Once-thriving Puerto Rico mountain town finds itself at economic abyss amid population flight

Ismael Rodriguez looked out on a nearly empty plaza from the clothing store he opened in 1960, now hemmed in by padlocked businesses in this mountain town in northwestern Puerto Rico.

"Junior: Fashion Dictator" is the oldest business in Lares still run by its original owner, a feat in a town that is experiencing the deepest malaise of just about any community on this island in the depths of an economic crisis.

"I have seen the destruction of a town," Rodriguez, 67, said as he gestured toward the plaza. "Look at all the shuttered stores."

Lares has become emblematic of the economic stagnation that is overwhelming Puerto Rico, and those who live here believe it is a warning sign of things to come across the island if it doesn't emerge soon from a nearly decade-long financial slump.

The town of some 30,000 people has lost more residents than any other municipality in Puerto Rico in the last four years, and it has the island's second-highest unemployment rate, at 22 percent. In the past five years, more than 25 percent of businesses have closed and more than a third of farms have collapsed as families flee to the U.S. or to other more prosperous parts of the island.

Lares was once a thriving agricultural center, producing about 20 percent of the coffee grown in Puerto Rico and was a bedroom community for people working in manufacturing plants along the northern coast. It also had a prominent role in Puerto Rican history, considered the birthplace of the independence movement and the site of an annual commemoration of an 1868 uprising against the Spanish.

In more recent years, it had become a tourist destination for people coming to shop for crafts at its open air market and to visit the Lares Ice Cream Store, the most famous on the island. The shop, now closed, featured exotic flavors like sweet plantains, garlic and cod fish and was such a fixture that tourism dropped 80 percent after it shut down last year.

Agriculture was once Lares' economic engine, producing surpluses of coffee, plantains, oranges and bananas thanks to the 25 to 40 sacks of free fertilizer that farmers received from the government. But as government revenues dwindled, officials instead gave each farmer $45, which buys one sack of fertilizer, said Mayor Roberto Pagan.

"How is that enough to make a living?" he asked, noting that the number of farms in Lares has dwindled from nearly 1,500 to less than 1,000 in recent years.

As the economy continues to contract in Puerto Rico, jobs have dried up, with hundreds of manufacturing plants leaving the island or downsizing dramatically. Among those hit was the once-thriving Eagle Industries plant in Lares that makes U.S. military and police uniforms. Some 300 people work there now, but Pagan said the factory sometimes closes for up to two months at a time amid economic fluctuations.

Businesses that managed to stay open in downtown Lares and elsewhere continue to struggle, with a shrinking number of customers who are watching their budgets.

"Ten years ago or more, I used to sell thousands of dollars a day," Rodriguez said. "Now, I only sell maybe $100."

As jobs and farms vanish, so have people.

Nearly 2,000 have left Lares in the past four years, with another nearly 4,000 people leaving from 2000 to 2010, emptying out neighborhoods as the number of homes for sale multiply. Overall, an estimated 144,000 people left Puerto Rico between 2010 and 2013, and then more than 64,000 fled last year in the largest exodus in decades. About a third of all people born in Puerto Rico now live on the U.S. mainland.

"Every day we lose more clients," said Edilberto Rodriguez, owner of The Sports Bar in downtown Lares. "They stop in and say goodbye, saying that they're moving to the United States, that there is no work."

Among them is 20-year-old Angela Matias. Local government officials put her in touch with a U.S.-based company that paid for her flight and her first month's rent to work as a housekeeper at hotels in Louisiana. More than a dozen other young people from Lares were recruited for jobs in the U.S. the same way.

"Imagine, you have nothing here and they offer you everything over there," said Matias, who was in Lares visiting family. "I'm leaving because there is nothing, nothing, nothing at all here."

The population loss is even reflected at Lares' public basketball courts.

Jose Perez, 20, said he and his friends used to wait at least three hours for the chance to play a game. Now they have to wait because there are not enough players.

"There were only four of us the other day," he said. "We couldn't play."

Pagan said Lares is scraping by thanks to U.S. government funds that have paid in part for the construction of a park, renovations of rundown homes and a program to help the town's growing elderly population, which has swelled by nearly 10 percent the past four years, one of the biggest increases in Puerto Rico.

"If it weren't for the help from the federal government, this would be chaos," he said, adding that even those funds have been limited and that municipal officials have been forced at times to pick up garbage and paint public recreation areas.

Despite the economic downturn, some business owners like Rodriguez are determined to stick it out.

"I'll close this when Puerto Rico falls apart," he said of his clothing store. "This is 55 years of my heart, my family, my soul."

But looking outside at the empty streets, he conceded: "Sales have been slow. This last year has been ..."

He stopped, his eyes watering slightly, then looked down at the floor and remained silent.


Danica Coto on Twitter: www.twitter.com/danicacoto