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On Mother's Day in Puerto Rico, hope to visit a mother's grave turns to anguish

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Mariano Torres Ramirez woke up early on Sunday. He got out of bed just after 5 a.m. and stepped into his garden to cut a little bunch of yellow marigolds -- a gift for his mother.

"I'm going to tell her I'm sorry it's been so long since I've seen her," Torres said.

It has been almost two years since the soft-spoken 82-year-old last visited his mother's grave in 2017, just a few weeks before Hurricane Maria sent a landslide rippling through the municipal cemetery in the town of Lares, Puerto Rico. It damaged nearly 1,800 tombs, uprooting caskets from their graves and sending some of them tumbling down a hillside. 


People leave flowers for their loved ones. The mayor of Lares, Roberto Pagan Centeno, said between 30 to 40 percent of the cemetery was opened for Mother's Day but the rest will remain closed until further notice. Erika P. Rodriguez for NPR

On Friday, Torres heard the town's mayor announce on the radio that finally, nearly 20 months after locking the gates because of the storm damage and the exposed graves, he'd gotten permission from the island's health department to reopen a part of the cemetery for Mother's Day. 

"Thank God!" Torres said to himself. When he arrived at the cemetery clutching his mother's marigolds, a crowd had already formed, an hour before it was set to open.


Mariano Torres Ramirez, 82, picked yellow marigolds from his garden to bring to his mother's grave. When he was unable to reach it, he left the flowers on a stranger's grave. Erika P. Rodriguez for NPR

Nearly two years after Hurricane Maria barreled through Puerto Rico, many of the wounds that the storm inflicted on the island persist. In Lares, a verdant mountain town where tradition and reverence for the dead run deep, the most enduring trauma has been the extended closure of the town's only cemetery. 

Protests have broken out. Residents desperate to visit the graves of their loved ones have paid daily visits to the mayor's office in the town square. The mayor, Roberto Pagan Centeno, has blamed health officials and the delayed arrival of federal funds he needs in order to make repairs and begin the grim task of exhuming roughly 5,000 cadavers from an unstable hillside and transporting them to a new cemetery under construction nearby.

   Before opening for Mother's Day, officials installed a plastic fence to keep people out the cemetery's most damaged areas. A landslide during Hurricane Maria destroyed nearly 1,800 tombs in the cemetery. Erika P. Rodriguez for NPR


And so when Pagan announced that access would be restored to undamaged sections of the cemetery on Mother's Day, Larenos rejoiced. Before Maria, it had always been one of the cemetery's busiest days.

But on Sunday morning, that elation turned into bitter disappointment for many of the people who arrived cradling flowers for their dead mothers, grandmothers and wives.

Shortly before 8 a.m., an assistant to the mayor reiterated a point the mayor had already made on the radio: that only a portion of the cemetery would be accessible, and that visitors should not cross a temporary plastic fence that had been put up by city workers.

William Gonzalez Rodriguez, 79, (left) cleans his wife's grave with his son, Orlando Gonzalez, 54, for the first time since the hurricane. The night before, Orlando had hopped the cemetery fence and poured bleach on the grave's marble cover to loosen the grime that had built up in the 20 months since the cemetery closed. Erika P. Rodriguez for NPR

As the gates swung open and people streamed into the cemetery, some began to shout, and others to cry as they realized the graves they had come to visit were still off limits.

Torres walked up to the barrier keeping him from his mother's grave and shook his head.

"It's down there," he said, pointing. "I'll see her someday." Then he placed his small bouquet of marigolds on a grave nearby and walked away.

    As the gates swung open and people streamed into the cemetery, some began to shout, and others to cry as they realized the graves they had come to visit were still off limits. Erika P. Rodriguez for NPR

Carmen Roman and her mother, Eligia Gonzalez, were less forgiving. They had arrived with flowers for Roman's grandmother -- Gonzalez's mother -- whose grave they'd visited three times a week before the hurricane.

"They shouldn't even have opened it," Roman said, before calling her siblings who were en route and telling them to turn back. Her mother was taking deep breaths beside her. "I feel deceived," said Roman. "Even God is crying. It's been almost two years, and we don't even know if the landslide damaged my grandmother's tomb."


Eligia Gonzalez, 84, (left) and her daughter, Carmen Roman, 54, brought flowers to the Lares Municipal Cemetery. Roman felt she had been deceived, after she realized her grandmother's grave was inaccessible. Erika P. Rodriguez for NPR

Pagan Centeno, the mayor, said that health officials had only allowed him to open about 35 percent of the cemetery. An additional section would be open once his staff could construct a more durable wooden fence to keep people out of the graveyard's most heavily damaged areas. That's because people's desperation to be close to their loved ones has led some to sneak in.

Orlando Gonzalez is one of them.

"Yes, I may have violated the rules," he admitted. "But I've done it humbly," he said, motivated by love for his dead mother. Gonzalez was among the few lucky ones on Sunday. His mother's grave was near the entrance, and so he was able to access it. 

    William Gonzalez Rodriguez, 79, (left) stands at his wife's grave along with his son Orlando Gonzalez, 54. They were among the visitors who actually gained access to their loved ones' graves on Sunday. Erika P. Rodriguez for NPR

Even so, the 54-year-old said he had hopped the fence on Saturday night and poured bleach all over the stone slab covering his mother's tomb and bearing her name: Amparo Ruiz Santiago.

"I did that to loosen the dirt that built up for two years," he said, as he scrubbed away. "I'm cleaning it very proudly, for my mother, a great mother."

  People look through the temporary fence keeping them away from damaged sections of the Lares Municipal Cemetery on Sunday. Erika P. Rodriguez for NPR

One row over, Bethsaida Roman was having a much more difficult time cleaning her mother's tomb. Still, she smiled as her scrubbing slowly revealed her mother's name that had been hidden behind a layer of grime. 

"She was a single mother and a worker and a fighter," she said. "She was a very noble woman."

Her mother's only vice, Roman said, was that she would sometimes cut flowers from people's gardens without their permission. She loved roses and gardenias.

   Bethsaida Roman stands next to her mother's grave after entering the cemetery for the first time since Hurricane Maria. "This is my Mother's Day gift," said Roman. She used to visit the grave at least twice a year and felt angst that so much time had gone by without being able to tend it. Erika P. Rodriguez for NPR


Pagan Centeno said there are still many months — and possibly years — worth of work to be done before what he called "the crisis" at his town's cemetery is resolved. He said the entire project — stabilizing the unstable ground, removing and transporting thousands of bodies to a new cemetery — will cost between $30 million and $50 million. The Federal Emergency Management Agency only recently approved the first $2.3 million to begin the work, he said.

His residents, he said, will have to be patient.

But many who arrived on Sunday said they had lost patience long ago.


Virgin Mary statue at the Lares Municipal Cemetery. The landslide caused by Hurricane Maria damaged nearly 1,800 tombs, uprooting caskets from their graves and sending some of them tumbling down a hillside. Erika P. Rodriguez for NPR


After realizing she wouldn't be able to reach her mother's tomb, Esther Perez stormed out of the cemetery shouting. 

"What has the mayor done all this time?! Nothing! He is worthless!" she said. "The whole world came out, and for what?! We can't even get in! Hurricane Maria was two years ago!"

As she left, she passed others who were just arriving, most carrying bouquets of flowers: a woman in a wheelchair, children arriving to visit their grandmothers and an old man in his Sunday best, supporting himself on a younger man's arm.   


Francisco Rosado brought flowers for his mother's grave. But unable to reach it, he dropped them over the fence keeping him and other visitors away from damaged areas of the Lares Municipal Cemetery. Erika P. Rodriguez for NPR

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