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Natives Return To Their Enchanted Island

Steel retirees honor their roots in Puerto Rico

By Edgar Sandoval

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

PATILLAS, Puerto Rico | Bartolo Figueroa walks with great effort onto his front porch, a crutch tucked under his left arm. He breathes heavily as he settles into a metal chair and stares out at the sea, only a block away.

He smells the salt air, carried by a warm breeze, and feels the burning sun warm his brown skin.

He enjoys the quiet.

Feels it.

At this stage in his life – he’s 72 and heavyset and has advanced arthritis – he needs the quiet, he reassures himself.

"Do I miss Bethlehem?" he asks.

He shakes his head no.

Bethlehem was where Figueroa had followed legions of young men from Puerto Rico in the 1950s to work as a laborer at Bethlehem Steel Corp. Like many men in Patillas, he grew sugar cane, but the island economy was poor. The mainland had a shortage of workers and the government was encouraging migration for its factories and farms.

Learning of the good-paying jobs by word of mouth, Figueroa left behind his wife, Santos, and four children, going to New Jersey briefly, then Bethlehem. He did some farm work before landing the job with Bethlehem Steel Corp. and sent home earnings. His intent was to return to the island within a few years.

He ended up staying in Bethlehem three decades.

He brought his family to the mainland, had four more children and formed enduring friendships.

Still, Bethlehem was not home. He never forgot the promise he made to himself as a young man: "I was not going to leave Patillas forever," he recalls. So in the early 1980s, after retiring from Bethlehem Steel, he returned to Patillas with his wife, this time leaving his children and grandchildren behind in the Lehigh Valley.

"Many people from my town and others nearby made that same promise, to return, but not all did," Figueroa says. "It’s not easy leaving your children and not seeing your grandchildren. But this was what I was going to do from the beginning."

Like Figueroa, other Steel retirees have returned to their native Puerto Rico, trading proximity to their extended families for the familiarity of their homeland.

Figueroa never owned a home in Bethlehem, only rented. He saved money to buy his first house – in Patillas. "That was his dream," says his son, Daniel, 55, of Bethlehem.

Figueroa says he knows what retired life would be like for him had he stayed in Bethlehem. His children would go to work; the grandchildren, to school. He would be alone.

"Everybody is always so busy, and you stay indoors watching the television all day," he says. "And the weather, it gets so cold you cannot even move."

He lived in Bethlehem long enough.

"I am from here," Figueroa says of Patillas. "And here is where I want to stay."

Miguel Marrero and Ernesto Colon, who also spent decades working at Bethlehem Steel, identify with Figueroa. Both were young when they left Puerto Rico for Bethlehem, where, with their wives, they raised their children.

But they, too, longed for their homeland.

"You never forgot where you came from," says Colon, a Steel laborer about 30 years.

Today, Colon also lives in Patillas with his wife in a modest one-bedroom house. Marrero, a native of Corozal, lives with his wife in a one-bedroom apartment in the island’s largest city, San Juan.

"You go out in the streets, and you see people talking, walking. People live outdoors here," says Marrero, 64. "That is what I missed when I was in Bethlehem."

Marrero was a laborer at Steel, and later, a recruiter. After about 20 years, he moved back to Puerto Rico, at age 45. Today, he is a part-time real estate agent for U.S. companies that want to open businesses on the island, such as Pep Boys auto supply store.

"It can be hectic at times," he says. "But it is still Puerto Rico."

Like Figueroa, Marrero and Colon have visited their children in the Lehigh Valley, and their children fly to the island to visit them.

On this day in Patillas, Figueroa looks at the sun, and from its position in the sky, figures it’s midafternoon. He is not wearing a watch. He’s getting hungry.

He walks slowly inside his house and opens the refrigerator. Not much food. Water. A piece of bread. He feels his stomach growl.

Someone calls to him. "Bartolo!"

He turns to see his 8-year-old neighbor Genesis Pagano, who has become a loyal companion in the past few years. He smiles broadly.

"Come on in, muchachita," he says, welcoming her.

Figueroa enjoys the youngster’s company.

With his children and grandchildren in the Lehigh Valley, and his wife deceased, he spends his time talking to neighbors, sitting on his porch, playing dominoes on the beach, or playing slot machines at the corner store late into the night. "It makes time go faster," he’ll tell you.

His bright-green house near the beach is small, like others in the neighborhood. It has one bedroom, a small bathroom and kitchen. There is a lone sofa in the living room, a small color television and a couple of stools in the kitchen. A nurse checks on him periodically. Lately he has not tended his back yard. His health keeps him from heavy activity, he says.

Now, the phone rings and Figueroa moans in discontent.

"I’ll get it," screams Genesis and runs to his bedroom to pick it up.

"Who is it?"

"A person who is mute," she says. "Nobody answered."

Both laugh, and he pats her on the shoulder.

They agree to get lunch and slowly start the short walk to Calixto Place, a store at the end of his block. Figueroa moves his feet as if they weigh too much. Genesis walks around him and from side to side, but does not pass him. She knows Figueroa can’t walk as fast as she can.

"Bartolo, we are almost there," she says.

Figueroa wants to reply, but has only energy to smile.

Leave Patillas? Are you serious? Look around, Figueroa says to visitors. Patillas is like paradise.

The sentiment is shared by many in this town of 20,000 in southeast Puerto Rico, about an hour and a half drive from San Juan.

Those who live by the beach wake up to the early sounds of birds, roosters, crashing waves and children running around. Few of the locals are wealthy and the majority live in modest one- or two-story, bright-colored houses. The streets are paved, some so narrow – a car’s width – that two neighbors can walk out of their homes and be face to face. In the region, people grow sugar and oranges or work in stores.

People know one another, but that is not always good, jokes produce vendor Pablo Rodriguez, who sells vegetables in an outdoor bodega.

"What are you now … going on your fourth wife?" jokes a customer. "You have eight kids – and with different women."

"People here can tell you anything about each other," Rodriguez says, smiling at the customer. "People here are beautiful inside and out. I would never leave here."

The town is also a safe haven, says police officer Carlos J. Soto Ayala. It is patrolled by 26 officers. On this afternoon, about 12 officers on duty chat in the headquarter’s break room. All is quiet. The town, says 27-year-old Pena Colon, has not recorded a homicide in the two years he has been an officer.

"People just yell at each other," Colon says. "But it always stops at that."

There are two central churches in the town plaza: one Methodist, the other Catholic. People socialize in the plaza, especially after church gatherings.

The town has mostly older residents and young children. Young adults leave to attend universities in the island’s bigger cities, townspeople say. Or, like 30-year-old Carlos Manuel Estrada, they go to the United States. Bethlehem and Allentown are familiar city names.

Estrada, like many young people in Figueroa's generation, heard of Bethlehem by word of mouth. He worked in a slaughterhouse near Bethlehem for three years but decided to move back to the island, where he became a police officer.

People earn more in the United States, Estrada says, but money goes further in Patillas.The average U.S. family earns about $42,000 a year, according to U.S. Census estimates in 1999. An average family in Puerto Rico earns about $26,000.

Estrada makes about $12,000 as a police officer, and pays about $200 for a one-bedroom apartment in Patillas. The average rents for one- and two-bedroom apartments in Bethlehem is $350 to $500.

"Money in Bethlehem was good, and I had made good friends," Estrada says. "But my family is here, and while I make less money here, this is where my wife is."

Others say they will never leave the island, no matter what idyllic picture others paint of the United States.

"People from here are always going to Allentown, Bethlehem, Lancaster … and come back with money, they say. But what’s the point if they are away from home?" , asks 44-year-old Angel Lavoy, an island native.

Figueroa and Genesis arrive at Calixto Place, which has two pool tables and four slot machines. Figueroa orders empanadas – fried dough filled with meat and beans. Genesis doesn’t order.

Genesis’ mother, Wanda Vazquez, 28, who works at the store, gives Figueroa a message: A delivery truck is dropping off his electric wheelchair. The driver had called the store when he did not find Figueroa at home.

It is in moments like this that Figueroa can take advantage of his life’s work. He receives about $1,600 a month in Social Security and Bethlehem Steel pensions. He was able to buy his first house for $32,000 when he moved back to Patillas. Now, he will kick in $1,200 for the electric wheelchair. Most of the cost, nearly $5,000, is paid by Medicaid.

Aware that Bethlehem Steel is struggling to pay health care and pension costs for retirees, Figueroa hopes union officials will fight to keep the pensions intact. If not, he said, "there is not much I can do from here. I will have to find a way to make ends meet with what I have."

By the time Figueroa gets back home, a white truck with the sign "CRE Rental Hospital Supplies" is waiting. Neighbors are curious. The delivery is big news.

He ordered the wheelchair to get around faster, he tells them.

"He really needs it," says neighbor Ramona Rivera, 56.

Genesis gives the chair a try without asking, riding it up and down the block. She screams when she nearly hits a pole in front of Figueroa’s house. Figueroa chuckles.

After signing the needed paperwork and receiving instructions, it’s Figueroa’s turn. He settles into the wheelchair.

"Aaahh, this feels good," he says.

He plays with the speed control and rides back to the store over a paved but bumpy street to show off the wheelchair. Genesis runs behind him, laughing all the way.

"You are going to be faster than me, Bartolo," she says.

"You are going to be able to go all over town now," says Genesis’ father, Efrain.

Figueroa stops the wheelchair briefly outside the store. He sees young people rush to the beach. He sees men his age playing dominoes. Many years have passed since he first left. People have come and gone. But Patillas maintained its essence – the easygoing lifestyle of his people.

"I worked so much and so hard throughout my life, and look at me now how I ended," Figueroa says, holding back giggles. "In a wheelchair."

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