San Juan, Puerto Rico

18 September 1998

From termites to cockroaches
User-friendly guide sheds light on Puerto Rico's other residents
by Natalia de Cuba, STAR staff

It was the seductive feel of the water on bare feet, pebbles between toes, sun on the back that attracted him. Alfonso Silva Lee was only 11 when he knew that his future lay with sea creatures and nature.

A Cuban-born youngster whose father was exiled from the island until Fidel Castro came to power, Silva Lee took advantage of the family's bayside home in Miami to explore the world of the coastline and fish, setting the pattern for his future.

For the past three years, Silva Lee has been living in Puerto Rico and in his latest book, "Natural Puerto Rico/Puerto Rico natural," he has brought a lifetime of study and adventure to a friendly book about the creatures that live in his adopted land.

His family returned to Cuba when he was around 13. He went to the university to study, dropped in on a seminar that he thought was on osteology, but turned out to be oceanography and was hooked. He was one of two Cuban students to win a scholarship to the State University of Moscow and finished his bachelor's in marine biology there.

"When I was finished I knew everything about carp, but nothing about Caribbean fish except what sometimes came out of the oven," says Silva Lee.

That was soon to change. He might not have been an expert on tropical snapper, but he had learned his methodology and he could scuba dive, so when he returned to Cuba, he began to search for, study and catalog a rich and as-yet mysterious world.

"I spent seven years with the Oceanography Institute navigating Cuba in little boats," he says. "It was virgin territory then; I experienced the pleasure of diving in places that no one had ever dived before. I studied things that had not been seen before. I had a wonderful time with that blue, that spiritual tranquility, the moments of meditation, of falling in love with a sunset.

"Fortunately in those days everything in the field was still disorganized, so there was tremendous liberty in the work," he says. "Later in the mid-70s everything began to become organized and all the resources went for things that were economically lucrative in the short term. Resources for those that were not profitable disappeared.

Silva Lee did not abandon his wildlife studies, but continued and expanded them under various government agencies. He worked for the Tourism Ministry as an ecological consultant, the Fishing Ministry for underwater cinema and for the National Natural History Museum. He realized that if Cuba did not keep tabs on its undersea life, it was equally far behind on terrestrial happenings in flora and fauna.

His first book was a request. It was a book on fish for children. He said it was a coincidence that he did it.

"I happened to cut a tendon in my right hand," he recalls. "I was left-handed, but they gave me a month's rest at home, so I wrote the book in that month."

While he has written books and articles for a more technical crowd, Silva Lee's writing continues to be remarkably user-friendly. Wasps are the real inventors of paper, termites live in hotels and are led by a "royal couple" who are actually slaves to reproduction, and spiders are lonely hunters who escape the excesses of their siblings by ballooning away.

The pictures are also National Geographic quality. Silva Lee has been taking virtually all of his own photographs since a neighbor sold him a used camera in the '70s. At first reluctant, now he loves to take pictures, although only of creatures with more than two legs. He doesn't like people pictures.

"Natural Puerto Rico/Puerto Rico natural" is part of the "Natural" series by Pangaea in St. Paul, Minn. It is a bilingual series on the wildlife of Latin countries. Silva Lee also wrote "Cuba natural" for the publishers.

His next project is a book with plenty of illustrations, but he can't say who will publish it, nor does he give many details on the content. He is freelancing full-time now, living near Coto Laurel. He decided to stay in Puerto Rico after several visits.

"I had been out of work for a year and a half, because I had resigned from the National Museum when the administration changed," Silva says. "I had three or four manuscripts for children's books that had laid around unpublished for 10 years. The publishing industry [in Cuba] is practically dead; it seems to have a terminal illness. I had to make a living. There were problems of getting film, of being able to develop film. I had been to Puerto Rico several times but always returned to Cuba. Finally as the perspective was getting worse, I decided not to go back."

He does not know where his interests will lead him, but he'd like to continue his flora and fauna studies on other Caribbean islands. In the meantime he is enjoying Coto Laurel, "living amid the mountains, the trees and the coquís."

Copyright 1998 The San Juan Star