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What It Means To Be From Puerto Rico…For Some, A Struggle On The Mainland

In their own words

July 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Morning Call. All rights reserved.

We asked people to tell us what it means to be from Puerto Rico, as the island marks its 50th anniversary as a United States Commonwealth. Here are their responses.

I believe that being from such a beautiful and united country. Being Puerto Rican means to me the unity in family and the culture behind it. I am proud to be part of that beautiful culture not only I will cherish them forever, but my children will follow them as well.

--- Marisol de Aragon, Allentown

Being able to stand anywhere and feel proud of who I am. Learning another language, but still loving mine. Missing my Puerto Rico more every day.

--- Lisa Burgos, Allentown

Taking pride in our culture, heritage and family. Yet having great respect for all other cultures, heritages and families.

--- Mary C. Caro, Bethlehem

What being Puerto Rican means to me is loving Puerto Rico because if it wasn’t for Puerto Ricans we wouldn’t have the banging food we have today. I love Puerto Rico.

--- Beth Davila, Whitehall

Knowing that our culture is one of the cultures or maybe the only culture that stands out for what really is --- companionship, love, unity. Being Puerto Rican makes me very proud.

--- Dorka I. Degro, Allentown

A people that would take the chance and emigrate in the late 40s through the 60s. And no matter where they went (New York, Chicago), they still kept their culture and traditions as they made a place for themselves in the USA.

--- Felix Gonzalez Jr., Allentown

What being Puerto Rican means to me is remembering our history and representing our people in a good way and bringing those good things to the U.S. I was born here so I’m American but I still represent my mother and father. Puerto Rican people are friendly people.

--- Julian Lopez, Trexlertown

The way we are in our culture and family upbringing. We have certain ways of viewing life and what it means when it comes to our family.

--- Nora Martinez, Allentown

Even though we are a little island in the West Indies, there are so many of us around the world and we share our heritage and knowledge and our different culture with everbody.

--- Harold R. Melendez, Allentown

Being Puerto Rican and living in America means that I am a unique person.

---- Jonathan Melendez, Allentown

Even though I’m not from Puerto Rico my parents are. They taught us to work hard and be dedicated in what you do. And never forget your culture.

--- Noelia Ortiz, Allentown

This is what being Puerto Rican means to me: One big family that keeps its culture alive.

--- Valerine D. Perez, Allentown

Being proud of a heritage that keeps its culture and family virtues. No matter where you are born, the fierceness of family loyalty stays alive.

--- Carmen Reyes, Bethlehem

Knowing my culture and continuing to cook our foods and wear my colors with pride. Teaching my kids the language and to be proud of their heritage. Home is where the heart is. Mi Borinquen querida.

--- Monica Rivera, Allentown

What being Puerto Rican means to me is knowing what are ancestors had to go through to survive in such a cruel world. Knowing that our history has to do a lot with the Europeans and Africans, and all the wonderful things about our culture and food. And last but not least, being Puerto Rican to me means that no matter what happens, family is the most precious thing we have.

--- Nivia Rivera, Bethlehem

Is expressed best by the Puerto Rican singer, composer and musician Roy Brown in his song, "Boricua en La Luna." Because all Puerto Ricans are proud of our rich heritage, our distinctive Spanish and our roots. Just one visit to our beautiful island and you are convinced!

--- Blanca Rodriguez, Bethlehem

Puerto Ricans have continuously demonstrated their honor, courage and commitment in defense of our nation. Answering the call to duty, they have unselfishly defended our way of life in peacetime and wartime during periods that have spanned many generations. As a third-generation member of the U.S. armed forces, with 20 years of active duty military service, I have thoroughly enjoyed this legacy, both as a proud American and proud Puerto Rican.

--- USMC Maj. Carlos R. Rodriguez Jr., Bath

Being Puerto Rican is knowing you are the gentlest and most caring ethnicity around. Diversity and a rich culture are just the beginning of our beauty.

--- Lorraine Rodriguez, Allentown

Pride in our origins, land and culture. The definition of our faces and unique skin colors. The language we speak and the kindness of our hearts.

--- Margarita Rodriguez, Allentown

An extreme pride for my heritage. Knowing that my Indian ancestors fought so hard to make our culture what it is today. Hearing the pride that my great-grandparents, my grandparents and my mother use in their voice when they talk about our island. I love being Puerto Rican and I will carry my heritage with lots of pride, the pride I’ll teach my children to have as they grow older.

--- Enid Santiago, Bethlehem

Pride in our beautiful island, with so many distinguished people, love for all music, cultures. Being American, having served 21.5 yrs in the US Air Force, bilingual, and appreciative of all cultures around the world.

--- Jaime Silva, Orefield

Knowing the richness of culture in regards to language, food, music and values passed on from generation to generation. It is knowing and experiencing the heritage of Puerto Rican pride — not only among its people but among its leaders. I am proud to be Puerto Rican.

--- Gregory Torrales, Bethlehem

Being a Puerto Rican is the greatest gift God has given me. Sharing the culture with my own children and teaching them about it has strengthened the honor and proudness I hold in my heart for Puerto Rico.

--- Pedro A. Tosado, Allentown

Definitely my heritage. We are live people filled with love. We are creative, when it comes to the arts (music and ideas). The unity of family that I was taught follows back to my Puerto Rican ancestors. That is why I’m proud.

--- Ivan Velez, Allentown

Being Puerto Rican is wonderful. I love when the family gets together and to parandas, soupones and just a great gathering. It is worth being Puerto Rican. We have a wonderful culture and the food is tastefully great. I’m proud to be Puerto Rican.

--- E. Trinidad-Zayas, Bethlehem

For Some, A Struggle On The Mainland

By Helen Ubinas

July 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved.

Besides getting everything she wanted, there was another advantage to being one of the youngest of the 12 Oyola siblings: Growing up, Margarita Oyola D'az was able to watch and learn from her older brothers and sisters.

She knew how far she could push her father: not far, but farther than the boys could. She knew that despite their parents' lack of schooling, the Oyola children were expected to pursue their educations. Their father, a farmer, and their mother, a cigar factory worker, helped as much as they could, but many of the kids worked two or three jobs to pay their way through training schools or college.

And when nearly half of her brothers and sisters moved to the states - mostly to Hartford - while the others remained in Puerto Rico, Margarita saw that "making it" was no easier and no harder on the mainland than it was on the island.

While her sister Milagros worked her way up in Puerto Rico, from bank teller to bank executive, her brother Adrian was doing the same in Hartford, from electronic test engineer to supervisor of his own department and four other employees.

The states may have been considered the land of opportunity when her aunt and uncle left Puerto Rico 50 years ago - the year the island became a commonwealth - to work in Hartford's cigar factories. But to Margarita, 39, and others who are part of a generation born and raised with the option of moving to and from the states, the mainland doesn't necessarily offer more opportunities than Puerto Rico - no better chance of making it, no more or less of a struggle to reach the middle class. One sister's unpaid electric bill in the states is no different from another's on the island. Ambition, luck, success and failure were a universal language, whether the official language happened to be English or Spanish.

And while there are a few things that set the two places apart - language being only the most obvious - the choice of where to live has less to do with an outdated view of the states as an economic mecca than with quality of life issues. Education, housing, neighborhood - the factors Margarita weighs in deciding between Comerio and Hartford aren't much different from those her brother Adrian considers when thinking about a move from Hartford to the suburbs.

"Being average is a struggle," Adrian Oyola says, "no matter where you are."

After Margarita and her husband, David Rivera Fernandez, married 14 years ago, relatives in Hartford urged them to move up. They were young and didn't have any responsibilities yet. So they moved.

"We were more adventuresome then," she says.

David worked at a foam factory; she worked at a puzzle factory. They lived in a "romantic" studio apartment on Ann Street. Were it not for the death of one of her brothers and her father's failing health, the couple might have stayed in Hartford, working toward better jobs, maybe buying a house as some of her other siblings had done.

Instead, they moved back to Comerio, and picked up where they left off in Hartford. They both got jobs, David in carpentry and Margarita as a nurse in a nearby hospital. They got an apartment. And they started planning a family.

First came Izamar, now 11, with the stoic, reserved demeanor of her Uncle Adrian in Hartford and her Aunt Milagros in Puerto Rico. Then came Valeria, who now at 9 takes after her mother and her aunts Lydia in Hartford and Zoraida in Puerto Rico, with her fast smile, faster tongue and infectious laugh.

David was making good and consistent money, so Margarita was able to stop working and stay home with the girls. While on a job, he spotted a house for sale on a quiet cul-de-sac with a stream out back. The house didn't even have windows when they bought it, but David fixed that and about a hundred other things: the walls, the floors, the plumbing.

It was a house of their own, one that Margarita carefully decorated just the way she liked, with black cabinets and pretty curtains and pictures of the girls hanging on just about every wall.

"It was all my dreams come true," she says.

Things were going pretty smoothly until her childhood epilepsy returned, making it impossible for her to drive. David missed work driving the girls to school, and Margarita to and from doctor's appointments. Bills started to back up.

"You miss a day and then your week is messed up and then your month and then you're trying to catch up until if things don't work out you just can't," he says.

They declared bankruptcy. They managed to keep the house, but they had to rent it out and move to another one closer to town so Margarita could walk the girls to school and get herself to her doctor's appointments. Margarita got a job at the library.

The thought of leaving Puerto Rico never crossed their mind.

"Why?" David asks. "What we were going through here, we would have gone through anywhere. Moving wasn't going to help us. Life isn't predictable. Unexpected things come up, whether you're rich or poor; whether you live here or in Hartford."

Margarita is standing by the stove, in matching red lipstick and shirt, making coffee before heading to town.

"I shouldn't even be wearing this color," she says, laughing. Red is the color of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party. Margarita supports the pro-statehood's New Progressive Party. PDP candidate Sila Calderon was sworn in as governor in January 2001; Margarita was replaced by a PDP party member this January.

"You want to hear one better?" she asks. She calls out to David sitting out on the porch.

"David," she asks, with a mischievous grin. "What party do you support?" He knows where this is going. "PDP," he says, with a sheepish grin. "PDP," she repeats. The very party that cost Margarita her job.

"It happens," David says. "You get used to it, until another party wins, and then you get used to that."

And while jobs in the states may be less vulnerable to politics, there's still no guarantee of job security. Her brother Adrian was out of a job for a few months five years ago, when the electronics firm he worked for shut down.

At least on the island there are ways to scrape by. David's father, who was an ambulance driver for 10 years and who also backs the commonwealth party, lost his job when the new party took over. Now, he sells ice cream for a living, just as David does sometimes to supplement the family's income.

"Everyone has to adapt," says David. "If there's one thing that life has taught me is that you adapt or you don't succeed."

The girls are in a rush to get to school to pick up their report cards. They're straight-A students, and have saved every single report card to prove it. Next year, Valeria goes to fifth grade. Izamar is headed to seventh grade and a new school about an hour away. She'll be taking a school bus.

Izamar goes first. A woman asks her to sign for the grades; she writes her name neatly, takes her report card and smiles.

Valeria's up next. She scribbles her name quickly and runs to show Margarita, and then Izamar.

"Nice signature," Izamar teases.

"Hey, I signed it, didn't I?" Valeria shoots back.

For their good grades, Margarita and David have already taken them out to a movie, to a restaurant and to a toy store, where they were allowed to pick out a toy of their choice.

"I just assumed they'd get straight A's again," Margarita says, with a smile and a shrug.

When Margarita and David separated briefly in 1996, Margarita returned to Hartford to live with Lydia for a while. She enrolled Izamar at Maria Sanchez elementary school.

"It was, how do you say it, 'culture shock'," she says, reaching for the English phrase.

She liked the teachers, but Izamar was already beyond the work they were doing there. She noticed that Izamar and other kids who had come from Puerto Rico sensed things were slower, and slowed down themselves. Izamar was bored.

It's something her sister Lydia, who moved to Hartford with her family six years ago, has been dealing with. Unhappy with the Hartford schools, she put her older son in Catholic school, and is thinking about putting her younger boy in as well.

"Lydia tells me about how much money she spends to send the boys to school there, and I don't know how she does it. Here that kind of education is free."

But as well as the girls are doing in school, there are things that she wishes were available to them in Puerto Rico that are available in the states.

The girls have a dual-language program at their school, but except for a notebook full of English words they don't really comprehend, and a few words they giggle through, they don't speak English.

"Finger," says Valeria, laughing.

"Britney Spears," says Izamar.

It's not yet 6 a.m. and David is on his way out to work. Before Izamar's graduation, he was working seven days a week. They wanted to get her a new dress, gifts and give her a little party.

He walks into the bedroom with the air conditioner, the one the girls share with their parents when it gets too hot, and kisses them goodbye.

"Where are you working today?" Valeria asks him, half asleep. "When are you coming back home?"

He walks out, laughing and shaking his head. "That one has a future as a lawyer, she really does."

Margarita, who wakes up to make him coffee and lunch, walks with him out to the porch.

"Cuidado," she says, with a kiss. Be careful.

She and David met when he was 12 and she was 19, in a house right down the street from where they are living now, on Avenida 110.

They were friends. She'd give him advice about girlfriends. She never thought she'd be one of them. He was too young, for one thing, and more important, too short. David, a stocky, sturdy man, only stands 5 feet, a good 3 inches shorter than Margarita.

"He's my chulito," she says, teasing him. Loosely translated, she adores the man.

"David is a good man, a great father who works hard for his family," Margarita says, almost apologizing. "I wish more men were like that."

The day before Father's Day, Margarita helps organize a collection in town for Paola Gonzalez, a little girl who needs to travel to New Haven for eye surgery doctors in Puerto Rico can't do. Her mother, Sonia Gonzalez, says that Paola's father left her when she was just a month pregnant, and when she called him he told her he couldn't help with the trip. He and his new family were about to go on vacation.

Margarita is hoping people coming into town to buy Father's Day gifts will be in the giving mood. She and the girls have already bought David's gifts: a watch and some cologne, a small bottle until they know whether or not he likes it. And poems that the girls wrote and typed up on the library computers. They're making up for not spending Father's Day with David last year. A nail ricocheted into his eye while he was working and he was in the hospital for three days.

"I was a pirate for a month," David jokes. What wasn't funny was that he was out of work for two months. Friends and family helped. They applied for some food stamps and other benefits to help them get by for a while.

Four hours after the collection began, Margarita and a group of women are counting up money from milk jugs and soda bottles, and talking about how empty the town was compared to Mother's Day.

"By the time you're older," Gonzalez tells her older daughter's boyfriend, "Father's Day will be extinct."

Despite census numbers showing otherwise, Margarita and the other women in the room say there are many single mothers in Comerio.

"It's like that in Hartford, right?" one of the women ask.

Margarita sits quietly, counting the money. A few minutes later, she announces that they have collected $1,102. 03. Someone else finds a penny.

"OK, $1,102. 04," Margarita offers as a final count. Enough for the plane tickets and then some.

Walking back home, Margarita says she feels bad, for Sonia's bad luck, for her good luck. It's hard watching David work so hard because of her ailments. He's a young man, she says, with hard work fast turning him into an old one. She wants to do more to help. She wants to buy a computer, for the girls and so she could earn extra money typing papers for college students.

Valeria catches David yawning, and asks him if he's tired. "I'm always tired," he says.

The work he does is hard; the search for it, making sure there is going to be work next week, next month, is even more exhausting. But in many ways, he says, it's all for the best.

"I'd prefer to have two or three jobs before having Margarita go back to work," he says. "It's good for the girls to have her around."

Margarita's been able to raise her girls the way she's wanted. She's been able to be home for them in a way that some of her other siblings, including Milagros, haven't because of their own pursuit of middle class, of success.

The sisters have talked about it, how Milagros and her husband work Monday through Saturday, how despite being comfortably middle class -with a nice home of their own, cars, vacations they take when they have time - day care has raised her children.

"It's a trade-off," says Margarita.

David and Margarita can't see moving to the states any time soon. The girls continue to excel in school. Once David finishes with some jobs he promised to do, he plans to find a steadier one, with benefits. And in a few years, there will be another election, and a chance for new jobs. In the meantime, they're making it.

But then, their girls talk about moving to the states. Izamar liked the snow. And the way Valeria remembers it, there are parks on just about every corner in Hartford.

"Right?" she asks.

"The swings are my favorite."

But mostly, they talk about moving to the states when they're older to learn English. It'll come in handy when Izamar becomes a teacher/Miss Universe and when Valeria becomes a lawyer/Miss Puerto Rico Petite.

After 16 years in the states, Adrian still worries his English isn't strong enough, as does Lydia. Their lack of English skills is the one overriding reason why David and Margarita wouldn't move to the states again.

Still, they want to do what's best for the girls, and remember Hartford being a comfortable, accommodating place for Puerto Ricans - especially those from Comerio, who made up some of the city's first Puerto Rican migrants. Maria Sanchez, a matriarch to the city's Puerto Rican community, was from Comerio. She helped smooth the transition for many newcomers from her newsstand on Albany Avenue. And over the years, those newcomers have returned the favor.

David still remembers walking down Park Street when he and Margarita lived in Hartford. People would lean out of their windows and yell: "Comerio!"

Laying Tiles Of The American Dream

Three generations make their moves in life

By Kevin Pentón

July 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Morning Call. All rights reserved.

The men calculate a thousand and one moves over the wooden table each game, pushing their dominoes from one side to the other with a wink, a gentle verbal parry, a laugh.

The epic battles fought with the 28 pieces of imitation ivory – each with a cursive rendering of the words "Puerto Rico" on its underside – have vaporized the varnish on the table and created the finish the retired men love to crowd around.

Ismael Garcia, 73, momentarily peels his eyes off the game at the Basilio Huertas Senior Center in south Bethlehem. Playing dominoes with his compadres is one of the welcome rewards of his retirement.

"This is where those of us who are at the end of the game come to play," he says.

In fact, Garcia may lose at dominoes but he has won at the big game of life.

"People told us for years, and still do, that Puerto Ricans were never going to amount to anything in this country, that we were actually hurting this country," Garcia muses. "Well, I might not be a millionaire, but I think I’ve done pretty well. So have most of our brothers who came with me."

Garcia and his wife of 32 years, Delia, enjoy their retirement in a single-family home in Bethlehem Township – he after laboring 38 years at Bethlehem Steel; she after toiling 35 years in a Fountain Hill textile factory.

Their living and dining rooms are filled with ornate Italian furniture. The basement features a treadmill, where Garcia jogs, and a bar abundantly stocked with rows of pricey bottles. He mows his lawn with a riding mower. For Delia, there are cruises and vacations abroad.

"My heart will always be with Puerto Rico, but I obtained here what I never could have had there," Garcia says. "My goal from early on was to come and make enough money so I could retire one day peacefully."

The game begins

Back on the island in 1953, Garcia had left the canefields for a dishwashing job at a San Juan hotel when his cousin, who was living in Allentown, told him to grab his only suit for a flight to America.

An orphan with a fifth-grade education, Garcia struggled for his middle-class comforts by sweating out Bethlehem Steel’s coke works, a perilous place where he was notorious for fighting job discrimination.

"Oh, you never stayed quiet back then, did you?" prods Blanca Smith, a long-time community activist visiting Garcia recently at home. "Not that you do now."

Garcia recalls that he and others resented that Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics always seemed to be sent to the coke works – where coal was baked in long ovens to improve its properties as a fuel. They also felt minorities were passed over for promotions, while others with less experience got ahead.

Garcia says he and other like-minded workers began to make their voices heard by petitioning the heads of his department first.

Frustrated by their lack of response, the workers used the collective voice of the Puerto Rican Beneficial Society, a social organization formed on the South Side during the early 1950s, to urge Steel’s corporate leaders into a series of meetings.

The society’s central demand was that training programs and tests with fair questions be established to allow workers to prove they were qualified for better jobs.

After years of pressure, Steel consented and job situations improved, Garcia says, especially after the company signed an agreement with eight other steelmakers and the federal government in 1974 that set up a new seniority system for promotions and transfers.

"I went into those meetings with my broken English," Garcia says. "We had to fight real hard, but in the end we came out with a better situation."

Dominoes fall into place

Garcia continues to pour his energy into the Beneficial Society, working in various leadership roles that cemented his reputation as a pioneering member of the South Side’s Puerto Rican community.

"Ismael has always been there, fighting for our community in one way or another," says Juan Rodriguez, a veteran of the coke works who helped found the Beneficial Society.

Another fight Garcia and the Beneficial Society took on during the early days was to raise awareness among the city’s Police Department of the nuances of Puerto Rican culture, Rodriguez says.

The post-World War II migration boom of Puerto Ricans to the Northeast was just beginning, and an increasing number of Puerto Rican neighbors congregated along Third Street on Thursday nights, when shops would stay open late, Delia Garcia recalls. The Garcias lived on E. Fourth Street at the time.

"There was an electricity in the air at the time, as we saw more and more people from our hometowns along the streets," she explains. "But police who saw us talking loudly and using our hands thought we were ajitadores – troublemakers – and they would take many of us in."

The Beneficial Society convinced then-Mayor Earle Schaffer and Police Commissioner Melvin Packer to visit Puerto Rico so they could meet with the island’s top leaders and get a sense of where the South Side Puerto Rican community had come from, Ismael Garcia said.

"They came back with a really different sense of our culture and customs," Garcia says. For example, "In this country, you have to call someone before visiting their house, and then you sit inside. Back home, you just end up sitting outside their house talking."

So it goes

As their financial situation improved, the Garcias grew tired of such urban annoyances as finding a parking spot on a crowded street and living with little privacy.

In 1974 they left South Side for a move across the Lehigh River into north Bethlehem. It’s a move made by generations of Lehigh Valley newcomers who found success in the United States.

"The walls in those row homes were so thin, you’d sneeze and your neighbor would yell ‘Bless you!’" Garcia observes. "Out here you can have a party in your basement and no one will hear it because the houses are so separated."

Delia’s first son, Tommy Marerro, stayed close to the tree, she says, joining the Marines before working more than 30 years at Bethlehem Steel and establishing his home in Bethlehem Township.

"When we came out here, we were the only Puerto Ricans on the block," says Marrero, who lives on a pleasant, tree-lined street where children play basketball suburban-style, on stands set up on the street. "Now this area is getting filled up with Puerto Rican families." He points to two families who have moved onto his block recently and several others who dot the area.

While Marrero labored in the coke works, his two sons chose different professions from their forefathers, professions that have taken them not only out of south Bethlehem but also out of the Valley.

Tommy, 32, runs network systems for various companies in York,

His brother Troy, 28, does technical support for a music company in New York City when not playing bass for El Knife, his hard-rock, Black Sabbath-style band.

"You’re going to keep repeating that name in your head over and over," Troy says. "I came up with it myself. It’s a little Spanish and a little English at the same time."

Troy, who grew up in Bethlehem Township and graduated from Freedom High School and Northampton Community College, was one of the pioneers who began gentrifying the traditionally Hispanic neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, into one of the trendiest spots in the city during the 1990s.

"I can’t really say I’m a hard-core Puerto Rican," muses Troy, who speaks very little Spanish and considers himself Americanized. "But I’m Puerto Rican all through my blood."

Troy says he travels to either the Netherlands or Sweden whenever he’s out of a job, living a lifestyle that his father, who was never more than a lump-of-coal’s throw away from his job, doesn’t comprehend.

"He’s kind of a hard-core worker dude," Troy says. "I have a kind of spinoff quality about myself that no one else really has in the family."

Tony, frequently travels back to the Valley to visit his parents and grandparents, whom he considers "old school," but he does not envision moving back permanently.

"In PA, fuhgeddaboudit. I’d be going crazy," he says. "What am I going to do there? Talk with some guy who’s [bitter] because he didn’t make it in New York? I have a real cavalier lifestyle, man, so I can’t be with someone who’s asking me where I left their paper clips. You know what I mean?"

But, he adds, "The Lehigh Valley is a good place to recoup your mind, man. Your life becomes simpler then."

Playing through

Ismael Garcia leaves his suburban home every morning for a few hours to slam dominoes on the worn table of the South Side community center, seeing old friends and staying in touch with his old neighborhood.

On a recent day, the players standing around the table are unusually silent as the end of a game draws near.

The men wait their turn to play on the worn table not even looking at a spanking new table set with more dominoes. It might be shiny and new, they say, but it doesn’t beat playing where history repeats itself.

For those who play and win at these games of dominoes, there’s a camaraderie that binds everyone together.

"There’s enough people, dominoes and tables here for at least a couple of other games to be going on at the same time," Garcia says. "I don’t know why, but no one ever wants to break away from here."

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