I sat in the passenger seat of Sylvia De Marco’s jeep as we wound uphill on a road flanked by untamed foliage. It was November of 2019, and I had just arrived on Vieques after a short but breathtaking flight from San Juan. De Marco, a designer and the proprietor of the Dreamcatcher, a hotel on the main island, acted as my unofficial guide. She had recently taken over what was left of a scrappy, 50-year-old guesthouse in the forested Vieques hills — leveled during the hurricane — and rebuilt it as La Finca Victoria, which opened last February for its inaugural season.
“The word hurricane comes from the indigenous Taíno word hurakán, ‘god of the storm,'” De Marco told me. Though the memory of Maria was fresh, she dispelled the notion that disasters are in any way novel to Vieques. “This island has survived so many waves of colonialism,” she explained, veering to avoid one of the many horses that run wild.
Vieques has had tumultuous history; the indigenous Taíno inhabited the island for around 500 years until the Spanish arrived violently in the 15th century. France, Britain, even Denmark all vied for control of the island for the next three hundred years until it was annexed by Puerto Rico in the early 19th century. Sugarcane production expanded and, with it, plantation slavery. When The United States took Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American war, Vieques was part of the package. As U.S. entry into World War II loomed on horizon, the Navy seized control of more than half the island, further displacing farmers and local residents, and established the base that would remain active until the Navy officially left in 2003.