Wearing black rubber boots, a heavy black winter jacket, and a worn straw hat, Teofilo Torres stumbled into the room carrying with him a jug of pitorro and an old shovel. The smell of cigar smoke trailed him as a small ensemble seated on stage provided a soundtrack of jíbaro music. The 53-year-old Puerto Rican actor and renowned monologist was in character as Pateco the Gravedigger, a drunken political pundit with a darkly humorous, at times, philosophical outlook on everything from the fiscal crisis to life after Hurricane Maria.
The character is based on a historical figure of the same name, as Torres explains during the show. According to Puerto Rican folklore, Pateco is the name of a gravedigger in Old San Juan who became responsible for burying the excess of dead bodies after hurricane San Ciriaco hit the island in 1899, killing thousands. Over time, the macabre phrase “A fulano se lo llevó Pateco” became a common euphemism among Puerto Ricans for death or serious illness. Patecto, in turn, is said to have carried the dead past the gates of the cemetery; the result of a decree that had been passed in hopes of containing an outbreak of disease that followed the storm. Later in the performance, Torres offers another possible explanation for the phrase, derived from Latin, that dates back centuries, to the work of Catholic missionaries.
Regardless of the origin of the phrase, the story of Pateco provided Torres with license to approach serious, difficult subject matter within the context of humor and cheek, un desahogo colectivo for audience and performer alike; whether it be island politics (“One party wins, then they hire the other”), modern technology (“I have a cell phone; I’m a sophisticated jíbaro.”), or philosophy (“La vida es un roto.”)—in addition to the more topical humor related to Hurricane Maria. Much of this commentary was facilitated by aguinaldos and décimas performed throughout the set, with Torres often reading lyrics written on the back of a bag of pig feed.
The special one-night engagement was held at the Loisaida Center, on the eve of the 100th day since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, thus adding a particular significance to Pateco’s message. It was during the second half of the performance that Torres addressed topics such as the infamous paper towel incident during the president’s visit to the island in October. He later interrupted a song to discuss the death toll, the most subversive parallel underlying his anachronistic character. Though the official count remains at 64, some reports estimate that some 1,052 deaths are related to the storm. As Pateco, Torres put it like this: “Not many died during hurricane, many deaths came afterwards.” A sobering applause followed, distinct from the the hearty laughter heard for much of the night. It was a reminder of the darkness cast over Puerto Ricans since Hurricane Maria, a brooding sense of what lies ahead. By the end, Torres took a final bow as the audience stood in admiration.