Hurricane Maria took everything but their neighborhood school. Now, even that is gone.
YABUCOA, Puerto Rico (En español)
Felipe Velázquez and his 11-year-old daughter, Genesis, stood side by side and watched the men dismantle the school — chair by chair, desk by desk, 100 years of small-town boricua history slowly being stacked into the back of a truck.
The men didn’t seem to notice the school uniforms — dirt-stained polo shirts and child-sized pinafores — tacked on the fence and flapping in the breeze, with pleas printed on them in crooked black marker: “I love my little school. Please don’t close it.”
But it was too late. The candlelight vigils, the protests, the prayers, the trip to the Department of Education in San Juan — none of it had been enough to save Marcos Sánchez K-8 Center. With three days left before the start of the new school year, families in the mountains above the town of Yabucoa were preparing to send their children to new schools miles away. Hurricane Maria was exacting yet another toll on the people of Puerto Rico.
The Category 4 hurricane first made landfall in this southeastern corner of the island a year ago, unleashing ferocious winds of up to 135 mph that ripped the roofs from homes, upended cars and wiped out fields of crops. Afterward, residents spent months without power, often with little more than a blue tarp over their heads to keep out the rain.
But even long stretches of time without electricity hadn’t hurt the way this did. Seven months after the storm, as the island struggled to rise from its knees, residents in the mountains above Yabucoa learned that the heart of their community — the school — was among 250 campuses the government planned to close. And though the official reasons were the island’s crippling debt and the exodus of thousands of families, problems that had existed before the hurricane, the final blow had been dealt by Maria. A school built to hold 500 children had been reduced to serving fewer than 100.
“The world ended for us,” said Velázquez, describing the moment when he’d learned that Marcos Sánchez was closing.
“This school has been here for 100 years, and important, important people have come out of this school,” he added, listing mayors, legislators and other officials who had attended classes in the white and turquoise building. Like most of his neighbors, Velázquez had gone to Marcos Sánchez as a child and for the last eight years had sent his daughter there, too.
Now Genesis and her classmates — children she’d known since preschool who seemed like the siblings she’d never had — would be scattered to different schools, a separation that Genesis said made her feel “really bad.”
There would also be no bus to take her to the new school, it turned out. That’s because she had been slated to go to a different school in a neighborhood known for drug dealing, but Velázquez and several neighbors had transferred their children to Rosa Costa Valdivieso Middle School in a safer area.
A neighbor, Alba Gómez, who joined Genesis and Velázquez watching their old school turn into a shell, said she was worried about paying for the extra gas it would take to get her son to class. A single mom with three kids, Gómez survived on $484 a month in child support and whatever she could make selling stews and frituras, fried snacks.
And it wasn’t just the lack of transportation that made Gómez uneasy. At Marcos Sánchez, she knew she could count on her neighbors in an emergency. The businesses across the street also kept a watchful eye on the kids. The pizza parlor and bakery fed the students when they were hungry and let parents pay later.
Although the new school was only a 20-minute car ride away, it was across the Guayanés River, which flooded after heavy rains, sometimes isolating Gómez and her neighbors for hours. And the new school was in the town center, which felt like a different world. While Yabucoa was limping along a year after the hurricane, it was still a bustling place compared to this area in the mountains, known as Guayabota, where tiny cement homes nestled between fields of yams and plantains, and Marcos Sánchez was the centerpiece of the community.
“I felt safe here because I was born here, I was raised here, I studied here,” Gómez said, standing on the patio outside a kindergarten classroom whose outer wall was decorated with a mural of small handprints in the form of a tree.
“Now they have my kids far away. In an emergency ... I’m not going to arrive in time,” she said.
The neighborhood’s only remaining hope was a lawsuit the families had filed against the Department of Education in May — one of several suits brought by communities across the island to challenge dozens of school closures.
A court in San Juan had dismissed the lawsuit in July, but the families were appealing the decision and Velázquez remained optimistic about their chances of winning — if not in time for this year, maybe the next. After all, the school served as a community center and polling place for the entire neighborhood. “This school brought together the core of the community,” he said. “It was the only thing here to unite the community. The only thing.”
The beginning of a new life
The loss of Marcos Sánchez K-8 Center might have been painful for the families, but it was far from the only misfortune they’d suffered in recent years.
Yabucoa had once been a prosperous place, residents recalled, where textile factories provided steady jobs and the land yielded an abundance of tobacco, plantains, grapefruit and peppers. That was the era in Puerto Rico when, as Velázquez put it, “no one knew what hunger was.”
Then, in the mid-2000s, Puerto Rico’s economy entered a downward spiral and residents left for the mainland United States in droves. As families fled, Marcos Sánchez K-8 Center shrank. When Velázquez had attended the school four decades earlier, there were roughly 500 students. By the time Hurricane Maria hit, in September of 2017, the school’s population had fallen below 150. Afterward, it shrank to 92.
Velázquez’s financial struggles mirrored the island’s. His family used to have a food distribution business, but it went under in the mid-1990s when its largest customer went bankrupt, and Velázquez later found work in construction. Genesis was born in 2006, and Velázquez, who was 42 at the time, picked her name because her arrival felt like “the beginning of a new life.”
Then, when Genesis was 2, her mother left. Velázquez quit working to care for the toddler. Once Genesis was old enough for him to go back to work, the only openings were in fast food and no one seemed to want to hire him.
Now Velázquez, 54, does what he can to survive. A recent gig as a summer camp counselor paid him enough to buy Genesis’ school supplies, but for the most part he lives on $216 a month in food stamps and the produce his father grows on a plot of land behind the house. Although life is hard in the mountains, he wants to raise his daughter here, away from the distractions and dangers of the town.
In many ways, Genesis is a typical 11-year-old girl. She likes playing games on her cellphone and watching soap operas on TV. (Her favorite, a Turkish soap called “Llegaste tú,” or “You Arrived,” tells the story of a little girl who was separated from her family.) Genesis dreams of becoming a plastic surgeon so she can help people who are injured in accidents.
But she has also struggled with anxiety since she was a toddler and fears that, like her mother, everyone in her life is going to abandon her. Since the hurricane, Genesis’ anxiety has gotten worse. She watched on the morning of Sept. 20 as the storm approached her family’s small concrete block home, precariously situated above the Guayanés River. As the wind grew stronger, the windows shattered. The house filled with water, which reached Genesis’ ankles. Tornadoes ripped through the area.
During the worst of the storm, the girl cowered behind her father on the partially enclosed front porch for what felt like hours, shielded only by his body and the heavy wooden front door, which had blown open against one of the outer walls, creating a pocket of protected space. The house shook as if it were going to break loose and fly away.
Then came the waiting and the darkness. There was no phone service and no way to know if friends and relatives had survived.
“When you lose communication, you don’t know about your family, you don’t know about your classmates, you wonder what’s happening, if something bad was happening to them,” Genesis said.
She later learned that the home of one of her friends had been completely destroyed. For the next five months, the friend and her family slept in the yellow Pentecostal church next to Genesis’ house. Genesis hasn’t heard from her mother, who used to occasionally call, since before the storm. Velázquez thinks she may have left for the mainland.
‘A bucket of cold water’
When residents emerged from their homes after the hurricane, they saw that — unlike practically everything else — the school had suffered little damage. There were fallen cables and branches in the patio, but the building had weathered the storm. After clearing the road, neighbors worked together to sweep branches out of the schoolyard and clean the classrooms in case the people who had lost their homes needed a place to sleep.
“It was a really nice experience for us to ... make the school look much better so that they would say ‘this school isn’t going to be closed at any time,’ ” Genesis recalled.
In Genesis’ neighborhood, one of the poorest in the Yabucoa area, some families went without power for nearly 11 months. A few of Genesis’ friends moved to Florida, New York and the Dominican Republic with their families, part of a wave of 27,000 students who left the island in the months immediately after the storm.
The first schools reopened in Puerto Rico in late October, and in mid-November the children who hadn’t migrated returned to Marcos Sánchez. Although there were few students left at the school, families thought it would remain open because they lived miles away from other campuses.
And the school provided a sense of stability that many children no longer had at home. The Department of Education fed them two meals a day, a relief for parents whose financial situation had grown tougher since the storm.
Velázquez burned through his meager savings to pay for the $300 a month in gas needed to power a borrowed generator. He stretched the money he received in monthly public assistance “as if it were a rubber band.” But it still wasn’t enough. Velázquez eventually gave up his cellphone to feed the generator’s voracious appetite.
Then, in April, the Department of Education released a list of schools slated for closure over the summer. The consolidation plan had already been in the works before Maria, with more than 100 schools closed in 2017. But the plan was accelerated after thousands of families left the island post-hurricane.
Puerto Rico’s enormous debts, more than $70 billion, have required budget cuts that include $300 million from education. Secretary of Education Julia Keleher said that nearly half of the island’s 1,110 schools were less than 60 percent full after the storm and that closing schools made financial sense because it would allow the school district to invest more money in the remaining campuses. At the start of the 2018-19 school year, the education department distributed thousands of new textbooks, expanded its early childhood education program and gave principals a $5,000 raise — all investments made possible by the closures.
During an August interview at her office in San Juan, Keleher said she understood why school closures have caused so much anxiety. “There was a storm. There was loss of family, loss of life, loss of income for people who worked in industries that now aren’t there,” she said. “So you have that context, and then I close the school and I move you from where you are and now you’re not sure, now you’re working with new people.”
But Keleher said she felt it was important to move forward with plans to reform Puerto Rico’s school system, where students lag behind their peers on the mainland. Decisions about which schools to close were based on factors including the availability of transportation and how much the population had dropped in a given area, she said.
None of that government-level discussion, though, had reached the residents of Velázquez’s neighborhood. So when they found out that Marcos Sánchez was on the list, Velázquez said, it felt “as if a bucket of cold water had been poured on us.”
To Velázquez and his neighbors, the decision seemed arbitrary. Elsewhere on the island, schools with leaky roofs, boarded-up windows and mold growing on the walls had remained open. “When they did this they didn’t consider the town’s feelings and the damage they can really do to the community,” Velázquez said.
What hurt the most was that no one explained why the school had to close. Parents learned that Marcos Sánchez was on the list from social media posts and local news reports. They never got a letter from the Department of Education or a visit from a government official. Like so many things since the hurricane, it had just happened. No warning. No explanation. Like friends, family members, cellphone service, electricity — it was simply there one day and gone the next.
When the students heard about the closure, the sobs “could be heard almost everywhere” at the school, Genesis said. School officials brought in social workers and psychologists to talk to the kids.
“After this community waited so long for electricity, they tell them that the school is going to be closed,” said Gladys Vanessa Báez, a second-grade teacher at Marcos Sánchez. “Instead of giving them encouraging news, they gave them more devastating news.”
A spokesman for the Department of Education told the Miami Herald that the school was closed because enrollment had dropped to 92 students. The spokesman, Alexi Ramos, said that parents were told that the school might close in a meeting with the school director, but did not provide any details about when or where the meeting took place. Velázquez said he was not aware of any meeting with parents before the list of school closures was published.
Two weeks after Marcos Sánchez appeared on the list, dozens of parents and students held an evening vigil in front of the school. Dressed in white, they held candles and cellphone flashlights and lined up in the shape of a universally recognized symbol — a frowning face.
Twelve community members, including Velázquez and his 20-year-old nephew, formed a committee to organize the group’s efforts. For Velázquez, who had never been involved in activism, fighting to save the school became a full-time job. He organized protests, collected statements from parents about the negative impacts of losing the school, and attended weekly meetings and prayer sessions.
The protests were small, low-budget affairs. The committee collected $5 and $10 donations to buy food for the attendees and rent a truck with speakers so they could amplify their message. When the group went to San Juan, about an hour-and-a-half drive, the mayor’s office provided buses.
At one protest, on a rainy morning in early May, parents and children held umbrellas as they marched in a circle in front of the school. Báez and another teacher chanted a call and response into the microphones. “Fathers, mothers and teachers ...” one teacher said. “... In defense of what’s ours,” Báez answered.
Video of the protest shows Velázquez’s neighbor, Gómez, carrying a sign with a drawing of an airplane that reads “Julia Go Home,” a message for Keleher, who isn’t from Puerto Rico and was a Washington-based consultant before taking the island’s top education job. Genesis, dressed in a powder blue school uniform, marches in front of her father, who holds a poster with a message about the power of education.
That month, the parents joined other neighborhoods and the Association of Puerto Rican Teachers in filing a lawsuit challenging dozens of school closures. But the case was dismissed after a similar suit resulted in closures being affirmed by the Puerto Rican Supreme Court. The Yabucoa families are now taking the case to an appeals court.
The families also traveled to the Department of Education in San Juan in the hopes of meeting with Keleher. Instead, they sat down with one of her assistants. The families stressed that the other area schools were far from their neighborhood and that they already had several projects in the works at Marcos Sánchez, including plans to install solar panels on the roof and a program to help parents get a high school diploma.
The parents offered to take on chores at the school — clean the campus, organize student activities — to reduce costs. “We’re even willing to do community labor to give the school a fighting chance,” Velázquez told the Herald.
None of it worked. Marcos Sánchez remained on the list.
The first day
On the morning of Aug. 13, Genesis woke up at 4:45 a.m. and reluctantly put on a new school uniform for the first day of seventh grade: a bright blue polo shirt and black pants.
In the early morning light, her extended family piled into the battered Toyota Corolla they shared. A chorus of frogs and insects filled the air with a loud hum, broken only by crows from the neighbor’s rooster. Jafenier Velázquez, the 20-year-old nephew, got into the driver’s seat and turned on the windshield wipers to clear the morning condensation. Genesis sat in the back next to her grandmother, Jesusa Medina, who was headed to a doctor’s appointment.
As the family drove down the mountain toward Yabucoa, they passed small groups of children clustered together at cinder-block bus stops. They also passed Marcos Sánchez, which was now shuttered.
Genesis, normally talkative, sat quietly. She said she felt “a little weird but sad at the same time,” mostly because she wouldn’t get to see some of her friends at school anymore. As she’d prepared for school the night before, the power had gone out four times, a reminder, once again, of the hurricane’s force.
Jafenier dropped Genesis and her father at Rosa Costa Valdivieso Middle School at 6:45 a.m. — an hour and 15 minutes before the first bell. They sat on a low concrete wall in front of the entrance to wait.
There was still no school bus from the mountains to the new school, so the family had devised a complicated schedule for the car. Jafenier would drop Genesis and Velázquez at school before driving to his classes at a university an hour away. In the afternoon, he would pick up Genesis and Velázquez and take them home before heading to his job at Burger King. This meant Velázquez would have to wait outside the school all day.
Velázquez was used to waiting. When Genesis attended Marcos Sánchez, Velázquez spent much of his time at a rusting yellow bus stop across the street, ready if any teacher called him over to the school to clean a classroom or help organize an activity. He had already asked Genesis’ new homeroom teacher if he could volunteer, but it depended on transportation.
It also depended on whether he was allowed inside. Unlike at Marcos Sánchez, where the security guard was a local who let parents come and go as they pleased, access to Rosa Costa Valdivieso appeared to be more restricted. Parents had to wait outside unless there was an emergency or they had an appointment.
As Genesis and Velázquez waited outside the school, more children started to arrive. Rosa Costa Valdivieso hadn’t escaped the wrath of the storm — windows had shattered and doors had been ripped from hinges — but the damage was now repaired and the walls covered over with paint in soothing tones of pink, yellow and purple.
Genesis asked her father whether he thought the cafeteria was open.
“Are you going to eat breakfast?” Velázquez asked. Genesis gave him a shy smile and grabbed his hands, which were crossed over his stomach. She didn’t move from the wall.
“Are you scared?” Velázquez asked. Genesis shook her head, looking uncertain.
Velázquez smiled. “Yes,” he said.
But then Genesis’ face lit up. She leaped off the wall and ran toward a girl she’d spotted inside — a friend from Marcos Sánchez.
A few minutes later, the bell rang and a calmer Genesis kissed her dad on the cheek.
“Go to your classroom. Start walking upstairs,” Velázquez said. “I love you.”
Genesis disappeared into a crowd of students jostling toward the staircase.
Later that morning, Velázquez’s brother Juan called to ask how Genesis’ first day was going. Velázquez, still without a phone, had borrowed Genesis’ for the day.
“Genesis was a little sad, but then she ran into several of the people from up here and I feel like she settled in,” Velázquez told his brother.
The change hadn’t been as easy for him. “I feel like my heart is getting squeezed,” he said.