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On turkey day in Puerto Rico, last-minute prep and a longing for home

By Coco McCabe
“I’m the guy who says what happened happened. The past is past. We’ve got to go forward even though we had a bad time,” said Nestor Alonso.

‘We don’t lose the battle easily,’ said one resident determined to look forward—not back.

 

It was 8 a.m. on Thursday—Thanksgiving—and the parking lot at the SuperMax supermarket in downtown San Juan was already so jammed, cars were cruising in circles waiting for an open spot. It was stop and go at the store entrance, too, as shoppers with carts dodged for advantage. Inside, long lines formed behind every cash register.

On this day of great feasting, it seemed like a lot of people had left a lot of prep to the very last minute. But no wonder: without reliable electricity, who could plan much of anything? More than two months after Hurricane Maria wiped out the island’s electrical grid, half of Puerto Rico still remains without power, making even the most mundane chores —like cooking—constantly monumental. Toss in a turkey and you’ve got trouble—unless you’re one of the lucky ones and have scored a generator, like Nestor Alonso, 63.

“It’s beautiful music,” he said with a sigh as strains of “Ameno” danced about his bike from a player attached to the handle bars. He had peddled to the market, avoiding the mob scene in the lot, to scoop up the last few things he needed for his Thanksgiving feast. And yes, he had a turkey roasting at home in the oven.

“I’ve been using my generator for 63 days now,” Alonso said. Thursday, it was working overtime: his bird—big enough to feed his siblings and seven or so others—had been cooking since 5 a.m.

“The important thing on the island is we have a great spirit. We don’t lose the battle easily,” he said. “You can’t be waiting for something to happen. You’ve got to make it happen.” That’s why, despite all the challenges of the last two months, he has been riding his bike every single day to be ready for a 56.8-mile December race. After all, he’s got a reputation to uphold: He’s the island champ in the master’s division.

“The island’s going to rise up,” he said. “We’ve been through this many years back. We came back. That’s what we’re doing now.”

Down on Loiza Street, Axel Alejandro was making his way along the sidewalk, sun screen slapped hastily on his face, a surfboard tucked under his arm. Despite warnings that the water might not be safe because of untreated wastes washing in after the storm, he was headed to catch a few waves before sitting down to a family feast with his wife’s parents. Turkey was on the menu—but this year it wasn’t going to be a home-cooked one. With no electricity until just five days ago, his in-laws had made plans to buy their bird, roasted and ready to eat, from a bakery.

That was a strategy countless people turned to in the face of so much unpredictability. At the Plaza bakery high in the hills of Adjuntas, turkeys wrapped in tinfoil and nestled in disposable pans streamed steadily out the door in the arms of customers who had come to retrieve them just before noon.

For $55, you could get a fully cooked turkey with all the fixings. Half turkeys, with the works, went for $28. For those who brought in their own uncooked birds, the Plaza charged $1 a pound for oven time. All told, the bakery cranked out more than 120 roasted turkeys, which meant that the staffers started loading the ovens at 1 a.m. 

Jennifer Torres and Sharon Rivera worked through the day—handing out cooked turkeys—at the Plaza bakery in Adjuntas.

Since the storm, everything has been more difficult, said bakery worker Jennifer Torres, who, at about 3:30 p.m., had yet to find time to eat the Thanksgiving meal family members brought her.

“Since there’s no electricity in Adjuntas, work here has tripled,” she said. But that didn’t seem to faze her, not for a second. 

“I’m going 200 percent—and ready for more,” she said with a smile.

But up a steep, twisting road at the Jose Emilio Lugo school, Josefina Aponte Rivera, 71, had had enough. 

“This year’s Thanksgiving has been the worst I’ve ever had,” said Rivera.

She has been sheltering at the school since the storm and longed to go home, but FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, had yet to provide a tarp to cover the gaping hole in the roof of her house. So, for now, she’s sleeping on a hard cot in a dark classroom she shares with two other displaced elderly people.

Josefina Aponte Rivera has been sleeping on a cot at a local school in Adjuntas since the storm made her house uninhabitable.

For Rivera, there was no turkey on Thursday, and not much to celebrate, either, except for a visit from her two grown sons. But for that, she was grateful, especially as one of them returned a bag of freshly laundered clothes. By 3 p.m., she was beginning to think about wrapping up her day: Her plan was to take her medicine, let the drowsiness come on, and be in bed by 6:30 p.m. 

In the dark, what else was there to do but dream of home? 

It’s what most Puerto Ricans long for: Their Caribbean island, restored, with the lights back on.


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