One Decade Later, Villas Del Sol Is Still Rebuilding

On August 3, 2009, Laura Motta Vázquez was asleep in her home on the outskirts of Toa Baja, Puerto Rico when she heard a knock at the door. She climbed out of bed, noting the time – 4:30 a.m. – assuming that her neighbor, a close friend, had come early to drink his coffee before work.

“He told me, ‘It’s black out here.’ There was urgency in his voice. He kept repeating it. ‘You need to get out here and see this. Now.’”

Vázquez looks out over Villas del Sol, March 2019.

Vázquez estimates that 1,500 police officers in riot gear lined the 2.5-mile stretch from the community of Villas del Sol to the municipal building in Sabana Seca. La fuerza de choque (“the shock force”) was armed with pepper spray, batons, and tasers. The officers wore dark colors in the black of the morning. Authorities severed connections to power and water lines. Using concrete, they blockaded the community’s twelve one-way streets so that residents could not enter or exit in vehicles. The municipal government, with the help of the Fortaleza, was prepared to evict families from the abandoned plot of government-owned land by force.

Concrete barriers used to blockade roads, March 2019.

Vázquez, now 44, sits in a local bakery, staring out the window, chin resting in her palm. She is consumed by the circumstances that have followed in the years since she decided to make Villas del Sol her home. “It was the women”, she specifies. “The women took them on. On that day I fought, I ran for help, I biked, I swam. From 4:30 in the morning until probably midnight.”

A confrontation between Villas del Sol residents and police, August 2009.

In 2009, according to a census undertaken by Vázquez, 211 families were living in Villas del Sol. The community of squatters (renamed “land rescuers” in the book Desalambrar by Lilian Cotto, 2006), formed in 1992. Poor Puerto Rican families – who would otherwise wait years to access public housing or Section 8 – occupied the land and constructed homes. The community had a large population of immigrants, often from the Dominican Republic, many of them undocumented. The settlement at Villas del Sol was an attractive option to families who wanted to grow and prosper without the means to otherwise obtain a permanent place of residence.

Lupita, a longtime Villas del Sol resident, stands in her nearly-finished kitchen, June 2019.

In September 1998, Hurricane Georges swept through Puerto Rico as a Category 4-storm. Villas del Sol flooded severely due to its location on a flood plain near a major river and the coast. Maps drawn by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) indicate that nearly the entire city of Toa Baja, as well as surrounding municipalities, are in flood-vulnerable zones.

Credits: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Updated April 2019. Google Maps, July 2019.

FEMA recognized Villas del Sol as an illegal, high-risk settlement and granted the municipality of Toa Baja almost $17 million to relocate the families under the New Secure Housing Program. Residents were ordered to vacate and received vouchers that promised access to public housing or Section 8 apartments. Toa Baja failed to relocate many of the families. Instead, the municipality used the funding to build a housing complex near Brisas del Campanero, in Campanillas. There, officials gave the units to the families of municipal workers instead of Villas del Sol residents. Families with nowhere else to go returned to the land and the settlement grew.

A bus stop on the edge of the former Villas del Sol, March 2019.

Vázquez, a native of Alaska, moved to Villas del Sol in 2006. She was in desperate need of housing for herself and two children. Her daughter’s aunt constructed her own home on the property and suggested that Vázquez do so as well. Vázquez’s story, one of resilience, is a common thread among the women in the community. She barely escaped from an abusive marriage with her life. “He cut me up with a machete”, she shares. “I had to get as far away as I possibly could.” Vázquez collected whatever materials she could afford and constructed her home with the help of family and neighbors.

Homes under construction, March 2019.

According to Vázquez, Villas del Sol was a safe, close-knit community. The lack of housing permits made the neighborhood an easy target for a government looking to outrun its dysfunction and quickly comply with federal regulations when prompted by FEMA. Residents began receiving eviction orders when the municipality was fined by the agency for the misuse of federal aid. The land was still occupied. Mayor Aníbal Vega Borges and the Puerto Rican government were, for perhaps the first time, under real pressure from the federal government to either remove the families or return millions of dollars to the agency.

Surrounding neighborhoods at the same risk of flooding were never ordered to relocate. The residents of Villas del Sol resisted evacuation orders and insisted on remaining together throughout the relocation process. This resulted in a series of attempts by the government to cut illegal connections to power and water lines, as well as two attempts to bulldoze homes with belongings inside. The first, in 2007, resulted in 30 homes demolished, at which time the occupants were given five minutes to pack their belongings and vacate the property.

Vázquez at the entrance to the former property, March 2019.

Families expressed living in fear that they would return from work to find their homes demolished or their children gone, taken by the Departamento de la Familia. “There was a woman named Virginia Diaz from the Departamento de la Vivienda”, recalls Vázquez. “She and her colleagues would come in with heavy machinery.” Bulldozers appeared again in 2009 as the conflict over the eviction orders reached its peak.

Then-Governor Luis Fortuño had cameras installed across the main access road to Villas del Sol shortly before the confrontation with riot police in August 2009. They were pointed directly at the houses. There was a 24-hour police trailer set up in the same area.

A neighborhood directly across the street from the former Villas del Sol, March 2019.

Vázquez notes how families were victimized by various government agencies in the months leading up to the attempted mass-eviction. “We were the only community in Puerto Rico that was under 24-hour police surveillance. We didn’t have light or water,” she says. “Officials would ask vulnerable families for their information in exchange for food and water. They would collect the names of family members and issue subpoenas to take the children away.” The community organized a “house number lottery” in response to these tactics and recurring eviction orders. Vázquez and other community leaders changed the numbers on the houses daily. Residents were trained, with the help of volunteer attorneys, not to accept the documents on behalf of anyone.

Vázquez and others readily recall how the children in the community were bullied, beaten up, and were in some cases kicked out of classrooms because teachers didn’t want to instruct them. Parents faced hatred from the surrounding community. Vázquez recalls hearing things like “they don’t deserve water” or “catch them on fire”. “On the first day of school, we had no water. A woman from the Departamento de Familia came to see whether our children had uniforms. They were the ‘homeless kids’ – the kids from Villas del Sol.”

A newly constructed home, March 2019.

The local government, intent on criminalizing the community, was instead forced to vaccinate residents as children came down with Dengue and H1N1 as a result of the inhumane living conditions. Vázquez and neighbors built a “watering hole” consisting of three 250-gallon tanks. Residents set up illegal connections to power lines along the main road. Men from the settlement ran wires through PVC pipe, placed them underground, through canals, and manually connected to the municipality’s electrical grid. Those who could afford to fuel generators would run them as needed.

“I’m not proud of that,” says Vázquez, staring up at a disconnected power line above a canal that runs through the property. “It was dangerous. One of our men was electrocuted. He lost his hands and half of his face to burns.” The man’s son, Jonathan, is now 9 years old and has not been able to return home to Villas del Sol. “Multiple community members got sick from breathing exhaust from the generators for such a long time,” she adds. “The situation took a toll on all of us.”

A canal under which residents would run power lines, March 2019.

In 2009, a Mexican doctor named Eduardo Ibarra met the president of Villas del Sol, Maritza de la Cruz, at a community health fair. Struck by the urgency of the situation, he offered to donate a plot of his land so that residents could relocate together. Ibarra negotiated with the government for months and eventually sold nearly 17 acres of property in Arecibo. In exchange, Villas del Sol received 14.7 acres of land on the outskirts of Toa Baja. The city promised to provide housing permits, sewage infrastructure, and official connections to the municipal water system and the electrical grid. A Villas del Sol resident with an engineering background surveyed the land and divided the plots among community members. Architecture students from the University of Puerto Rico agreed to help design the new community as soon as the neighborhood’s basic infrastructure was completed.

Roads constructed by residents, March 2019.

In 2010, after years of negotiations – including interventions by the ACLU and Amnesty International – the community agreed to consent to the eviction orders under an agreement that the government would legitimize Villas del Sol on the property donated by Ibarra.

. . .

In late March, the humid air is broken up by a breeze across the sunny stretch of land where Villas del Sol once stood. Tall, thin palm trees line the coast in the distance. Vázquez stands next to a bus stop painted turquoise by the city. “I come back here when I need to think. It’s difficult. This place holds a lot of memories.”

Vázquez walks the original property, March 2019.

Vázquez and her partner walk the front of the property, pausing to inspect fallen power lines and dirt roads overgrown with vines and tall grass. Her partner plucks still-ripening papaya from a tree on the side of the road. Vázquez smiles and points at a tree in the opposite direction. “We called that the gossip tree. We would meet there to discuss issues in the community and make plans.”

Fruit grows on a tree planted by residents over a decade ago, March 2019.

A mile down the road, Brenda Cruz greets Vázquez with a hug as she opens the gate to her property, revealing the unfinished shell of her concrete home. Cruz, who moved to Villas del Sol in the 1990s, is now building her third house, brick by brick, with her husband and children on the new property. “Even our granddaughter helps us”, she jokes, pointing to a room upstairs that will belong to the toddler. “She has already requested that we paint her room pink.”

Cruz walks through the space that will be her living room, March 2019.

Vázquez waited out Hurricane Maria in the family’s temporary shelter – a small, one-room apartment on the first floor. Villas del Sol and surrounding communities were forced to evacuate following the storm when the government released dams and floodwaters overtook the area. The post-Maria rebuilding process has been slow. Brenda and her husband, both of whom work in construction during the day, are managing to get by without water and electricity.

Inside Cruz’s temporary shelter, March 2019.

“The municipality never followed through,” says Vázquez. “They said publicly that they would. It was in the newspaper. They made a big deal to get us to consent to the eviction order, and we did it. Everybody evacuated the old land and watched as homes disappeared one by one.”

In 2012, Mayor Vega Borges stated that it would likely be another two years until Villas del Sol residents would be able to move onto the land. Designers put various plans for the community on hold as those involved waited for the administration follow through. In the meantime, residents were forced to relocate on their own, whether through renting unaffordable apartments or squatting on the donated property. Vázquez estimates that the cost of a single-family dwelling at the time had risen to $600-$700 a month with vouchers allowing for a housing credit of just over $300 per month per family based upon income. From 2013-2017, the island’s mean household income was listed at $19,775 by the U.S. Census Bureau, with many of the families at Villas del Sol surviving on less.

Homes in the beginning stages of construction, March 2019.

Vázquez suspects that the promised permits and infrastructure might never arrive. The community has chosen to reconstruct regardless. Residents pooled their knowledge of construction through contracting jobs and are capable of building homes entirely in compliance with local regulations. “Everybody will have connections ready for city water and electricity,” says Vázquez, pointing at the outlet installed in the wall by Cruz’s husband Marino. “I asked the Fortaleza to come to us and see the neighborhood. An official inspected one of the homes. Her team was impressed. She said, ‘If all of the homes are built to this standard, you won’t have any problems.'”

Wiring outside of the Cruz’s home, June 2019.

. . .

In a short documentary called “The Women of Villas del Sol“, published in 2012, Puerto Rico’s former Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock states, “If we had let the people who started squatting there live there indefinitely, we would have had to return over $180 million in federal funds. Now, really. You have 100 families, perhaps – squatters on a piece of land. Is that really worth $180 million to you?”

Vázquez, who routinely takes care of neighbors and has fostered the children of community members, witnessed the resulting trauma first-hand. She cites her experience as motivation to keep building. “I had a little boy. He was 2 at the time. His perception was that there was a dinosaur that ate his house. He said, ‘I’m going to behave. Let the dinosaur throw my house back up.’” The boy’s mother lived in a car for two months after Maria and received no federal aid to find shelter. “It has been absolutely overwhelming,” she says.

A dog lays in the living room to keep cool, June 2019.

Cruz nods in agreement. “My children are traumatized. It looks like they’re OK, but emotionally they’re not,” she says, wiping tears from her face. Cruz and her husband work full-time and build at night when they return home. The couple has pooled their income to purchase construction equipment and materials. They spend weekends assisting neighbors with construction. The family purifies water on the stove in their small shelter and uses generators for electricity. Asked what keeps them going, she responds, “The kids. We have to fight for the kids.”

A community center completed with the help of donations, March 2019.

Vázquez and others cite corruption as the primary factor in the decade-long delay of the permitting process for Villas del Sol. In 2016, Vega Borges resigned after a top administration official and a municipal contractor were arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for allegedly transferring and spending $2.5 million in funds from a federal housing loan program for the payment of municipal payroll and contractors.

The new entrance to Villas del Sol. Another community stands across the street, March 2019.

One indictment states that from September 2014 to February 2016, ex-director of Finance of the municipality Víctor Cruz Quintero and interim director Ángel Roberto Santos García made deposits and transfers of funds from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to the general and payroll accounts of the municipality of Toa Baja for unauthorized purposes. Vega Borges and his former subordinates remain under investigation by the FBI.

In February 2017, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares signed a law that established the Oficina de Desarrollo Socioeconómico y Comunitario de Puerto Rico (ODSEC). The legislation aimed to restructure and strengthen an office created in 2001 to identify and assist “special communities” like Villas del Sol. ODSEC executive director Jesús Vélez Vargas was tasked with investigating the possible misuse of these funds. His office was required to complete an investigation within six months of the law’s passage. There were no signs of such an investigation taking place as late as November 2018. “There is funding in Puerto Rico for special communities and there has been for a long time,” confirms Vázquez. “We have not seen that funding. We have been rebuilding out of our own pockets.”

Metal rods create a framework for interior walls, June 2019.

“This is what I don’t understand,” says Vázquez. “It costs the government more to invest in Section 8 and public housing than it does for those of us here to work to build our own homes. For around $15,000 you can have a basic structure – a floor, walls, and a roof. That is the foundation of a permanent home. We are creating the ability to provide for ourselves. If we stay poor, they stay in power.”

“Dorado is fifteen minutes down the road. This land is valuable,” she adds, citing the property’s proximity to one of Puerto Rico’s top coastal tourism destinations.

Vázquez explains part of the construction process, June 2019.

. . .

A man emerges from the door of his rectangular, one-story home next to Cruz’s property. Jose Taveras, 64, left the Dominican Republic in the 1990s and built his home at the original Villas del Sol. He reconstructed three times. Banana trees and other staples – mangoes, papayas, plantains, and beanstalks – surround his plot of land. “Melito” – as he is known by neighbors, worked as a farmer in the Dominican Republic plays an integral role in teaching residents how to grow food. Rows of fruit-bearing plants line the outskirts of the new property. Neighbors will harvest, store, and cook the food when ready. An industrial-sized refrigerator sits unused on the small stretch of land between Cruz’s and Taveras’ property.

Taveras stands in the doorway of his new home, March 2019.

“We wanted to start an organic farm to both sustain the community and fund construction, but we couldn’t get the funding or the permits,” explains Vázquez. Low-income Puerto Rican families face a Catch-22 as a result of the ongoing austerity measures put in place by the Financial Oversight and Management Board. “With La Junta, families face even more lack of work, a lack of resources, and an inability to survive.” Vázquez estimates that an average family with one member on public assistance will receive around $149 a month in food stamps and $19 a month for other expenses. “I have to find resources for elderly people that can’t even pay their light bill with $19 a month,” she says, exasperated. “They have medications that Medicaid doesn’t cover. The least we can do is teach people how to feed themselves.”

Plantains grow in various spots on the new property, June 2019.

Taveras’ knowledge of agriculture continues to have a profound impact on families surviving without adequate resources. He is considered a community “elder” and is well-loved by long-time residents. His health has suffered greatly due to his living conditions. Since Maria, Taveras has been in and out of the hospital with heart problems. His newly constructed home still does not have a proper floor. Until recently, he lived in a temporary shelter on his property. The space is unbearably hot and lacks electricity. The stress of losing two homes and facing a possible return to the Dominican Republic, where he has not lived in over 30 years, sent him spiraling into depression. Taveras remains focused with the help of the surrounding community and has not lost sight of his broader goals. “Anything that people can help with is always appreciated,” he says. “We need to keep fighting so that progress will come.”

. . .

On a rainy day in June, Vázquez parks her car on a gravel driveway that separates Cruz’s house from two other neighbors. She points toward a nearly-finished structure with wooden siding. “The house on the left belongs to Mejía. He was tased so badly by the police in 2009 that he was never the same.” The man’s family has constructed the home in his absence.

Mejía’s home under construction, March 2019.

Crucito de la Cruz, another long-time resident, lives just down the road with his disabled wife and two sons. Vázquez fostered both boys at one point while the family was without shelter. As Vázquez approaches, de la Cruz walks to his car and grabs a notice indicating that his driver’s license is expired. He hands the document to Vázquez. She reads the paper and says, “I’ll have to go with him to the DMV so that they don’t give him any problems. If I’m there, they’ll leave him alone.”

De la Cruz stands outside his family’s temporary shelter, June 2019.

Vázquez and other neighbors feel responsible for the health, safety, and survival of the new community in the absence of the municipal government. Vázquez points toward a river that runs inland from the coast. The rest is open land. “At one point we had a human trafficking problem. When I found out about it, I approached the people at the house and told them that if they didn’t leave I would call the police,” she says. “People told me I was insane. The traffickers offered me bribes to keep my mouth shut. I told them to leave. What else could I do?”

A home completed by a resident with an engineering background, June 2019.

Villas del Sol’s unofficial status leaves the property ripe for misuse at the hands of outsiders. Vazquez walks the gravel road and points out homes being constructed by bonafide Villas del Sol residents who possess a legal right to the property. Other plots of land have been sold without permission. “This is where we need help from the government. We’re trying to construct as quickly as possible so that the land isn’t taken from underneath us,” she says. The illegal sale of the properties harms everyone involved and complicates an already complex permitting process. “People are coming in and trying to make a profit. Eventually, the owners will have to accept that they’ve built on land where they won’t receive permits.”

De la Cruz’s boys run out of the house to greet Vázquez with a hug as another neighbor approaches from across the street. Juan Socio owns the plot of land to the right of de la Cruz’s temporary shelter. He works as a contractor installing intricate tile work in bathrooms and kitchens but has yet to be able to save enough money to begin leveling his property.

Juan Socio stands on the plot of land where he intends to build a home, June 2019

The group exchanges stories and discusses the latest happenings in the community. Eventually, they land on the subject of a non-profit, started by a former volunteer, Waldemiro Vélez Soto, called SOL es VIDA. Villas del Sol, which registered as a cooperative for tax purposes at the advice of attorneys, is considering taking legal action against the non-profit. Allegedly, the organization has collected donations totaling nearly $300,000, a number members of the cooperative found through communications with the Departamento de la Vivienda in Toa Baja. Community members allege that the funds, intended for reconstruction after Maria in the place of FEMA aid, have not been equally distributed. Bonafide Villas del Sol residents who had not completed the construction of their homes before Maria allegedly did not qualify for aid from the organization. Vázquez notes that residents could complete the foundation of a basic home for $10,000 each.

. . .

Just down the road, Brenda Cruz and her husband are hard at work on their home despite the rain. The face of the structure has been sealed with cement and is beginning to take shape. The modest two-story home looks solid and inviting. The couple is unsure when they’ll have the materials and the time to finish construction but are determined to push through to the end. “I’m very proud of this,” says Marino, looking around at his second-floor – complete with three bedrooms, a bathroom, and a staircase.

Cruz’s husband Marino shows off the couple’s work, June 2019.

Marino discusses the ongoing construction, June 2019.

Next door, Jose Taveras’ house sits empty. Vázquez spent the past month in the hospital helping Taveras, who is undocumented, navigate the medical system without insurance. “He needed $35,000 for a pacemaker. The doctor told him he could go home or he would be deported.” In response, Vázquez called the ACLU. Taveras is now in recovery and expects to return home shortly. His health remains fragile.

Vázquez’s own house sits on the far edge of Villas del Sol. A stack of cinder blocks sits in the center of the structure. Iron rods stick out of the cement foundation in preparation for interior walls. Vázquez resumed construction with her daughter after Maria and hopes to return to the community soon. However, life gets in the way. “I’ve been assisting my friends and neighbors for the past decade. I finally paid off my son’s tuition. I had to take a break this year,” she says. “My daughter tells me, ‘Mom, it’s been so long. Let’s just let it go and move on.’ But I can’t give up.”

Vázquez inside the home she began constructing with her daughter, June 2019.

“Sometimes I feel hurt and angry. We know what we went through to end up like this. No matter how complicated the situation is, or how hard it is, we have to keep going. Other people will learn from this and know that you can go on.”