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The Cycle of Life: Gifts from the Sea

The ocean means many things to many people. For some it means solace, the comforting sound of waves lapping at the shore, calming and reassuring them.  For others it is nature on display, flaunting its multiple shades of blue as they shift at the whim of ever-changing sun and clouds. And for others still, it is a liquid playground, embracing us and our toys above and below its welcoming surface. But for Vieques born-and-raised couple Guelymar (pronounced Gay-lee-mar) Perez and Eric Torres the ocean means a cycle of life that touches everyone on Vieques, residents and visitors alike. As owners of Pescaderia Angelyz, the only fresh seafood market on the island, they are the ocean’s distribution center, working tirelessly to bring the efforts of some to the pleasure of others. Like their families before them and the watermen around them Perez and Torres are pearls in an endless string of pearls that is life on Vieques.

Metaphoric jewelry aside, their average day starts like most parents, waking and herding three sons – Eric, Hector and Misael – into school clothes and, eventually, to school. Then off to work, to their waterfront market just past the Ferry Terminal on a sliver of road that ends at their building.  The blue underwater scene painted on the walls gleams in the morning sun in contrast to the clear blue water around it. It is a simple structure; weigh and filet shed, a walk-in freezer, an office and several chest-style freezers laid end to end in a moderate-sized room, suggesting both the simplicity and importance of what they do. No fancy glass-front display cases filled with shaved ice here.

Doors unlocked and opened to the hot sun, the day begins. Framed by the doorway an amazing, ancient scene forms outside like a canvas come to life; gorgeous white clouds sit softly near the tops of the North Shore hills, moored sailboats bob in the diamond surface of the water. Two dozen tarpon float patiently out front like oversized goldfish in a bowl waiting for Tomas, the weigh and filet man of the team, to share some of the days’ bounty with them, the tarpon clearly unaware of the irony they represent. To the left, on the concrete pier that juts out into the north side waters of the island, the harvesters of the sea begin their daily transfer of bounty from boat to land. And so it continues…

Many hours before, while Guelymar and Eric sleep, boats drift in the moonlight, their lines trailing in the dark water for Yellow Tail and Snapper. A few hours later men in wetsuits dive deep to the ocean floor in search of royalty, the Queen Conch. Alongside them come the lobstermen, checking the pots or nasas for spiny delicacies. And throughout the sun’s rising hours, more men of the sea reach down into the depths to scoop out their daily living. They are the past, present and future of Vieques fishing – fifteen to twenty of them depending on the season, half who harvest the conch and four to six who work the lobster pots. They are the fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, nephews and cousins of generations who have gone down to the sea in boats, passing along the knowledge and the tools to support each other. On any given day Guelymar’s uncles, Jose the captain and Papo the diver, provide the carrucho or conch; Captain Georgie brings the langosta or lobster; Jhony and his helpers haul the fish. For them and the other fishermen it is their job to bring the ocean’s offerings to the land, a physically challenging – patience testing and, yes, dangerous job that has wounded some and buried others. The sea does not give up its treasures easily. Narcosis, sun and heat exposure, rough and unpredictable seas, ocean predators, lightning, all lay in wait to harm or disable the careless gatherer. But it does not deter them. It is the fishermen’s job, their calling. And they answer well.

At 10am the procession begins. Captains and boat hands, divers and helpers file up the pier hauling their baskets of pescado or seafood; Dorado, Tuna, Hog Fish, Yellowtail, Snapper, Grouper, Kingfish, Conch and Lobster. They bring them to the doorway of the Pescaderia and lay them at the feet of Guelymar and  Eric like proud hunters. They laugh and comment to each other as they hose down their wetsuits or rinse their arms, their camaraderie visible and enjoyable even to an outsider. They have returned to shore safely one more time. Their job is done. And now Guelymar’s, Eric’s and Tomas’s begins.

Tomas filets a grouper for a visiting couple while Eric moves from front door to freezer to slicer where he cuts frozen Hogfish or “capitan,” a fish caught fresh within the last few days. Guelymar watches the indoor scale, marking the weights of tubs of live lobster, then moves back to the doorway where three huge baskets of conch sit in watery juices of the sea.

Tomas adds or subtracts scoops of conch to get even weights in each basket then sets them aside. The white, tan and grey meat of the big shells we love to decorate our porches with will be packed into ten pound bags, then stacked in the walk-in freezer for local sale or distribution to the big island of Puerto Rico. On this day school is out and middle son, Hector, eleven, a handsome boy with long legs, is helping. Youngest son Misael, in typical nine year old fashion, bugs Mom for money for snacks. Guelymar complies at first, smiling at his cute face, then gives him a short burst of serious words in Spanish that clearly mean enough is enough when he returns for a second request.

Perhaps their sons will take over the business someday, perhaps not. “I have to wait to see,” Perez says, her eyes rolling. She is a young woman and that future is a long way away. But considering her and Eric’s parents’ history it is clearly possible. Guelymar remembers her early exposure to the business. “I lived at the beach, next to Bravos Beach Hotel. My grandmother made the bacalaitos and sold them. We always had fish as a family business. Eric’s relatives, as far back as his great-great-grandfather, were also businessmen, butchers who sold meat on the island. So I told Eric, you know the business and I know the fish. We should do this.”

The inspiration to take on the “business” came from a pescaderia that was no longer operating efficiently. Three previous owners before them did not work out and the fishermen found themselves having to become salesmen as well. Because of that experience they were wary of the new owners. “It was hard,” Guelymar says, her face at first serious, then softening. “The fishermen, they didn’t trust us. They thought we would make some money and then go away as well. Now, it’s good. But it was hard in the first two years. We worked out of our house. Every day, fishermen at my door.”

Watching them work now, it’s clear in the interactions of Torres/Perez and the fishermen that they need and appreciate each other. One job picks up where the other leaves off. The fishermen know they will be paid at the end of their workday, and fairly, by filling the needs of Pescaderia Angelyz. Torres and Perez know they will be paid at some point by filling ours.

And so the final phase of the cycle brings the bounty to us. Guelymar says about seven of the restaurants on Vieques buy from them, some regularly and some from time to time. Fortunate visitors and residents of Vieques enjoy the literal catch of the day when they stop by. Lobster, conch and fish not sold the day of catch are placed in the chest freezers and sold within the week. Eric takes anything left at the end of the week to the big island on Monday and sells it to a distributor in Naguabo where it quickly ends up on the tables of multiple restaurants there.

When asked if she feels her work is important she answers quickly. “Oh, yes. There’s a lot of families depending on it. At least twenty families. And then the restaurants.” And the future? How long will she keep doing the work? Guelymar pauses then looks out across the pier, the boats, the water, for a simple answer to a question bigger than her. “Until the sea stops giving.”

Vieques. Sea life. Family. And so it continues….

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