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Visiting Central Aquirre

Randy and I headed to Ponce one day last December, with plans to buy some items at El Coquí Souvenir shop across the street from the historic Parque de Bombas and then go visit my cousins René and Heriberto (“Papo”) Rivera Sevilla.  We like to take the scenic coastal route from our vacation home in Yabucoa; it makes the hour and a half journey so much more interesting.

In front of the post office—sugar refinery in background.

About halfway there, as we approached Salinas, I started commenting on how we were near Aguirre, where my father, Oscar Cruz García, had worked as a young man prior to entering the Merchant Marines.  I had a tape recording of Dad talking about his youth, and I knew that he had worked at the Central Aguirre Mill for several years; it had played a significant part in his personal history. Aware of how much I yearned to see the ruins of the mill up close, Randy turned off of the highway onto the road that led to Aguirre.

I could feel the excitement mounting as I saw the twin smoke stacks in the distance.  Suddenly, we were there, and getting out of the car, we stood as close to the fenced-off mill as we could. I got emotional as I walked along the nearby streets lined with quaint wooden homes with A-frame zinc roofs and wide front porches.  I wondered if Dad had lived in one of those little houses.   How I wished I had made the trip there years earlier, with Dad, so he could tell me more, and maybe point out where he had lived. My brother, Ruben García, says he visited Aguirre with Dad in 1968 and they toured the mill.  Dad had not worked there in some 30 years, so Ruben is not sure how they got in—whether Dad talked his way in, or whether there was simply no security.  Regardless, he said it was fascinating to see the mill in operation.

View of the refinery from another street.

Here is a link to an interesting and well-written blog about Aguirre, past and present:

Now, with the transcribed recording before me, I’ve reread his narrative of those years. He proudly told me how he had worked there for five or six years, and had become a very strong man doing work that big, buff men couldn’t handle.  He said there were men who looked like bulls who would go there and work a couple of hours, then leave to use the toilet and wouldn’t return.

Charming neighborhood homes.

But Dad worked from the first day of the harvest until the last, and he’d return the next year to do the same, without missing a day of work.

His work was chaining up the huge wagons filled with sugar cane.  He and another man would work on either side of a wagon, on ladders, each with two massive, extremely heavy chains, that they would hook up so that the wagons could be lifted with a crane.  His pay was 92 cents a day.  Then came President Roosevelt’s Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which provided for a 40-cents an hour minimum wage and a 40 hour per week maximum workweek.  Dad’s shift was from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Aguirre was a company town, and the houses and businesses were all owned by the company, including a hospital and a movie theater. The company housing in Aguirre was segregated by the type of work that people did.  The “Americanos” —engineers and managers—lived in the lovely, larger houses in another part of the town.  There was a club for the engineers and managers, as well as a golf course.

Did Dad live in one of these company houses? Photo by Jonathan Lessuck, Travelsinthe2ndhalf

As a single man, Dad lived in the cuarteles, which were barrack-like structures for men only.  Small, two-men rooms lined each side of a hallway.  The company provided houses for workers who had a good record, a wife, and steady work.  Dad was able to acquire one of these homes for himself, his baby boy, Oscalito, and Oscalito’s mother, Paula Rivera.  They didn’t live in the house long; their turbulent relationship ended when Oscalito was about two years old.

At the height of its existence, the Aguirre Sugar Refinery was the largest and most technologically advanced of all the mills.  But with the increasing cost of labor and other economic factors, the sugar industry began to decline in Puerto Rico, and the Aguirre mill closed its doors in 1990.  The company owned homes (but not the land on which they were built) were sold to the workers for $1, with the caveat that they could only be sold to direct family members for the same price.  Hence, the people dwelling in these former company homes are direct descendants of former employees of the Aguirre refinery.

With the onset of World War II, Dad joined the Merchant Marines, and his work at Aguirre during the sugar cane harvest seasons was over.  It had been his first real job as part of a crew on a payroll, and in his own words, that was the place where he had developed into a man.