The Weddings in Vieques internship teaches interns so much more than just wedding planning! Sandy truly tries to dip each set of interns’ feet into the unique culture of Vieques as soon as we arrive so we’re better able to talk about the island with our clients and wedding guests when they get here. We also have to learn about the highlights of Vieques in order to help sell our services to potential clients. All brides and grooms want to know what else Vieques, Puerto Rico, offers their guests, other than amazing beaches.
One of our first assignments is to familiarize ourselves with the well-known Vieques coffee table book so we can answer any questions the clients may have about the history of the island. You can find the book in numerous shops on the island and it’s a great, easy-to-read history of the island with fun pictures. Sandy uses it to torture us with pop quizzes.
We all quickly learn that the most famous environmental feature of Vieques is the magnificent Mosquito Bay, one of only seven bioluminescent bays left to be toured in the world, and widely considered to be the brightest. Almost all of our wedding guests tour the bio-bay as part of the weekend’s activities so it’s important that we be well-versed about it.
I, however, decided to take a different approach. I decided to find out more about Abe Velasquez, the man behind Abe’s Snorkeling and Bio Bay Tours. It’s one of the largest and most popular outdoor adventure companies on the island, but its ownership makes it even more fascinating. Abe Velasquez is part of one of the most influential families in the history of Vieques. And I’m pretty sure he’s a pirate. I think I saw his picture on Wikipedia.
I invited Abe to have lunch with me to learn more about his history and I learned more than I could have ever imagined from one conversation. His tale is fascinating. Reading about things that happened in a book and hearing the stories from the people who are characters in them are two totally different experiences.
Abe told me that his family’s story is very similar to every other family who lived on Vieques before the military “captured” the majority of the island. Back then, in the early 1900s, Vieques was called “La Copa de Oro” or “The Gold Cup,” and people would move from the big island to Vieques to find employment. The land was so agriculturally rich that many jobs were available. The island produced meat, beans, grains, sugar cane, coffee, fruit, and greens. In fact, Vieques was one of the first Caribbean islands to have a railroad, built to deliver commercial goods to the pier so they could be shipped out to buyers.
Abe’s father’s side of the family was in the grain business. They lived on the west side of the island. His mother’s side of the family was in the meat business. Interestingly enough, it was those grandparents who brought Brahma bulls onto Vieques Island. The bulls traveled all the way from India onto the island. Let me tell you from personal experience, when you are driving on the island at night and you go around a bend to find a cow the size of your car in the middle of the road, you start to panic! Don’t. It’s okay. They’ll get out of your way, eventually. But they’ve been here longer than most of us and they’re bigger than all of us, so we don’t mess with them. Although there are far fewer than locals say used to roam around the island (at some point there was an effort to round them up and the population has seriously declined because of people helping themselves to dinner), it’s still one of the things that make the island so very unique.
Back when Abe’s grandparents lived on Vieques, the entire island was occupied by families working off the land. Back then, there were 39,000 residents on the island. Today, post-Navy occupation, the population of Vieques is around 9,000. It was interesting to hear about the military history of the island from somebody whose family was so impacted by the Navy’s occupation.
The U.S. Navy began taking over Vieques in the 1940s, and purchased almost three-quarters of the island from the government of Puerto Rico to be used as a naval ammunition depot. The people who lived on Vieques were either relocated to St. Croix, or were forced to give up their homes, businesses, and farms and relocate to the western and southern portions of the island. They renamed the area of the island where civilians moved “Tortugas” because it was very crowded and from the sky, the new settlement looked like tortoise shells.
Like many other civilians at this time, Abe’s grandparents decided to move to St. Croix due to unreasonable living conditions created on Vieques. His family made a new life for themselves. Abe’s parents grew up on St. Croix, briefly fled to New York City where Abe was born, then returned to St. Croix where they raised Abe and his 13 siblings.
Once I had a thorough understanding of his grandparents’ history on Vieques, and their move to St. Croix, I wanted to understand how Abe decided to return to Vieques and make it his home. He claims it all started when he was 14 years old.
Abe and his older brother, Chris, came to Vieques to visit their sister, Maria. They took the little puddle-jumper airplane over to Vieques and when they arrived, Abe says he had a feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“I felt this sensation through me, and the sensation was so strong it stopped me dead in my tracks, and the only thing I could execute was ‘Chris I want to live here’. That sensation has never left,” Abe says. Chris started to laugh because Abe had only seen the airport at that point –he hadn’t even seen the true beauty of the island. The more Abe saw, the more he fell in love with Vieques. And he took every opportunity possible to visit. He even skipped school to hop over and visit Vieques! Eventually, he moved to Vieques and got married, but then moved to the States to live for the first 20 years of his adult life. Abe returned to Vieques 18 years ago and stayed.
But that’s not all of the island history that Abe’s family can lay claim to, it gets even more fascinating for those who know about the Viequenses battles against the military who had claimed their land. Many people have heard the famous story of “The Bees of Monte Carmelo.” What most people do not know is that Felix Carmelo, the “hero” of that story, was Abe Velasquez’s brother-in-law. And the story is even more interesting from a family member’s point of view.
Maria, Abe’s sister, was married to “Adventurous Carmelo,” as Abe referred to him. Carmelo was never in agreement with what the Navy was doing on Vieques. He believed the Navy hid behind the excuse that they were tearing the island up and renting it to other countries for the “protection of our nation.” So Carmelo began to rescue the land. They called it “squatting,” which means dwelling in a place so long that it becomes your land (and usually has a lot of significance as far as Puerto Rican land rights go).
Once Carmelo began to squat on lands adjacent to the area the military had purchased for their own use, several other Viequenses followed his lead. Carmelo began to conquer the land back, according to Abe. The last piece of land Carmelo conquered was Monte Carmelo, property adjacent to Camp Garcia on the eastern end of the island. The Navy knew what Carmelo had been doing and they wanted him to stop. They told Carmelo “whatever you do, do not build a two-story house here.” This was because he had a very good view from where he chose to build his house. It was a vantage point for the military and they didn’t want the building to have any height. So what did Carmelo do? He built a three-story house on the top of the hill!
“Carmelo was known as a beekeeper. He worked with the bees and cultivated honey. He had a bunch of bees,” Abe explains how the famous story came to be. When Carmelo disobeyed the one rule he swore to the military he wouldn’t break, several officials showed up at his three-story home and tried to evict him and his family. The military officials began tossing the family’s belongings onto a truck. When Carmelo saw how they were handling their possessions, he had an idea. He told the children to go out in the yard and grab a few boxes of bees.
He mixed the boxes amongst the family’s other belongings so that the officials would unknowingly throw the beehive into the truck and be attacked by a swarm of bees. As legend goes, Carmelo told the children “when the bees come swarming out of the box, do NOT move! If you move and swat you will be stung, but if you stand dead still – don’t event breathe –the bees will not bother you.”
It only took 30 seconds for the bees to begin attacking the military officials once they began throwing those boxes. The men began swatting and got stung repeatedly. Eventually, Abe says, the officials said “the hell with it,” and gave up and left. Carmelo was never bothered by the military in his three-story house again. Monte Carmelo grew to be a popular area to live with an unbelievable view. The castle his brother-in-law erected still stands as a monument to the struggle of the Viequenses to maintain the integrity of their island.
Abe Velasquez is a very important person on Vieques Island. Not only does he own and operate Abe’s Bio-bay, but he also has a location with a store on the Malecon now where Kim’s Cabin used to be. They sell sportswear and an array of things that tourists regularly forget and that are hard to find elsewhere on the island. He’s also the leader of the Dinoflagellates, a popular local band.
When you pass a man on the street in Vieques who is the spitting image of a pirate, you have found Abe! His family has influenced the island in countless ways for more than 100 years. Although he spent time in other places, he came back to his family’s roots and built his business here. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to hear these amazing true stories of the history of Vieques from someone whose family lived the experience.
Claire McCarthy, Intern at Weddings in Vieques