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The Mameyes Landslide

In my last article, which was about the Ponce Aqueduct and our family members that lived in that area, I related how my mother’s family had moved to the nearby barrio of Mameyes. My father’s brother, Sinforiano (known to all as “Guar”, short for guareto, meaning twin, since he and Auntie Helen were twins), also moved to Mameyes with his wife, Elena Sevilla. That little house was the first home of René Rivera Sevilla.

When little René was about two years old, Guar paid $50 for a plot of land next to the aqueduct and built the house in which his eight children were raised. There were actually nine children, but Reinaldo died in 1949 at the age of three. The little house was remodeled and added on to over the years, and eventually became the home of Guar’s second to the youngest son, Heriberto “Papo” Rivera, his wife Ada Pacheco Arroyo, and their children.

In the 1940s both my mother’s father and my father’s father passed away. My maternal uncle, Confesor, moved his family to Mayor Cantera street, and my mother moved to California to marry my father. It was a good thing that none of our family members remained in Mameyes because of what was to transpire decades later.

At about 3:00 in the morning of October 7, 1985, a horrendous landslide occurred in Mameyes. A tropical storm had brought torrential rains that flooded many parts of Puerto Rico, and in Mameyes, a large slab of sandstone detached itself from the hillside, destroying some ninety homes and killing at least 130 people. It was the deadliest single landslide on record in North America.

In the neighboring area of El Acueducto, Heriberto Rivera Sevilla was awakened by what sounded like an explosion. He lifted the newest baby, three month old Enid, out of the bed, and then knelt down beside the bed to pray. At 5:00, neighbors came to his house to tell him what had happened, and he took off to lend aide. In all, about 150 people, including National Guardsmen, worked to locate bodies with the assistance of six rescue dogs. However, efforts were hampered due to the early morning occurrence of the landslide and the continuing downpour of the rain. Papo said that he and others worked for three hours to free a woman from the wall that she was pinned under, and as they were finally carrying her out, she died in their arms. Papo worked in the rescue efforts for fifteen days. In all, fifty bodies were recovered, but others remained buried. A memorial was later created for the Mameyes victims at the site.

Papo lost several friends and acquaintances in that landslide, including Junior and Toto, two members of The Acueducto All Stars, Papo’s softball team.

Because of the deadly landslide of 1985, the houses in the neighboring Acueducto area were declared unsafe, and residents were forced to move. The government paid them for their homes and sold them other homes to which they relocated. It took eight years for this to transpire, and in 1993 Papo and family moved to their current home, which was the location of our 2014 family reunion.

A very intriguing side story to the Mameyes landslide has to do with artwork produced by children at a nearby Head Start preschool on a day when they were celebrating the birthday of two of the youngsters. Three days before the landslide happened, and in fact, before the tropical storm had even started, children at the Head Start school were given the assignment to draw “whatever came into their minds.” Astonishingly, several of the children drew what could be considered prophetic art, depicting crosses, dark earth tone colors, and people and houses falling. These drawings, now on display at the Ponce Museum of History, have been analyzed by graphologist Clara Tohocas and interpreted in a YouTube video.

Five year old María de Lourdes drew a house with stairs, which was typical of homes in the hillside community of Mameyes. She also drew numerous crosses and used dark, somber colors, which is not characteristic of artwork done by young children.

Drawing by 5 year old Maria de Lourdes, Mameyes, PR (1985)

Ángel Joel drew two pictures. In the first, you can see fire trucks and a green vehicle that resembles the National Guard jeeps that came to the rescue three days later.

Drawing by Angel Joel, Mameyes, PR (1985)

His second drawing depicts what appears to be mud covered houses and crosses.

Drawing by Angel Joel, Mameyes, PR (1985)

Wanda’s drawing shows a fallen person with cavernous eyes and protruding teeth that give the head a skull-like appearance. The person is under what the the graphologist interprets as a broken house. Once again, crosses and brown, desolate colors were added. These are all very unusual samples of artwork for children ages three to five.

Drawing by Wanda, Mameyes, PR (1985)
Additional drawings by children of Mameyes, PR (1985)

We were very fortunate that we did not lose any family members in this deadliest of landslides in North America.

Aerial view of the deadly Mameyes landslide, October 7, 1985.