Utuado, P.R. - Letty Martínez Afanador with a client at her barbershop.
Utuado, P.R. - Letty Martínez Afanador with a client at her barbershop. (Carlos Rivera Giusti)

Editor’s note: This report is part of a series to mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Lee esta historia en español.

UTUADO — At Letty Martínez Afanador’s barbershop, much has changed in the last five years—even if it may not look that way at first glance.

From Tuesday to Saturday, customers enter the doors of the shop, sometimes in a trickle and other times in groups, just as they have for almost 30 years. Many of her clients are Utuadeños whose once abundant manes have transformed into sparse grays. While everyone in the shop tends to take part in the chatter, every so often a client confides in Letty in whispers. Conversations range from common problems—”we haven’t had water for three days”—to work, family and personal goings on, to the kind of teasing that only happens among those who’ve known each other a lifetime.

But Letty and her barbershop aren’t what they used to be.

In the five years since Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico, leaving this town in the center of the island practically cut off for months, Letty’s priorities have changed.

Utuado, P.R. - Letty Martínez Afanador with one of her clients at her barbershop on August 11, 2022.
Utuado, P.R. - Letty Martínez Afanador with one of her clients at her barbershop on August 11, 2022. (Carlos Giusti/Staff)

“I learned that few things are really essential,” says Letty, 60. “I’m here and I’m working, thanks to my clients who’ve been with me for decades,” she says, acknowledging that her confidence was shaken after the hurricane. “Five years have passed, and it left a mark” that’s impossible to erase.

It’s evident in the conversations she has with clients in the shop. Any mention of “Maria” unleashes stories of destruction and its aftermath; of clients who lost their homes or businesses; of people who’ve spent the last five years looking for work and economic stability; of a barber who lived through the harsh realities left behind by the historic disaster and its slow, disparate recovery.

“People are more furious now; it really makes you angry,” says Letty, as she clips a man’s hair. “We’ve been screaming about this for five years.”

Samuel Morales, the man getting his hair cut, is a former classmate from the Class of 1980 in what’s known here as “la ‘high’ vieja”—the “old high school.” He chimes in: “We’ve learned survival,” he says. “Since Maria, we’ve learned to survive.”

Letty Martínez Afanador shares a story about Hurricane Maria's recovery, while Samuel Morales sits on her barber chair at Letty's barbershop.
Letty Martínez Afanador shares a story about Hurricane Maria's recovery, while Samuel Morales sits on her barber chair at Letty's barbershop. (Carlos Giusti/Staff)

Letty rode out the storm with a sister in town. Afterward, she had to walk up the mountain to get to her house in Puente Blanco. She took that walk every day—two hours there and two hours back. When Letty first arrived at Puente Blanco, she took stock of what her neighbors needed, helped out where she could and, with the little strength she had left, grabbed a shovel and tried to dig up a car that was trapped under the debris left by the flood.

That lasted for days—at least that’s what she thinks. Like so many people with post-disaster memories, she can’t remember exactly how long. She knows for sure that she lost 50 pounds in the first three months of what would be almost a year of emergency and survival mode in the mountains of Utuado. She still hasn’t gained the weight back.

“Emotionally, I shut down,” Letty says. The blackout in Puente Blanco lasted between nine and 10 months, which she says deepened her depression. “I isolated myself because I had to get home before dark.”

In the early weeks after the storm, the mission was simply to survive—”There was no food! There was no food!” she recalls with anger and sadness—so work at the barbershop had to wait. It was impossible to be there anyways.

The barbershop first belonged to her uncle. Today she shares it with her cousin (the trade runs in the family). It’s located at the entrance to town, where the Arecibo and Viví Rivers converge. It’s an ideal location for attracting customers, but not for floods, such as those that followed Hurricane María. The 20 inches of rain that fell during the storm left severe flooding that experts classified as a 100-year storm event.

Fernando Afanador, Letty's cousin, with a client on a Thursday at her barbershop in Utuado, P.R.
Fernando Afanador, Letty's cousin, with a client on a Thursday at her barbershop in Utuado, P.R. (Carlos Giusti/Staff)

Like many places across the island, Letty’s Barber Shop flooded.

“A client came to my house and said: ‘Letty, what are you going to do?’” she remembers. That helped her muster the courage to visit the shop a few weeks after the storm. She knew then that the store—flooded and full of mud and mold—would take a long time to repair. She retrieved one of her electric razors that day and started visiting clients at their homes, powered by a portable generator. That’s how she got back to cutting hair.

For months, Letty paid for repairs with her own savings (and no governmental assistance): to clean the barbershop, disinfect, paint and replace the furniture damaged by the flood waters and humidity. She reopened with an electric generator between February and March 2018, but everyone in Utuado was still just trying to survive.

“It felt like we really started from scratch in 2019,” she says.

A year later, the havoc wrought by the January 2020 earthquakes followed by forced closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic brought even more instability and change. In Utuado, the tremors damaged several buildings, including one in the center of town that housed Letty’s cousin Fernando Afanador’s own barbershop. That’s why they now keep each other company in Letty’s shop.

The conversation that happens in the barbershop—with her cousin, with clients, between friends—has become fundamental to Letty’s wellbeing, even when she doesn’t agree with what’s being said. It’s one of the only things that keep her going after the disaster, she admits. “I’m passionate about this,” she says.

Letty Martínez Afanador on August 11, 2022 at her barbershop at Utuado's town center.
Letty Martínez Afanador on August 11, 2022 at her barbershop at Utuado's town center. (Carlos Giusti/Staff)

Within the four walls of Letty’s Barber Shop, Carmen Leticia Martínez Afanador finds reasons to go on.

“This is the only place where I feel like I can be myself,” she says.

—--

Hurricane Fiona threatened once again to flood Utuado where the Arecibo and Viví Rivers converge, but the flood never came to pass, and Letty Martínez Afanador’s barbershop was spared. At the time of publication, Utuado still did not have electricity. Letty’s Barber Shop remained closed.

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