From The Bottom to The Top

By: Natalia Alessandra Arroyo Gomez

Roberto Alers Velazquez seems to be a man that has always had his life planned out, but the truth is he hasn’t. Roberto used to be a guy who had a normal job, went to the gym and was married. Then all of the sudden, overnight, his wife left him. He fell into a deep depression, “I became an alcoholic and was on the verge of dying”. He slept on streets, parks, bridges, abandoned homes or wherever he found shelter. “When I didn’t have alcohol, I would mix soda with ethanol; those are moments I don’t want to remember.”

Alers eventually became very violent and would pick up a fight in every corner, due to his actions he was arrested a few times and he was even sent to “Las Cucharas” a correctional complex located in Ponce, Puerto Rico. All types of criminals are sent here. While being in jail he was sent to an isolation room called “la pecera” or “fish tank” where the police could watch over him and see what he did when he was alone.

alers

This is what Roberto does on a normal day at the Mayaguez Optical Laboratory. Here he us cutting the class for the prescription glasses

“The government treated Roberto as a criminal, but he was not a criminal he was a just a person in distress that needed help” said one of Alers co-workers Elizabeth Gómez.

Being an alcoholic Roberto suffered two episodes of delirium tremens, one in jail and the other one on the streets. Medscape Reference indicates that Delirium tremens is the most severe form of ethanol withdrawal; it is manifested by altered mental status (global confusion) and sympathetic overdrive (autonomic hyperactivity), which can progress to cardiovascular collapse. In more than one occasion he tried to kill himself. In one crazy fit he tried cutting his throat with a broken beer bottle; he also ran in front of cars trying to get hit in Mayagüez’s main highway, ‘la militar”, he was out of control all because of alcohol. “Even my dad gave up on me.” In fact, Roberto’s dad wanted to shoot him or be shot as an act of desperation. He was sent to the hospital and when his injuries were cured, he was sent to jail once again.”So you see that the system treats you as a criminal”. “Jail is a horrific place to be” says Roberto. “In order to survive you need to blend in with the gangs inside and take sides otherwise you are history. The etas are the strongest, they have absolute control”.

Ms .Gomez indicated that according to Roberto being incarcerated in Puerto Rico either helps you or makes you worst, in Roberto’s case he was lucky enough to find the help he needed in a group of people that prayed and read the Bible. “God’s word was my salvation”. There where support groups that helped overcome his alcohol problem. ‘One has to be strong and determined to overcome things. I tell you it’s practically impossible to get out of the hole where I was in. It’s a miracle that I am still alive, I am a miracle’ claims Roberto who’s 56.

Tall, strong, an afro-puertorrican, wearing his white laboratory robe, Roberto makes his way through his work station at Mayaguez Optical Lab, where he currently works. It was thanks to Dr. Luis Vazquez, may he rest in peace, that I had my first formal work experience’. After Roberto had regained his dignity and life was getting on track, having overcome his alcohol abuse he worked at a Liquor Store. “Life is full of surprises” says Roberto as he smiles, “but I never touched any of those bottles I sold to customers. It made me sad to see fine people buying booze and destroying their lives”. Roberto left this job and sold doughnuts for a while.

He was then hired by someone he knew to work as a handyman with the government project called “Comunidades Especiales” Roberto feels very proud to have worked in this social based program. “I felt useful and happy constructing houses for needy people, like myself”. Sometime after a cousin of Roberto who is also a friend of Dr. Vazquez’s son, Kenny Vazquez, now president and owner of Mayaguez Optical, told him about Roberto’s skills on optical manufacturing. So he was hired to work doing exactly what he had been doing with Dr. Vazquez when his life was interrupted by tragedy.”Life goes around in circles” “I was studying to become an optician. I was almost completing my studies when I became an alcoholic”. I asked him if he would go back to school to finish up his grade as an optician and he answered “Not for now.”

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Roberto, 56, with his lab robe, posed very serious as he was doing his job.

“Now my life is a million times better, I like to spend time with my wife and my little son who is only five years old. When I get home from work he runs to me screaming ‘papa’! Then he hugs me as if I were his hero”.=

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