A middle-aged man sways across the outdoor dance floor, nodding and smiling at friends as he moves to the rhythm of the bachata coming from a band called Grupo Melaza Mania.
In his left hand, the man holds a can of Medalla Premium Light beer. He extends his right hand to a woman in tall black heels, ripped skinny jeans and a tight bun of black hair streaked with grey, who follows him to the dance floor.
Abraham Ortiz and Doris Vega, both in their 50s, move to the music effortlessly, as though they’ve been doing it since they were born.
It’s a little after 4 p.m. on a Sunday in September at La Gozadera, an outdoor dance club and unofficial haven for local residents off the main road into the small town of Yabucoa, near the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico.
The place has been crowded with dancers and onlookers since the band started playing after 2. The sky is thick with clouds, the air is sticky. Beads of water form on the beer and water bottles that are piling up on tables between friends.
“What do you want to hear?” the band leader shouts to the crowd. “Merengue, bachata, salsa?”
“All of it,” people shout back.
The men and women at the dance hall are mostly in their 50s, 60s and 70s — and though the place won’t close until 10 p.m., several say they will be gone by 7, before it gets dark and the lightless streets become too hard to navigate.
It’s an adjustment the music lovers have made since the club reopened in late August after being closed for 11 months as a result of the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2017. The devastating storm left the town of about 34,000 people without a single working stoplight and many roads without working lights of any kind.
In the crowd of a hundred or so at the dance hall on this day, anyone could tell a personal story of loss from the hurricane. But they have come to enjoy themselves, so many hold each other close on the dance floor, while others sit on plastic chairs tapping their feet to the music or lean against the bar ordering drinks.
For two decades, La Gozadera, which means the party or a good time, has been a place for locals from Yabucoa and surrounding towns to dance, drink and eat fried empanadillas made by the owner, a tenacious businesswoman named Carmen M. Davila Ramos. There is a full bar, a dance floor that fits dozens of couples and a patio area where dozens more spend the time, some catching up with friends.
Ramos, 69, has made the club into a place where customers feel as though they’re with family. Women, in particular, consider it a place where they can dance without the worries they sometimes experience at other dance clubs in nearby towns, the ones with younger crowds.
When Maria hit, many regulars at La Gozadera — which was a wreck — were left without an outlet for their stress at a time when people went months without light, scrambled to find basic necessities and struggled to figure out how to rebuild homes that were damaged or destroyed.
“It was like something was missing and we needed it back to feel normal again,” says customer Shirley Martinez, 57, of Fajardo.
Another customer, Jenny Rodriguez, 60, of Luquillo, says her aunt died after Maria struck the island. She needed dialysis but could not get it.
“It hit me hard. It hit all of us hard,” she says of the storm.
Rodriguez is holding a Michelob Ultra beer in one hand and a Benson & Hedges cigarette in another. She is wearing flowery heels, a fuchsia blouse and red lipstick as she mouths the words to “Te Amo,” a ballad that’s being played to a merengue beat.
“Ay, si pudiera entender, porque tanto cambiaste mi vida y borraste mi ayer.” If only I could understand why you so changed my life and erased my yesterday.
On the dance floor, Angel Manuel Barreto, 74, has his right hand settled softly above Magdalena Rojas Gomez’s hip, guiding her steps front and back.
He wears a long gray ponytail and, in one ear, a small gold loop with a cross. Her eyes are outlined with green liner. Her lips are bright pink. They have been dancing together at La Gozadera for all the years it’s been open.
Maria destroyed the second story of Barreto’s home in Caguas.
“All of it,” says Rojas, 61, who also lives in Caguas. “The roof, the walls, the furniture, his bed, everything.”
She lost her patio, the gate and everything outside her home. They were without electricity for eight months.
Barreto says he rebuilt without any outside help. For a time, he had only part of a roof, and he would put his bed in a place where it wouldn’t get wet from rain and sleep watching the stars.
“I enjoyed it,” he says. “These things that happen are God’s decisions. And we have to respect them.”
In a corner, a bit removed from the crowd, Blanca Perez, 49, and her husband, Samuel Mojica, 63, are holding hands in their chairs. She weaves her fingers in and out of his, caressing them slowly.
Water flooded her home and trees smashed into it, Perez says. They have fixed it little by little, despite months without electricity.
Before “the event,” as Mojica calls it, they danced at La Gozadera on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Now it opens for dancing only on Sundays. But having it back, even if just once a week, has been healing, Perez says.
“A little beer. Some dancing. You get distracted,” she says.
When a new song starts to play, Mojica takes Perez’s hand and they dance near their chairs. He turns her around, holds her waist from behind for a couple of steps and then spins her around once more.
He pulls her close and kisses her gently on the cheek.