Guest artist: Luis Gilberto Rico-Ballester

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Water love

This is an excerpt from a memoir-in-progress.

My early recollections of my dad, whom  I always addressed as Papá, suggest an insatiable obsession with water and anything associated with it. His name was Pedro Osvaldo Rico Cardona. He was born in 1884 to a family that owned a big farm in the mountains overlooking the town of San Sebastian, Puerto Rico. The farm was devoted to growing crops such as coffee, corn and all types of grains, and it was a big cattle ranch.

As a young adult, Papá developed an interest in hydraulics, the science of harnessing the power of water. He had cisterns built and wells dug, and constructed a water delivery system for a large cattle ranch in  the area.

Time passed. My dad married his Dulcinea, Amelia Ballester-Lopez de Victoria. Eventually our family moved to San Juan, where they lived for a few years. Then we returned to San Sebastian, and Papá bought a coffee farm, where he built a new house. There was a natural well about a quarter of a mile from the house. My dad’s hydraulic engineering instinct was aroused. He had built the house at a level below the well. He bought steel piping and installed a piping system to deliver water from the well to the house and to the coffee processing building, which he had also constructed. He  installed a shower and the first water toilet in the entire region in that house. The year must have been around 1920.

After my abuelo Juan Bautista Ballester-Gonzalez died, his house and a section of his farm were inherited by my mother. There was neither an aqueduct system nor electricity in the countryside at that time. Rainwater was collected on the extensive roof and routed through metal ducts to a cistern, where it was stored for use by the family. Papá’s first project was to install a hand water pump on top of the cistern, plus a 55-gallon tank on top of a tower that he built. Water from the cistern was pumped as required into this tank. In this way, we had running water for the house. My dad never knew that he was a pioneer in the green movement, which would start 75 years later. He was the first person I know who used solar heating for water. He did not have to install any special equipment; just let the fiery tropical sun warm the tank and the water that it contained.

Most of the property surrounding our house was devoted to a coffee plantation. Papá had already developed a business growing, selling and exporting ornamental plants while living in San Juan. In addition, he had also started a business for making and selling floral arrangements. In order to continue his business, he started replacing the coffee trees with grafted orange trees of several varieties, and he planted a beautiful garden with a huge collection of flowers such as roses, dahlias, orchids and other flowers, as well as a large plot for vegetables.

His big problem was that, in the dry season, these trees and plants needed irrigation. A small stream ran through the middle of the farm. Water was hand carried from this stream to the plants, a labor-intensive task. He decided to drill a well, hoping to find a subterranean water supply. He started drilling the well by hand, using picks and heavy steel bars. At a depth of about two or three feet, he encountered stone. Again, he dipped into his bag of apparently infinite solutions for every occasion: he bought gunpowder  and blasted the rock, which was semisoft and had a beautiful bluish color. Always finding a use for everything, he had the rock smashed and piled by the well. He had the workers haul the blue rock, which he called “cativía” (he invented this name), and construct a pathway from the well to our house. This path is still there, and when he built it, it attracted a lot of attention, resembling a gigantic blue serpent providing  an elevated pathway. I always thought it was something the famous Inkan builders would have loved.

Still there was no electric power in the countryside. One afternoon, Papá showed up with a big hand water pump that had been discarded by a plant in town. He disassembled it and saw that the pump pistons were worn out. He constructed by hand, out of heavy leather, a set of pistons, which he installed in the pump, and made it operable. This was no ordinary feat, especially for a man who had not received any training in the mechanical arts.

He mounted the rebuilt pump by the new well—which received the name of  El Pozo—bought and laid down piping and water hoses and created a hand-operated watering system. Amazing feat! To this day his creativity astonishes me.

A few years ago I went to see  El Pozo during a trip to Puerto Rico to visit my family. It was a very emotionally charged experience as I watched beautiful fish enjoying themselves in the blue waters of El Pozo, which has now become a pond. I could sense the presence of Papá and Mamá next to me. Then, as if emanating from El Pozo, I connected with the Holy Water, in the form of tears which flooded my eyes. It  was a lasting tribute to my dad’s memory and love for water, and to the continuous support that Mamá gave him in the pursuit  of his Magnificent Obsession.

Luis Gilberto Rico-Ballester was raised in the tropical countryside near San Sebastian, Puerto Rico, during the Great Depression. After he obtained an engineering degree, he  served in the U.S. Army  as a second lieutenant. Then he worked as an engineer for Shell Oil Company in San Juan and was lured to Southern California in 1956 to analyze and design thermodynamic systems for airplanes and later spacecraft in the nascent U.S. space program. Prior to retirement, he learned to sculpt wood and alabaster. After retirement, he spent four years at the University of Barcelona, Spain, learning the art and methods of sculpting marble. His artwork has been exhibited in California and in Spain. He is the father of the HOLY WATERS blog mistress, Diana Rico.
Text © Luis Gilberto Rico-Ballester; photos are property of the Rico family archives. Neither may be reproduced without permission. For reprint rights contact dianarico [AT] earthlink [DOT] net.  

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11 Responses to Guest artist: Luis Gilberto Rico-Ballester

  1. I love the story! We have something in common – I am also from San Sebastian, P.R. (El Pepino) not sure if you are familar with that area but it truly is a small world. Never would I have thought of finding someone on talking about San Sebastian. Would love to read more of your P.R. stories.!!

  2. hannahport says:

    Wow! Is your dad still working on this memoir? Can’t wait to read more of it.

  3. Christine says:

    It’s fascinating to read about your father’s ingenuity and creative vision. Beautiful ending.

  4. Such a beautiful excerpt. I still see that blue snake of a walkway. And to arrive at the sacredness of water as the sacredness of memory is a beautiful journey.

    Thanks so much for this,

  5. Montse Albareda says:

    My name is Montse and I am from Barcelona. I studied Fine Arts (scultpture) at the University of my city and there I met with your father Luis Gilberto . All the young people who coincided with Luis in the Univertity were impressed with him: he was very charming : era amigo de todo el mundo , con una gran inteligencia emocional y muy voluntarioso, con muchas ganas de aprender . I also Knew your mother.
    I only speak a little english (I’ve never been in England or USA and I can’t to improve my english as well as I wish).
    Me ha gustado saber de Luis. Un abrazo desde España.

  6. Pingback: The Dance of Water and Earth « Dreaming the World

  7. Pedro Juan Rico Rivera says:

    Great article cousin. How is Tio Gilberto and the family? How can I get in contact with our extended family in California? I am living in Cabo Rojo and still working. Have a great 2015.

  8. Angel Rivera Soto says:

    Aún el balcón está en pie

  9. Angel Rivera Soto says:

    La casa vive

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