Lares: Exodus From a Historic Puerto Rican Town, With No End in Sight


A report by Frances Robles for the New York Times.

This picturesque mountain town, renowned for its rich coffee, peculiar ice cream and a historic, if short-lived, rebellion, now has a far less welcome distinction.

On an island where about 400,000 people have moved away since the 2000 census, Lares lost the highest percentage of its residents — almost a quarter of its population since the census. The downtown plaza that marks the route that rebels took in 1868 to wrestle free from Spain’s colonial grasp is now surrounded by abandoned storefronts. Handwritten signs offering battered buildings for rent or sale have become the hallmark of a city struggling to keep pace with a continuing exodus.

Even Heladeria Lares, the celebrated ice cream parlor where tourists and locals alike once lined up to savor frozen treats with eccentric flavors like rice and pigeon peas, garlic and codfish, has suffered a drop of 30 percent in business this year, as an increasing number of the town’s 26,000 residents face foreclosure on their homes, cannot find jobs and take off for the mainland United States.

“It’s nurses, teachers, doctors, firefighters. The dentist left,” said Elvin Cuevas, who manages the Lares Department Store, which offers furniture and jewelry, but does not sell much of either. “The two police officers who for years guarded that corner right there are in Texas. One day, they were gone.”

Lares’s decline, following the long descent of its agricultural economy, could be a harbinger for Puerto Rico as it braces for the reverberations of its economic morass. A few thousand Puerto Rican teachers could be losing their jobs this fall when the government closes 167 schools, four of them in Lares. Pensioners are bracing for pay cuts, while the sales tax has risen to 11.5 percent. Businesses are struggling to keep their doors open.

Puerto Rico is in the midst of a financial collapse with no end in sight. The government is unable to pay $123 billion in debt and pension obligations and recently declared a form of bankruptcy. Island affairs that were being controlled by a fiscal board in New York are now in the hands of a bankruptcy judge there. The largest government default in United States history came after a decade-long economic downturn that left Lares with a 22.7 percent unemployment rate.

Puerto Rico was once the sixth-largest producer of coffee in the world; Lares’s beans were so special that they were directed to the Vatican. But a long period of economic decay shuttered farms, making Lares one of the island’s poorest municipalities. The government cut things like fertilizer subsidies; crop yields dropped, too.

There were fewer than 700 farms in Lares in 2012, down from 1,209 a decade earlier, Department of Agriculture figures show. The average wage in Lares is just $323 a week, according to the Bureau of Labor. A couple of years ago, Lares had one of the lowest median incomes on the island: $11,353.

“The people who leave come back and tell everyone how hard it is in Orlando, that you can’t survive there without three jobs,” Mr. Cuevas said. “The difference is that over there you find the three jobs. Here, you find zero job.”

In Lares, a central western town about an hour and a half from San Juan, the population declined 13.4 percent over the past six years, according to United States census figures. (In absolute numbers, Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, has lost the most people, nearly 50,000.)

People have always left Puerto Rico. Elite landowners left in the 1940s. Farm workers showed up in New York City in droves in the 1950s, and others took part in migrant worker programs in the ’70s. But back then, a steady flow of people moved in both directions. Since then, both manufacturing and agriculture have declined precipitously, decimating places like Lares.

“It’s ironic that Lares, the cradle of Puerto Rican independence, the symbol of national identity, is No. 1 in losing population,” said Jorge Duany, a professor who has studied Puerto Rican migration. “Who is staying behind? The youngest and the oldest.”

Mr. Duany left, too. While working as a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, he struggled to pay his bills, though his salary was much higher than that of most Puerto Ricans. He now works at Florida International University in Miami. “I frankly don’t know how people are surviving,” he said.

Alfredo González Ruiz, a retired history teacher in Lares, said statistics showed that 83,000 Puerto Ricans left the island last year — 1,000 of them from Lares.

“A lot left,” he said. “Very few came back.”

As he went through the centuries of government policies, many directed in recent decades by Washington, that drove out Puerto Rico’s population, Mr. González ran into a cousin, Jan M. Ruiz Núñez, 19, who was off from school because of a two-month student strike at the public university.

“To be in Lares is to be in nothing,” the young man said. “If I find an opportunity, I’m going.”

The town’s mayor, Roberto Pagán Centeno, said he thought the dire figures of population loss were exaggerated. Census takers must have come counting during the times of the year when seasonal work is idle, and people temporarily leave to “try their luck” in Florida, he said. Unemployment rates are so high, he said, because a lot of people work off the books so they can cheat and qualify for welfare.

But even Mr. Pagán, a three-term mayor, lamented the drop in school enrollment and attendance at sporting events and church.“Those are all the ways you can tell people are gone,” Mr. Pagán said. “Around 2008, 2009, you started to notice the difference.”

Nowhere is the drop more noticeable than in the town square. When banks and government services offices pulled out, nobody had reason to go there. Shops started to close one by one.

“We stay open in the afternoon to clean up and sell coffee, but we could just as well close at 1 p.m.,” said Edgar Martinez, who owns a cafeteria that faces the plaza near the mayor’s office. “After 1 p.m., we sell nothing here.”

Luz Pérez, 74, spent a recent afternoon working at her sister’s souvenir shop. Not a single customer came by. She reminisced about the childhood she spent in a town busy with commerce.

“Knock on any door in this neighborhood and ask how many people live there,” she said. “Then ask how many people used to live there.”

Edwin Soto, the head of the coffee growers’ association, said it had become increasingly difficult to hold on to employees. For one, most people do not wish to earn the $5.25 minimum wage offered in the fields.

“A lot of my employees have left,” Mr. Soto said, noting that even his major-domo, who earned $9 an hour with free housing, quit to try landscaping in Florida.

Still, he doesn’t feel all is lost.

Mr. Soto’s Cafe Lealtad is one of several chic coffee shops perched on mountaintops, where the owners envision streams of visitors eager to leave beachside tourist traps for a day of serenity. His family is pouring millions into a mountainside resort.

Another local businessman, José Rodríguez, is also betting on that future. He opened Heladeria El Grito, an ice-cream parlor right beside Heladeria Lares, the famous one that former President Bill Clinton once visited, and plans to rent eight beds on the floors above it on Airbnb.

“People say I’m crazy,” Mr. Rodríguez said. “If it doesn’t work out, I’ll just move into the house myself. You have to have hope.”

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