Global diary: She protects a troubled paradise
For 62 years, the United States military used this lush island for target practice—until Nilda Medina and an army of protesters made it stop. Mariane Pearl meets the activist still fighting for Vieques. See more Global Diary
By Mariane Pearl
Nilda and her husband, Robert, discuss Vieques' future on a local radio show.
Nilda Medina, the woman I'm writing about this month, reminds me of Rosa Parks. Both are so-called ordinary women who changed their worlds. Rosa, an African American from the segregated South, uttered arguably the most famous "no" in history when she refused to give her bus seat to a white man in 1955; that bold, simple act launched the modern civil rights movement. Nilda, a resident of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques that was used for decades as a U.S. military bombing range, wouldn't stop fighting the war machines she says were destroying her home and her people's spirit. Thanks in large part to her perseverance, the military left the island four years ago.
I have come here to Vieques, eight miles off the Puerto Rican mainland—and the twelfth stop on my round-the-world journey for Glamour—to see what has happened since the bombs stopped falling. I have found that this Rosa Parks of Puerto Rico is still fighting for the island she loves. Looking out at the Caribbean Sea, rocking in a chair on the porch of her small house, Nilda reflects on the nearly 30 years she has dedicated to Vieques—and the many struggles still ahead as residents fight to clean up their environment, find good jobs and give their young people hope. As we talk about Vieques' difficult past and uncertain future, Nilda's sweet, round face and braided long hair glow softly in the spring sunset's orange light. "We've made so much progress," she tells me in Spanish, "but the horizon is still far away."
Vieques, a narrow, 21-mile-long island with white beaches surrounded by aquamarine waters, is described in tourism brochures as the last unspoiled Caribbean paradise. Until recently, though, Vieques wasn't considered a desirable vacation spot. During World War II, the U.S. military expropriated three quarters of the island, forced residents to leave their homes and began testing weapons here. By the time it pulled out in 2003, the military had detonated about 18,000 tons of explosives—some containing napalm and Agent Orange—on Vieques.
Nilda grew up as one of eight siblings in Vega Alta on the mainland; her mother spoke often about social justice. Nilda remembers being moved, as a girl, by the plight of the Viequenses, who lived amid bomb explosions as if they were at war. In 1980, as a 35-year-old science teacher, Nilda came here to work in the schools and volunteer as an activist. "The people were in crisis," she recalls. "There had been protests years before, but they lost momentum. Hope was low." And psychological trauma was widespread, she found. "Bombs fell [on testing ranges] 20 days a month, 12 hours a day," Nilda says. "People would run to their homes, scared that bombs would fall on them. Children would cry." Amid the sounds of low-flying planes, Nilda staged small protests and went door-to-door educating people about the military presence. "I explained how the bombing was affecting their health and hurting their chances for better jobs," she says. "Our lagoons, land and ecosystems were at risk of being destroyed."
In her first year in Vieques, Nilda met her soulmate, Robert Rabin, an American college student researching his master's thesis here. They fast became partners in love and activism, and have been together ever since. In 1993 the couple helped set up the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CRDV), a group that reenergized the protest movement against the bombing. For years they struggled to gain attention. Then, in 1999, a security guard at the weapons testing facility, David Sanes Rodriguez, was accidentally killed by two 500-ton U.S. bombs that fell too close to his post. "He was one of us," Nilda says. "After his death, the people said, 'No more.'" Nilda and others organized demonstrations, and thousands of protesters, including celebrities like Edward James Olmos, staged round-the-clock sit-ins. "Many of us were arrested," she recalls. Dignitaries such as Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama sent messages of support. A politician named Sila Calderón won the race for governor of Puerto Rico on promises that she'd push the military to halt the bombing.
In 2001 President Bush announced that the U.S. military would pull out of Vieques two years later, saying that Puerto Ricans "are our friends and neighbors, and they don't want us there." At last, on May 1, 2003, the bombs fell silent. But there was an explosion of joy in Vieques, complete with fireworks and celebrations. "People finally understood that ours was truly a human rights struggle," Nilda says. The military pullout was a personal triumph for Nilda—one that gives her comfort as she fights Vieques' next battles.
During the past four years, Viequenses have wondered: What's next for us? While many feel hopeful, the islanders face myriad new problems. Much of the land is contaminated with toxins, experts say, and thousands of unexploded bombs remain buried under former testing grounds. Cancer is about 30 percent more common here than in the rest of Puerto Rico, according to several reports; and with one private doctor for every 9,000 residents, health care is substandard. Plus, even as foreign investors turn the island into a luxurious tourist haven, few locals (72 percent of whom live in poverty) have the skills or resources to benefit.
Like an informal mayor, Nilda is trying to ensure that residents have healthy and prosperous futures. The CRDV is lobbying the U.S. government to clean up the environment. But Nilda's main mission is helping residents take advantage of the economic boom. "Natives must develop businesses or they'll always be dependent on foreign whims," she says. "Fighting the military was sexier, but this is our new social justice movement: to make sure the people benefit from the development of Vieques."
I attend a small-business seminar Nilda has organized in a museum that was once a Spanish fort; here, 12 participants are learning how to get financing and write business plans. Carmen, 21, hopes to start a catering company. Itza, 18, wants to open a community center for young mothers. "Are you a mother?" I ask. "I have three," she says. "All different daddies." Now she's settled down with a fourth man. "This one," she says, "is mature." Itza tells me that the youth of Vieques struggle because there's little for them to do. "Young people drink, do drugs and have too much depression," she says. "Boredom is getting the best of us."
The next day, Nilda takes me to the only high school in Vieques (there is no university) and introduces me to five girls, ages 15 through 17. All are single mothers. "We have no movie theater, no bookstore, no entertainment whatsoever," a girl named Claimar says. "Sex is all there is to do." I tell the girls I will turn 40 this year and have a five-year-old son. When I say I had my first boyfriend at 19, they think it's hilarious. The girls dream of becoming nurses or social workers but have no idea how to make that happen.
Everything moves slowly in Vieques. When I jump into a taxi for what should be a five-minute ride, the driver, nicknamed Coqui after a frog found in the region, stops to buy himself dinner, which is a plastic bag of ghastly-looking seafood. Then he buys lottery tickets and chats leisurely with the ticket seller. A half hour later, we reach my destination.
That little adventure helped me understand how much patience Nilda has needed to get things done here. But change is coming faster these days because activists like her are making the Puerto Rican government pay attention. A recent breakthrough: Vieques' first maternity ward, where 300 babies have been born. There's also a new school for dropouts, Nuestra Escuela, where I meet Adelaida, a single teen mom. "I feel respected here, for the first time in my life," says Adelaida, who was raised in foster care. I also meet Andres, who walks with crutches after being diagnosed with cancer in his knee. "I am 17, I shouldn't have cancer. But I swallow my anger," he says. Gesturing toward the other kids, he adds: "We all do."
Dinette, a young woman with copper-colored skin, is working at Nuestra Escuela to put herself through physical therapy school. We meet later, and she shows me the tiny room she rents with her boyfriend, who's 15 years older than she is. Dinette and her friends spend most of their time at a bar down the street where the bartender works in bare feet. The place has a strange collection of paintings: a romantic landscape of two horses, a still life with apples, a vodka ad featuring three Josephine Baker look-alike models. Leaning against the jukebox, Dinette glances at two skinny cats fighting. "That's the way it goes here," she says. "Different day, more fighting."
Dinette and I leave for dinner, and when we drive back to the bar, several drunken boys she knows jump into my rental car; one of them is holding a steel bar. The boys look more bored than harmful, but I point out that we are on a tiny island, and if they hurt us, they couldn't escape. Convinced her friends are just fooling around, Dinette leaves with them. As I drive away, I watch her reflection in the rearview mirror until she becomes a little dot.
The next day I take the ferry to the mainland and look at Vieques until it, too, becomes a little dot. Later, in the plane, I watch Puerto Rico disappear beneath the clouds. I think of Dinette, the newborns, Andres and his cancer fight. I think about Vieques' best asset in its ongoing struggle: its people. They have saved their land, and now they are working on their souls. I'm glad Nilda's on their side.
Mariane Pearl is a documentary filmmaker and the author of A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband, Danny Pearl. Mariane's next column will appear in October.