San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico. Four houses, separated by a narrow stretch of road, sit at a mountain ridge in San Lorenzo. In the early mornings, the houses are barely visible as layers of thick fog cover the countryside. When the sun dissolves the air moisture, the visitor is confronted with a rustic beauty one seldom finds anymore–waves of green cordilleras dotted with rows of flamboyan and an assortment of flowering trees. Nearby, a hummingbird darts to a purple blossom then hovers over as it pokes its needle-like bill inside.
Manuel Cruz Santana, the family patriarch, built the houses with his own hands and with the help of neighbors and friends willing to pitch in on free days. He explained that mutual labor exchange and cooperation played a part in the construction of the houses (i.e. this is still customary in this part of Puerto Rico). In the early years of his marriage, Manuel used to work for the electric company. He decided to quit this job because he realized that the best way to own a house is to know how to make one. He then switched careers and learned carpentry skills by working with construction companies.
From scratch, Manuel built a beautiful matrimonial house for his wife Aida and his two daughters, Jackie and Yeya. Later as his hijas settled down, Manuel took his carpentry tools out of the box again and set out to build their houses too. The setting reminds me of a Latin American movie set–the flat roofs, cement painted over with white (or yellow) on the outside and gray (or blue, bright yellow, or milky brown) on the inside, an old painting hung on the wall, and the windows covered with twisted wrought iron. And, of course, the hypnotic smell of brewed coffee interspersed with the whiff of sofrito settled in the air. The houses afterall are surrounded by gardens of herbs, spices, and fruit trees.
Further down, by the valley, is a secondary forest partially sustained by a sliver of a brook. This cascading water, and the faint grass-covered path beside it, threads through the forest and down to a bigger river. It was in this river that the two daughters of Manuel and Aida bathed and played since they were kids. With the sand between their toes, their daughters hopped from one rock to another in search of much deeper waters to wade in, usually beneath a foot high of a water drop. In these little still ponds, we too stretched out and cooled after the 30-minute walk.
The rushing river also has other treasures. Tumbling with the water are gold grains mixed with the brown crystalline sand. Scooping the sand with one palm and the other searching through, the gold comes like dark metal dots. When pinched, the grain crumbles like paint revealing the distinct yellow shine inside. Yet for the Cruz family, the river and its environs are worth more than the gold it may potentially have. For in this wide swathe of land, Manuel and Aida have given their daughters and visitors a lesson on how to live and stay golden.
And for this, we say thank you. Hasta la proxima.
Gabi and the Water