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.
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.
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 Pagán 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.
And so when Pagán announced that access would be restored to undamaged sections of the cemetery on Mother's Day, Lareños 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.
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.
Carmen Román and her mother, Eligia González, were less forgiving. They had arrived with flowers for Román's grandmother — González's mother — whose grave they'd visited three times a week before the hurricane.
"They shouldn't even have opened it," Román 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 Román. "Even God is crying. It's been almost two years, and we don't even know if the landslide damaged my grandmother's tomb."
Pagán 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 González 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. González was among the few lucky ones on Sunday. His mother's grave was near the entrance, and so he was able to access it.
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."
One row over, Bethsaida Román 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, Román said, was that she would sometimes cut flowers from people's gardens without their permission. She loved roses and gardenias.
Pagán 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.
After realizing she wouldn't be able to reach her mother's tomb, Esther Pérez 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.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The hurricane that wrecked so many lives in Puerto Rico also disrupted efforts to honor the dead. NPR first reported last December on a cemetery that was still closed. The storm caused a landslide that affected nearly 1,800 graves in the mountain town of Lares. Yesterday, some - but not all - residents got a chance to return to that cemetery. NPR's Adrian Florido reports that it came on a poignant day.
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: The occasion was Mother's Day. And yesterday, a little before 8 a.m., the city official stood before the gates and reminded the crowd that only a part of the cemetery was reopening.
UNIDENTIFIED LARES CITY OFFICIAL: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: He said, "the rest was blocked off by a plastic fence. Please don't cross it."
(SOUNDBITE OF GATE OPENING)
UNIDENTIFIED LARES CITY OFFICIAL: (Speaking Spanish). OK?
FLORIDO: The crowd streamed in, and Orlando Gonzalez got to work scrubbing the filth off the marble slab covering his mother's tomb and engraved with her name. And he said he had a confession.
ORLANDO GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "I broke the rules last night," he said. At 9:30, he'd hopped the cemetery fence and poured bleach all over the marble slab to loosen almost two years' worth of grime.
GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: Now he was scrubbing it off proudly, he said, for his mother.
But people like Gonzalez, who actually got to see their mothers' tombs, were few yesterday. Many more were like Esther Perez, frustrated or disappointed or furious because, upon entering the cemetery, they realized their mothers' graves remain off-limits.
ESTHER PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "The mayor went on TV and everything and said it would be ready for Mother's Day," Perez said. "What's ready? A third - not even a third of the cemetery. This mayor is worthless," she said. The mayor, Roberto Pagan Centeno, stood nearby.
ROBERTO PAGAN CENTENO: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "We came to an agreement with the health department," the mayor said, "because they are the ones who say how much access we can give. We can't break the law."
The crisis at the cemetery, he said, is the biggest he's faced during his 15 years in office. The mayor says every day, desperate residents show up at city hall and demand to know when the cemetery will open. This is a town where tradition and reverence for the dead run deep, he said. Carmen Roman said the 20 months since the storm had been a nightmare. Before the storm, she and her mother, Eligia Gonzalez, would visit her grandmother's grave not just on Mother's Day.
CARMEN ROMAN: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: They also came several times a week to clean her tomb, she said. They haven't been able to do that at all. On Sunday, mother and daughter arrived at the cemetery with flowers in hand, only to learn the grave was in the part of the cemetery that remained closed.
ROMAN: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "We feel really hurt by this," Roman said. "God is shedding tears." The mayor, Roberto Pagan Centeno, said it'll be a long time before this town's ordeal is over. The plan is to exhume about 5,000 cadavers from the damaged section and move them to a new cemetery he is building nearby. Two weeks ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved $2.3 million to begin the work. But the entire project, the mayor said, will cost 30 to 50 million, and it could take years to complete.
Adrian Florido, NPR News, Lares, Puerto Rico.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "RMS 2000") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.