Brig. Gen. Reyes: We have to sweat for our homeland, Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN – He still sleeps in his living room and bathes in cold water because, like more than half of Puerto Rico’s residents, he still doesn’t have power from the grid at home and, like many others, doesn’t have a generator.
As was the case for much of the population, Hurricane María flooded his apartment and, after he finished getting it dry, he visited his parents, whose home also had flooded. While filling buckets of water, he received news of Levittown’s flooding, a district where water reached 10 feet high and hundreds scrambled onto their rooftops for safety.
This person, responsible for the logistics to help rebuild the island, hasn’t had much rest. He had his father’s funeral last week, too.
That’s what it has been like for Brig. Gen. José Juan Reyes, a Puerto Rican who is the island’s dual status commander, coordinating the efforts of the Armed Forces and the National Guard in the aftermath of María. In his paused and confident manner, Reyes shared details of his life in an interview with Caribbean Business.
With more than 30 years in service, the story of this Guaynabo native who was raised in Carolina is that of the typical Puerto Rican fighter. He said his father, who instead of opting for the military joined the Peace Corps, ran away from home to be able to continue studying until becoming an adult, when he left for Spain to study medicine. It was there where he found love in the eyes of a Spaniard 20 years younger, and with whom he lived his life.
However, during the last year of medical school, “my grandfather died and dad returned to Puerto Rico to take care of the family.” His mother, who is “a wonderful woman,” has had Parkinson’s disease for 25 years, which led them to start the Puerto Rican Parkinson’s Association, which has been his “therapy,” he said proudly.
While directing operations to stabilize and rebuild the island that began after Hurricane Irma, Reyes has visited municipalities, the countryside and neighborhoods. Along with his brigades, he has been seen carrying boxes of water, listening to the mayors, residents and children.
Of all he has seen, what has moved him most is witnessing human nature amid adversity. “I have seen committed soldiers and the people of Puerto Rico […] go to towns, the first days, see elderly men and women […;] in Utuado, going to the Ángeles neighborhood, I found a 70-year-old lady with a machete in hand, cleaning up the road, and thought, ‘Wow, this is the Puerto Rico I know! These are the people I know, who have gone out to the street themselves,’” he said, marveling at their resolve.
Reyes began working at an age when many are still playing with toy cars or, these days, video games. At age 12, he would get up at 5 a.m. to pick pigeon peas for $8 a day. At 14, he was already doing well in the family business, car and muffler repairs, where the money he made he shared with his sister, whom “dad, being quite macho, didn’t allow to work.”
But youth is a difficult and challenging period. Differences between father and son began to arise due to the way in which business was handled, and in a mix of rebellion and the need for a scholarship, Reyes enlisted in the Army. Laughingly, he recalled that “he almost killed me,” although “he always respected my decisions.”
Thus, on Oct. 1, 1985, he left home and began a long and successful military career, got married and became a father.
“I believe that God has a purpose for everything that happens, at least on my personal level, that’s how it has been. Sometimes, one proposes or questions why things happen, but I have learned, perhaps with life’s struggles and maturity, to continue working hard. I am extremely grateful,” Reyes reflected.
It was the 2000s when a call from Washington took him out of the race for the mayor of Carolina against José Aponte de la Torre Sr. “I was in the Pentagon, in the Crisis Action Team, when the 9/11 attack occurred; the Army had an element of rapid action operations–what I’m doing now,” he said.
Little more than 10 years would pass before he returned to the island as National Guard operations director. He served several positions until commanding the 201st Regiment at the Fort Allen Training Center in Juana Díaz, which included youth programs.
“For me it was a life experience and possibly in my 32 years of service it was the most rewarding operation: To be able to build a better life for those young people and make a change. Not only do they finish with a high school diploma, but they change their life philosophy completely,” he said excitedly.
With his notebook always at hand and within it several neatly folded papers, the also former deputy administrator and then undersecretary of the so-named Corrections Administration under former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, said that moving Puerto Rico forward is a everyone’s job.
“We are the ones who are going to rebuild Puerto Rico and we need to have patience; maybe we would like to solve everything within a day with a magic wand, but no. There will be many people who will continue to bathe in cold water for a long time or sleep in the living room, but we have to do what needs to be done,” stressed Reyes, who had two children. The boy became a doctor and the girl is now a medical student.
With his job now to oversee recovery efforts amid the precarious situation left by María, he reiterated his message to the people: “No one can stay in bed, everyone has to go out and work and sweat, like mom would say, here you have to sweat for the homeland, here whoever says they’re Puerto Rican, now is the time. Now is the time to prove it. Now, it’s necessary to help your neighbor, the single mother, the elderly […]; there’s nothing else.”
With his background and perhaps not having stopped to think he is inscribing his name in the history of Puerto Rico, Reyes stressed: “After one reaches the goal that was set, one looks back at the path traveled, and maybe on the way we didn’t make the best decisions in the world, but we have to live with them, but we have to make decisions. Puerto Rico is not going to fix itself, we must fix it, and we fix it by joining one another and with a lot of effort.”