Many visitors and even some guidebooks talk about the wild horses of Vieques. In fact, these horses are not wild. They all have owners. Well, sort of.
The way it was explained to me was that if a horse upsets your garden or damages your car, that horse may very well not have an owner. On the other hand, if instead you were to take that same horse home, you can bet that its rightful owners would show up at your door demanding that you give them back their horse.
A Horse Story
A longtime resident of Vieques told me an interesting anecdote about horses and their owners.
Once upon a time, when the Marines were in Vieques, they decided that the horses grazing the fields inside the Camp Garcia gate were trespassing on government land.
The horses were rounded up, arrested, so to speak, and then put in a corral to be used for the horseback riding pleasure of the Marine brass.
One day, during a visit by the British Marines to Camp Garcia, a British Sergeant Major, passing by the corral, asked an American Sergeant Major about the horses in the camp. It was soon discovered that they both loved riding and the American Sergeant Major invited the British Sergeant Major out for a ride.
Late that afternoon the two Sergeant Majors saddled up two of the finest horses in the camp and rode out towards Esperanza. When they passed the Don Q Bar on the way into town, the two Sergeant Majors developed a keen thirst and decided to go into the bar for a few drinks.
The two officers tied up the horses to a tree and walked into the bar where they sat down and very knowledgeably discussed horses, horsemanship and their favorite places to ride.
The American Sergeant Major described to the British Sergeant Major every detail of the trail that the two men would take as soon as they had satiated their thirst. This being accomplished, they got off of their barstools and walked out onto the street.
When the two Sergeant Majors looked over at the tree where they had left the horses tied, they saw a pair of fancy saddles, a pair of bridles, and a pair of saddle blankets, in effect, all their riding paraphernalia, but there were no horses. The owner of the horses had recognized them and had taken them back.
There was too much gear to walk back to the camp. So they sat down at the bar and tossed down a series of stiff drinks, while they waited for transportation to take them and their equipment back to the base.
Building the Great Seawall
In the late 1930s, the threat of war in Europe loomed over the United States of America. Military interests focused on Puerto Rico as a mainstay in the defense of the Caribbean and especially of the Panama Canal.
The plan was to construct a seawall that would extend from Vieques to the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in Ceiba on the Big Island and to create a naval facility in the Atlantic surpassing even the Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawaii.
The base was to be fully equipped and large enough to contain most of the US Atlantic Fleet as well as the entire British Fleet, if and when Great Britain fell to the Germans.
When the Navy arrived to begin this massive project, Vieques was in serious trouble economically. The decline of the sugar industry in conjunction with food shortages caused by the war created a condition of massive poverty and rampant unemployment. Thus, despite the social, economic and emotional devastation of the expropriation and the forced relocation of the people living on these lands, the promise of employment on the Navy project left the Viequenses with some hope.
In fact, the Navy hired 1,700 Viequenses along with 1,000 laborers from the Big Island to build the giant sea wall and to construct concrete weapons storage warehouses called magazines, which were to be cut into the hills of western Vieques and camouflaged by a covering of grasslands.
The workers were paid $2.25 per day. Laborers, working three shifts a day, dug out a mountain and used the dirt and rocks to fill in the sea.
“They worked 24 hours a day. There was no rest. There were no objections to allowing this flow of North American money. This money, for the most part was collected by contractors from the United States and San Juan. Employees came every week from different sections of Puerto Rico.
But a good part of the profits remained in Vieques.
“For two years the town swam in gold. Rents went up three to four times that which was normally paid.
“People bought fine clothing and treated it without due consideration. Alcoholic beverages were consumed without measure.
“There were those who would wash their floors with beer and those who would buy a $35 dollar suit on Saturday and wear it on Monday to mix concrete and it would be ruined after two hours. ‘The Base is here, and it will bring more,’ they would say.” (Translated from Vieques Antiguo y Moderno by J. Pastor Ruiz)
The project was stopped in midstream due to two historical events. The German Army had become bogged down in Russia and the tide of the war appeared to have changed in favor of the Allies, while the attack on Pearl Harbor challenged the military wisdom of concentrating an entire fleet in one area.
In 1943, the construction of the pier, which was at that time about one mile long, was discontinued. The Viequenses were left worse off than ever. With the massive land expropriations, there was no more sugar industry at all and the ability of the people to at least continue subsistence activities such as having small gardens, raising animals, hunting crabs, fishing, charcoal making and the gathering of coconuts and wild fruits was severely curtailed.
“This boom of ready cash never compensated for many of the setbacks caused by the naval base. The richest and most fertile lands were expropriated by the Navy. The neighborhoods of Tapón, Mosquito and La Llave all disappeared. All the neighbors and small landowners left to the new neighborhoods of Moscú and Montesanto. Families that had their little house, cows, a horse and some farmland went on to have nothing more than a makeshift shack, a fistful of coins and the night and the day.
“Those that had a garden plot and who lived happily as tenants surrounded by farmlands and fruit trees now live crowded together lacking even air with which to breathe.”
Translated from Vieques Antiguo y Moderno by J. Pastor Ruiz, 1947
In 2000, the Mosquito Pier was included in the 4,000 acre transfer of land from the US Navy to the Municipality of Vieques.
The chapel became the spiritual center of the movement. Priests gave mass there, holy water was sprinkled on bomb craters and unexploded ordnance in the target zone. The Archbishop of San Juan, Roberto Gonzalez gave a sermon at the chapel about civil disobedience. The Bishop of Caguas, Puerto Rico, Monsignor Alvaro Corrada del Rio, brought a statue of the Virgin del Carmen, the patron saint of fishermen and blessed it.
The chapel was damaged by Hurricane Lenny, but was rebuilt as soon as the storm had passed.
On May 4, 2000, the day when all those present at the camps were arrested and removed from the bombing range, the chapel was occupied by nuns and religious leaders who were inside praying. Heavily armed agents of the Navy, the FBI, Federal Marshals and the Puerto Rico Police Department, many wearing helmets with plastic shields or gas masks and jackboots and bulletproof vests, stormed the church, handcuffed the priests and nuns and threw them into military vehicles. The chapel was torn down by navy bulldozers.
The chapel bell, however, was preserved.
In 2002, with the support of the government in Puerto Rico, a replica of the chapel was reconstructed on the hillside directly across the street from the Capitol building in San Juan. The original church bell was recovered and placed in the new chapel.
The chapel became the scene of confrontations between pro navy supporters and those who wanted the navy to leave Vieques as well as between statehood advocates and separatists.
In 2003, the governor of Puerto Rico decided to send the chapel back to Vieques where it was to be relocated across the road from the Camp Garcia gate and serve as part of the transfer ceremonies on May 1, when the navy was to leave Vieques.
Unfortunately, Big Island officials did not include Viequenses in the church relocation plan, which resulted in logistical complications. The Ecumenical Chapel arrived at Isabel Segunda on a barge leased by the Puerto Rican government.
Meanwhile, as anyone who has spent time in Vieques could tell you, it is impossible to move something as wide as the chapel through the narrow streets of the town. This problem soon became apparent to those in charge of the relocation who now realized that the chapel would have to leave Isabel Segunda by sea and be offloaded somewhere else on the island. (A better alternative, for example, might have been Playa Caracas inside the camp)
But it was too late. The government leased barge was long gone.
Many times things on Caribbean Islands move at a slower pace than they do elsewhere. A slower pace can also be expected for government related activities, not only in the Caribbean, but just about anywhere in the world. Such was the case with the chapel relocation.
A second barge was eventually sent from the Big Island to Vieques. The barge turned out to be too small to safely carry the chapel, so back it went to the Big Island.
By the time a third, and this time more suitable barge arrived in Vieques, it was too late to follow the original plan of locating it across from the camp gate. Alternatively, the Ecumenical Chapel was taken to the Rompeolas, offloaded, and trucked to the former Navy lands on western Vieques, where it stands today, overlooking the beautiful Vieques Sound, a symbol of peace standing on a site where war was once the order of the day.
The following true story is an excerpt from our book, “Vieques, A Photographically Illustrated Guide to the Island, Its History and Its Culture,” by Gerald Singer
As far as I know, this is the only written documentation of this wonderful story in existence.
The story was obtained by interviews with Maria Velásquez, the wife of Carmelo Felix and Charlie Connelly and Myrna Pagán, the editors of the “Vieques Times.”
The Bees of Monte Carmelo
During the 1940s and 1950s, the US Navy expropriated three quarters of the privately held lands on Vieques. They fenced off this land and used it for an ammunition dump on the west side of the island and for a bombing range on the east. In addition, they claimed ownership to large tracts of land adjacent to these fences that were unused and unmarked. The exact limits and boundaries of these parcels, which the Navy called buffer zones, were ambiguous.
People living in crowded resettlement camps began to build homes, unopposed by the Navy or anyone else, on these spacious empty fields. Such was the case of a tract of land today known as Monte Carmelo.
Carmelo Felix, his wife Maria Velásquez and their family decided to build a home on top of a hill just to the west of the Navy range.
They cut a mile-long rugged road up the steep hill, brought in construction materials as best they could and made do without normal government supplied facilities such as water or electricity. They raised their family, planted trees and a garden, kept animals and cultivated honeybees.
There the family lived for several years undisturbed, until one day four Federal Marshals arrived from San Juan. They had come to Vieques to evict the Carmelos, claiming that they were trespassing on what was claimed to be Navy land.
Now in San Juan an eviction goes like this: The Marshals arrive, serve the evictees with papers from the court, and if they don’t leave on their own accord, the Marshals will remove all their personal effects from the residence and deposit them at the nearest public area, usually the street in front of the house. The residents will then be forced from the premises and they will have to scramble to take care of their belongings.
But the Marshals found a different situation when they came to the home of Carmelo and Maria.
The family refused to move out of their home, claiming that the Navy had no right to the land, hadn’t identified it and that there were no signs, fences or other indications that the land upon which their humble house sat belonged to the United States Navy.
As was mentioned before, the Felix home was at the end of a very rough mile-long dirt road beginning at the public highway below. The Navy was claiming that all land east of the highway was theirs, so that would make the nearest public area some distance from the house. It would be impossible for the four Marshals, without a proper vehicle, to effect the eviction in the usual way, that is, they couldn’t carry all the stuff on foot, down the hill by themselves.
So the Marshals served the papers, got into their vehicle and went down the road to the Navy headquarters to explain the situation.
Meanwhile, the community at large became aware of the Felix family’s problem and friends, family and supporters began to arrive at the Felix home by the carload.
Back at Navy headquarters, Navy brass recruited a group of five enlisted men, who apparently were in the middle of a basketball game, to help the Marshals with the eviction. They also put at the disposal of the Marshals a flatbed truck with side panels and a smaller panel truck. In addition, telephone calls were made to Roosevelt Roads Navy Base in Ceiba, to the US Marshals’ headquarters in San Juan and to the Vieques Police Department.
When all the pieces were in place, the four original federal Marshals, armed and in uniform, joined by a higher up from the Marshals’ Office and the Judge Advocate General (JAG) from Roosevelt Roads in San Juan both wearing suits and ties and the five unarmed enlisted men wearing their basketball shorts and T-shirts, made their way up to the top of Monte Carmelo with the two vehicles.
They were jeered by the crowd that had gathered and was continuing to gather around the Felix home.
The Vieques Police Department, to their great relief, citing lack of jurisdiction on what was now said to be federal property, refused to participate in the eviction.
The Marshals came to the door once again, read their papers demanding that the Felixes leave the premises, and upon receiving a negative response from Carmelo, entered the home. Inside were four generations of the Felix family, from great grandmothers to kids to babes in arms.
The Marshals and Navy men started loading up the family’s belongings bringing them to the truck parked outside, where they were booed and insulted by the crowd. After the heavy stuff like the furniture that Maria had just bought and hadn’t paid for yet was loaded, the Navy team loaded smaller items onto bed sheets and carried them to the truck all the while trying to ignore the tears of the women and children and the consternation of the grandparents and the family.
The panel truck could be seen filling up with chairs and tables, baby cribs and beds, lamps and kitchen stuff, Bibles, books and the new set of encyclopedias that Maria had also just bought and hadn’t yet paid for.
At some point, someone, no one knows who or at least no one is telling, possibly one of the children, brought two boxes of bees into the house. A box of bees contains one total beehive with approximately 35,000 bees. The boxes are meant to be handled gently so as not to upset the bees.
Through signals, through communications in Spanish, a language that the Marshals did not readily understand and through just a general cultural knowledge of bees and boxes of bees, the Viequenses quietly and without a fuss left the house and went outdoors.
One of the Navy enlisted men in his shorts and T-shirt hefted up one of the boxes and threw it to the next man in line who passed it to the third man. Then the second box was picked up and unceremoniously thrown. The bees did not react for the first 30 or so seconds, but then they did. Seventy thousand angry bees swarmed the Navy men who ran for the door and the road swatting at the bees that were stinging them as they ran. The Viequenses remained calm and stayed still knowing that bees rarely sting you if you remain motionless.
At this juncture, the Chief Marshal in the suit decided it was time to call it a day and bring the trucks and the accumulated stuff down the hill. The flatbed was parked nose to nose with the panel truck and needed to be backed up before being able to access the driveway. As he ordered his men to get into the truck and take it away, Carmelo jumped under the rear wheels of the truck and started screaming that they would have to run him over and kill him before he would allow them to drive away carrying his family’s belongings.
In the midst of all this confusion, jeering crowds, swarming bees chasing Navy sailors, and Carmelo screaming like a madman, someone noticed that smoke was coming out of the panel truck. It was on fire. (How the fire started or who started it is not known. A video tape taken by one of the bystanders, however, shows one of the men in suits lighting a cigarette and then entering the panel truck just minutes before the fire started.)
Carmelo came out from under the wheels and shouted to the Marshals to move the flatbed away from the panel truck before it too caught fire. “No one touches that truck,” was the response and within minutes it too went up in a blaze of fire and smoke that could be seen from almost all over the island.
More people came to see what was happening. The Navy officer radioed for help and soon a Navy SWAT team armed with automatic weapons came up to Monte Carmelo to escort the Marshals and Navy men back to the base.
The Marshals declared the eviction to be completed and order restored.
The Felixes returned to their home, and with the help of friends, family and neighbors they were able to get back on their feet. Carmelo and Maria, their kids and their grandkids live to this day, where the huge Puerto Rican flag flies, on the summit of what is now called Monte Carmelo.
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