(WNCT) The headstones at Fort Bragg tell a story, a story of the unknown. The unknown representing workers from Puerto Rico over 100 years ago in North Carolina working to build better lives for their families.
It all started in 1918 when the U.S. Labor Department begin looking for people to help with government projects.
“I think they were trying to customize it to place these workers, which were all men of working age, with families and skills, to place them in southern installations just for that climate compatibility, to a certain extent that worked and to another extent it did not work,” said Linda Carnes-McNaughton, Arquelogist at Fort Bragg.
1700 Puerto Rican workers came to the U.S. mainland to assist with the construction of the army base Camp Bragg, now known as Fort Bragg.
“They came on a U.S. transport ship, the City of Savannah, steamship, that was carrying supplies to San Juan for military installation and then bringing these islanders back, so they were actual recruiters that were out there recruiting laborers out of sugar plantation,” said Carnes-McNaughton.
The experience of these workers in North Carolina was one of survival.
The workers dealing with a change in climate, little medical attention and only speaking Spanish.
But back home, their families on the island were being impacted by natural disasters. An earthquake followed by a deadly tsunami.
Meanwhile, some Puerto Rican workers fell ill to what was known as the Spanish Flu. Some even dying.
“Some records indicate that there were 40 to 42 Puerto Ricans that died in that first month like by the end of October, they’re passing away from these hardships,” said Carnes-McNaughton.
With these workers getting sick, the language barrier did not allow them to understand what was going on, but nurses like Lena Jason served as a translator.
Jason was the daughter of a black Presbyterian minister who took his family to Puerto Rico to oversee missionary work.
“Went to Wilmington to help them for as long as they needed help, providing care, serving as a translator, not only for their well being but their morals,” said Jessica Bandel, Digital Editor at North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
Not only did Jason help in this crisis, but also Henry Jackson Kivett and his family.
The Kivett family offered the workers food and shelter on their farm where Camp Bragg was being built.
“That family sort of witnessed the beginning of this impact of the flu,” said McNaughton.
Which was death. The Kivett farm then becoming the burial ground for some of the Puerto Rican workers who died.
The army later purchasing that land which is now the Main Post Cemetery.
The tragic event was only known to some but a worker named Rafael Marchan became the first to talk about their experience.
“He’s a brave person for willing, being willing to be the voice of their experience while they were in the Fayetteville area,” said Bandel.
In December 1918, when the epidemic ended, some workers returned to the island.
“Many of the islanders who just couldn’t simply never adjust and who have survived the flu just went back again on U.S. transport back to Puerto Rico, not all but many,” said Carnes-McNaughton.
But for those who didn’t survive their families had no information about their status.
“I think part of the tragedy was with these workers dying so quickly it’s not really clear who is keeping records, I mean obviously they have names on their headstones, but who’s notifying their families that they are not coming back,” said Carnes-McNaughton.
“That’s sad because we need to remember our families and the person that lives for us…” said Army Staff Sergeant Carlos Muñiz.
Army Staff Sergeant Carlos Muñiz relates to the Puerto Rican workers.
He too, coming to the United States 23 years ago in search of a better life.
“They came here for opportunities may be to help their families and it’s sad that they come here and nobody remembers them what they did,” said Muñiz.
Puerto Ricans were part of the beginnings of the nation’s largest military installation by population.
“The first people to actually lay down their lives, to help build this installation, and that should be a proud heritage, you know because this is still standing and it represents this multicultural contribution and I think the Puerto Ricans were first to offer that,” said Carnes-McNaughton.
Historians and soldiers invite the community to recognize their work and their legacy.
“And because we come from a different place, different background, we bring something to the table that creates diversity and that diversity is pretty rich,” said Muñiz.
“In this moment we got a whole bunch of Puerto Ricans coming because we have a situation on the island and it’s not easy. You miss the island, the people that were in there but you’re looking for a better future, and at the same time you can help this country to go forward, as well as your family, and with diversity you can even change the world, you put a little bit and a little bit that everybody puts the world can be different, all depend on us,” said Muñiz.