The latest installment from FRANKY BENÍTEZ: A Story of Love, Pain, and Hope from San Juan to Boston:
The torrent of clouds raced over the rays of the Caribbean sun, blackening the colonial port of San Juan within seconds. Holding his only possessions in a leather satchel made by a fat Moroccan from Seville, Octavio Antonio Benítez Aragón, the great-grandfather of Franky Benítez, sprinted past africano porters dragging steamer trunks in the Puerto Rican mud and Spanish nobles opening black umbrellas to find cover from the impending downpour.
Octavio Antonio, seventeen years old, his dark curly hair dangling over his green eyes and olive skin, opened the wooden door of a café at the very moment thousands of tropical rain drops splattered onto the port.
He looked around. The café’s scents of crusty bread and espresso steam held the criollo merchants heading back home from Spain to the island, new arrivals with labor papers in hand, two sugar speculators from New Orleans, three crying babies with their mothers, and two priests reading from a Bible and crossing themselves every time they whispered Jesus from their lips.
“What would you like, young man?” Octavio Antonio heard the voice of an elderly man from behind the café’s glass display of guava pastries, caramel flan, and cheese turnovers.
“Nothing, sir. Just trying to get out of the rain,” Octavio Antonio said as he took his handkerchief from the breast pocket of his only ditto suit, whose sack coat was starting to wear from the long voyage across the Atlantic, and wiped the sweat beads from his brow,
“If you are not buying anything, please leave my café,” the man said.
Octavio Antonio nodded. “Yes, sir.”
He walked back out onto the cobblestone streets of the capital city, the rain soaking his clothes and drenching his boater, which he bought in Huelva the day before his trip with the last reales his father Don Antonio Octavio had given him. The city, if he could call it that, had narrow, winding roads that made walking slippery in the middle of a downpour. Octavio Antonio, not knowing where he was, kept walking, and at times stopped for cover under the bottom of a pastel-colored balcony that formed part of the city’s colonial structures modeled after the houses of Andalusia.
After thirty minutes, the drops vanished from the sky and the sun crept through the remaining clouds, imparting a late afternoon light onto the soaked city. Octavio Antonio noticed he was not far from the city’s central plaza, the Plaza de Armas on San José Street. His meeting place. He took out his handkerchief to dry his eyes and cheeks, as he strolled to the plaza’s main area. Before he reached the plaza’s pigeon-filled fountain, a voice shouted behind him.
“The American ship exploded in Havana! U.S.S Maine destroyed! Read all about it in this afternoon’s edition! El Mundo has the story! American ship exploded! Hundreds dead!”
It was a boy with skin as dark as molasses. He wore no shoes, yet he was able to hold a stack of newspapers under his left arm as he shouted the headlines from the afternoon edition. Octavio Antonio watched as the boy started to run past him and heard towards the plaza. Soon, the island’s merchants would saunter out before their late afternoon coffees with steamed milk and buy a newspaper from the boy.
Octavio Antonio knew this voyage had its risks, but when he had received the letter from his uncle Rogelio six months before to help with Benítez & González Sugar & Rum Company, S.A., all Octavio Antonio could think of was how quickly could he escape his town of Lora del Río in southern Spain and book a steamer ticket from Cádiz to San Juan. His father urged his son to stay, but Octavio Antonio had adventure in his soul. Among the olive trees and frisky bulls that others in his town raised and trained, Octavio Antonio would spend days dreaming about his fortune, his destiny, his freedom. His father was born to cultivate olives. Octavio Antonio was born to lead men, like the Moors who had owned his land centuries ago.
So, convinced that Puerto Rico was his future and ambition, he wrote back to his uncle Rogelio to inform him that he would indeed go to Puerto Rico once he had enough money for the voyage. Octavio Antonio then worked any task he could muster from his fellow neighbors, picking olives until dusk and cleaning stables until dawn. By November of 1897, Octavio Antonio had enough money to purchase his one-way ticket. He celebrated his last Christmas in Spain drinking sherry and confessing his sins.
In late January, just a few weeks before his departure from Cádiz, Octavio Antonio received a letter from his uncle that only confirmed his decision:
15 December 1897 A.D., Juncos, Puerto Rico
To my dearest nephew:
May the Lord grant you blessings, prosperity, and happiness in the blessed new year of our Christ. My joy of your potential arrival was recently overshadow by a even more momentous occurrence: several of my fellow partners have heard through their contacts in Madrid that the Spaniards have granted this island of Puerto Rico autonomous rule! Puerto Ricans will now be able to govern themselves and begin to free their chains from their Spanish brothers. There is talk that a government will be formed on the island before the summer solstice of 1898.
This is indeed wondrous news, since it will allow Benítez & González Sugar & Rum Company, S.A. the opportunity to export its rum without the impositions of the Spanish government. The years of struggle for our independence and freedom have begun to dissipate. When you arrive to this beloved island, it will be active with anticipation. I cannot think of a better place for an industrious young man to earn his fortune. I long to be your age again and not the old man that I am, the one who had first through that the original scream for revolution in Lares over twenty years ago was mere childish folly. Yet when I did finally decide to emigrate to this lush, green island, I discovered quickly that Puerto Rico could become the commercial pearl of the Caribbean and eventually all of Latin American. Like Rodó’s Ariel, it would swirl into a world of profits. And when I began to read the accounts of Betances and others who had committed to a free Puerto Rico, my heart became more attached to my new home each and every day.
Can you imagine it, my nephew? This former Royalist and lover of the Crown joining hands with fellow Puerto Ricans last year as we heard of the news in Yauco, where the first Puerto Rican flag had be flown by patriots, although to Spain, they were dangerous rebels? That day, I grabbed a hammer to one of my finest barrels and let the drink overflow into the mouths of my fellow friends! It was a celebration that had taken decades to occur, and to some whose families lived on the island since the early Spanish governors, the wait has lasted centuries. When the authorities stopped the Yauco liberation, hope still lingered in our souls, since we had already devoured the taste of freedom and of money. We were determined, and our brave leaders ensured everyone that the Spanish Primer Minister, the very enlightened Práxedes Mateo Sagasta, would indeed be granting autonomy to the island.
We did achieve it, and as I take time to pause between another Christmas celebration, I felt the urge to write this to you and inform you that yes, my nephew, you are indeed wise for your desire to live on this island as a free man. Of course, we will not change much in terms of who we are, we still speak Spanish and my accounts on the continent will not vanish once Puerto Rico meets its destiny. Once we are free, we will all be rewarded with riches never seen on this island before!
You are like the island, my dear nephew, you are as bright as the sun that shines on Puerto Rico each and every God-given day. If the Lord is willing, I see a future that will propel you to be able to not only live on the island, but also bring you back to Spain on regular holidays to enjoy the family you will leave behind as well as the country that was your first home. Now, your home will be with me in Juncos, and eventually you will grow to be prosperous, powerful, and mighty.
With this I must leave you to attend to the guests who will soon be arriving. Remember, my nephew, Puerto Rico will be yours and yours will be Puerto Rico. I urge you to come to this island with a mind to challenge our colonial mentality, which has kept us shackled like the africano slaves of Loíza. You represent the island’s progress and what it will become: a country that the whole of Latin America will exhibit as a model testament to the free enterprise markets, political stability, and human dignity.
I wish that our Lord protect you on your journey and bring you to me prepared and at the ready to form our own empire of sugar and rum, not unlike the Crown I used to defend when I was young and thick-headed like you.
May the Lord bestow you blessings. Your loving uncle,
PS Please write to me with the final details of your itinerary so I can make sure to arrange one of my laborers to meet you at the Plaza de Armas near the end of day when you arrive. He will ensure that a private carriage will be made available for your long journey into the mountains of Juncos, where I will be waiting for you at our company with open arms of anticipation and love.
PPS Please share my affection to my brother and sister-in-law. I long for the day when I can return to Spain and visit them. I can assure you that the recent developments will allow me to achieve this goal successfully before we enter the next century. Can you fathom how close we are to a new age? The Pearl of the Caribbean, the Isle of Enchanment, will soon be real!
As he waited for the carriage to arrive in the plaza, Octavio Antonio could still recall the words his father shared with him upon listening to the details of his brother’s letter.
“Fortunes are for dreamers, Octavio,” his father said. “Rogelio has always claimed that such fortune will be found in Puerto Rico. He has been writing the same letters ever since he left us. That is why he had never returned. He cannot pay back his debts.”
Near the plaza’s fountain, another voice began to snuff out Octavio’s memories. He look up and saw a younger man, with skin as mixed as his own, signaling to him.
“Don Octavio? Don Octavio Benítez Aragón?” the voice said.
“Yes, that is I,” Octavio said to the man.
“Your uncle has sent me to find you. My name is Rafael, Rafael Castro of Juncos. I am one of your uncle’s supervisors. The carriage will arrive shortly. It will be a long ride, but you will be provided with all the comforts merited to a young man who has traveled so far to get here.”
Octavio Antonio smiled. Rafael appeared to be a few years older than him, and his mustache smelled of rum. The same rum that Octavio Antonio had battled a bout of seasickness and stale bread so that he could learn from his uncle and become a master merchant.
“I am ready, Rafael. I am ready to go to Juncos and see my uncle. I have never met him since he had left my family before I was born.”
“He will welcome you with an embrace only family can recognize, even those who have never had the pleasure of meeting before. Let us go.”
“Yes, Rafael. Let us go to find my life.”
Three months later, in the very same place where Octavio Antonio Benítez Aragón had arrived on a steamer from Cádiz, a dozen American ships led by Rear Admiral William T. Sampson bombarded San Juan. The city’s residents were in a panic. A month later, the Americans blockaded of San Juan harbor. The month after that, General Nelson A. Miles landed in Guánica, on the southern part of the island, along with over 3,000 American soldiers. The resistance to Nelson’s landing was sparse and weak. By the end of August, Puerto Rico was a colony again, this time under a different master, and Octavio Antonio Benítez Aragón was mourning the death of his uncle and the loss of Benítez & González Sugar & Rum Company, S.A., due to a bankruptcy ruling.
Each night, it was told many years later that the residents of Juncos would hear the wailings Octavio Antonio Benítez Aragón every night at around three in the morning, when the local tavern had closed and he had nowhere else to go.