggested reading is Mark 7: 31-37.

Monday, September 7 - Labour Day grew out of the struggles of working people in Canada to win basic rights such as the eight-hour working day.

Tuesday, September 8 - The Nativity of Mary is the Christian celebration of the birth of the Mother of God.

Tuesday, September 8 - International Literacy Day reminds us that today one in five adults illiterate and two-thirds of them are women, while 75 million children are without schooling.

Friday, September 11 - A US-supported coup d’etat violently overthrows the democratically elected government of Chile in 1973.