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Takeover Memories Alive In Vieques

July 29, 2001
Copyright © 2001 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (AP) -- First came the man with the letter telling Severina Guadalupe's father they had 24 hours to pack up their belongings. Then came the bulldozer that ripped down the wooden farmhouse.

``They came up with this huge mechanical thing and came up to the porch and whup! They just drove over our house,'' recalled Guadalupe, 74.

Her memories of how the Navy took over two-thirds of Vieques island were very much alive as she prepared to vote Sunday in a referendum on the Navy's military exercises that have gone on for nearly 60 years.

For decades before the Navy came in 1940, Guadalupe's extended family lived on 27 acres devoted to sugar cane sold to the nearby refinery and vegetables like yucca and plantain, which they ate.

It was a peaceful, self-sufficient lifestyle.

Then came the notification.

``There was an American and a man who spoke Spanish. They came with this letter telling my father that we had 24 hours to collect our belongings and leave,'' she said.

``But we refused to leave our land, our farm, so when that machine came it destroyed everything -- our cooking pots, our clothes -- they left us with nothing,'' said Guadalupe, who was 13 at the time.

The Navy paid her father and his brothers $70 for each acre. Her father's share was a mere $350, she said.

Her family rented a small house in the island's main town of Isabel Segunda for $3 monthly, with her 14 brothers and herself sleeping in a couple of overcrowded rooms.

Her father did whatever jobs he could to get by -- a bit of carpentry, handiwork around houses -- and her mother, who used to sew all the family's clothes, turned to dressmaking to make a living.

For three years, some of her 14 brothers got work helping the Navy construct a munitions warehouse on the western end of the island where the foundations of their home remain.

Then there was no work, so most left for the nearby Virgin Islands or the mainland United States. More than a third of the island population was displaced in this way.

Guadalupe married a man who bought two gas stations, and they managed well until he was murdered by robbers.

Today, only she and one brother remain on Vieques. Four other brothers who stayed on the island died of cancer -- not an unusual statistic here.

Guadalupe has no money to retire, so she manages a shop for a friend, selling a mishmash of goods from motor oil and bicycle tires to canned tuna fish and tomato paste.

She thinks her life would have been better if the Navy had never come.

``We never wanted them here. I have always fought for them to go,'' she said. ``It's too late for me now, but if they go, perhaps life will improve for the children.''

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