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Land of Opportunity
On Long Island, families like the Rodriguezes found chances to succeed that were harder to find in Puerto Rico or even New York City
By Michele Salcedo
July 18, 2003
EMILIO RODRIGUEZ walked up the driveway to his older daughter's house, the sun glinting from the gold medal that hung from the red, white and blue ribbon around his neck. Across his chest he wore the grand marshal's sash he had received 14 years earlier when he led Brentwood's Puerto Rican/Hispanic Day parade.
On this bright June Sunday, Rodriguez had stopped by his daughter's on his way to the parade staging area just north of the Southern State Parkway. As in past years, he would march with other marshals, present and past, politicians and dignitaries. Many of those in the parade were among the first Puerto Ricans to arrive in Brentwood, drawn by jobs at Pilgrim State Psychiatric Hospital and the defense plants.
Rodriguez' once-dark hair had turned steely gray in his 83 years, but his gait was springy as he walked to the townhouse in a crisply pressed guayabera, the rows of tucks marching down the front on each side and ending in the swirls of a finely embroidered emblem. His daughters, Emily Caquias and Martha Matos, fussed over him. Martha pinned his sash first. Emily, 59, dissatisfied with the job her younger sister had done, repinned it, securing the yellow bow on his left shoulder and smoothing the sash end on his right hip.
Emily and her husband, Gil, would march as well, as they had and as her parents had, since the first parade 32 years earlier. Emily and Gil Caquias, wearing white caps and turquoise shirts, would march with members of the Shepard's Gate School, a new center for education and child care that was founded by a Brentwood Puertoriquena. The center is scheduled to open its doors in September.
The parade is living history in Brentwood. Although the Hispanic communities in Long Beach and Glen Cove are older, the Puerto Rican community in Brentwood and Bay Shore is said to be the largest outside of New York City. The community took root in the monte, the woodlands that surrounded the farms. In the 1930s, a quarter acre of land could be had for a few hundred dollars and many people built their own houses.
* * *
EMILIO RODRIGUEZ first saw the dirt path that would become Stein Drive in the early '40s. He and his wife, Martha, would drive out from New York City during the summer to visit Martha's mother, Antonia Lopez Velez, and stepfather, Juan Camacho. "Coming to the country to me reminded me of my home," said Emilio Rodriguez. "I used to hear the rooster singing and the train - woo, woo - just like in Puerto Rico."
As the 1930s were about to click over to the 1940s, Juan Camacho had found work at Grumman Aircraft Engineer Corp. Unable to afford to move his family yet, but not wanting to pass up the job, he rented a room during the week and on Friday returned to his Brooklyn apartment, his wife and their children. In 1940, they were one of the first to buy a half-acre lot on Stein Drive, known at the time as Victory Gardens.
After the war, gasoline became more plentiful and Antonia's children and their children visited from the city, staying the weekend after making the long trip. In the back of the lot, Juan Camacho had planted a garden, filled with beans and tomatoes and calabazas - "real pumpkins like they have in Puerto Rico," remembers Emilio Rodriguez. Fruit trees bearing apples, pears or peaches bordered the garden and beehives yielded delicious sweet honey.
During the day, there were picnics and barbecues. But at night, the family needed someplace to sleep. The Camachos converted the only building on the property, a garage, into a small bungalow. Bedding was spread everywhere on the floor and Antonia built six bunkbeds into the walls of the garage. "It was like a chicken coop, the walls went straight up with three bunk beds stacked on the walls on two sides," said Emily Rodriguez Caquias, Emilio's daughter, who started coming to Long Island as a child of 7. "We had lanterns and oil lamps for light and you cooked with firewood. The streets were all dirt roads. There was no electricity and we used a hand pump to get our water out of a well."
In 1942, two years after the Camachos had bought their property, Emilio and Martha Rodriguez bought a quarter-acre lot at 1805 Stein Dr. During the war, Emilio worked as a civilian for the army at the Raritan Arsenal in Metuchen, N.J. Monday through Friday, he traveled the 48-mile commute from his home in Brooklyn. But on the weekends, he and Martha and the children did what they loved best.
"I went out to the country every single weekend, as much as I could, because we all liked it," said Emilio. "I'd come in my car and make a way to go into the woods and make a picnic there. It was just like part of my country."
The story of Brentwood's Hispanic community is a tapestry woven from the threads of strong extended families who came one after the other because they wouldn't think of living apart and from friendships forged in a common culture born in the New World. In Brentwood, many found economic opportunity that had escaped them in Puerto Rico and proved elusive in New York City.
"A lot of us discovered Brentwood because of Grumman and Fairchild Aircraft," said Emilio Rodriguez. "But Pilgrim State was the best place to work. You got vacations and benefits. It didn't pay much, but it was secure. Coming out of the Depression, people were looking for security."
With the prospect of steady jobs, Brentwood's first Puerto Rican families came to the woods of Suffolk County like pioneers, clearing the land, building their homes, and paving not only the streets but the way for Hispanics of many other cultures to follow them.
Emilio and Martha's older daughter, Emily, would marry Gil Caquias, literally the boy next door, whose uncle came to Brentwood about the same time as Juan Camacho. Through the family tree of Emilio Rodriguez, one can trace the history of a community.
Here are some of its branches.
* * *
ABOUT THE same time that Juan Camacho found his job at Grumman, Jose Enrique Lopez Brugman also came to Long Island. He was the maternal uncle of Gil Caquias, who would become Emilio's son-in-law. In 1939, on a drive to Long Island, Lopez Brugman discovered Brentwood and decided to stay. He bought nearly an acre of land at the corner of Third and Massachusetts Avenues in Brentwood. "He was a barber by trade, so he saw an opportunity here and he moved," said Gil Caquias. Lopez Brugman took a staff job at Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center, cutting hair. Within a few years, he had saved enough to open his own shop on Fifth Avenue, not far from his property.
Lopez Brugman dug the basement for the house with the help of his son, Harry, who was 15 years old when his father first came out. Father and son built that house, and three more on the property - one for Harry, one for Lopez Brugman's sister, Panchita, and one for his cousin, Emilio Lopez Brugman.
Emilio Brugman eventually joined Jose Enrique on the payroll at Pilgrim State, as did their children. Most of them worked as attendants, but Emilio Brugman's youngest daughter, Clara, was a secretary to Dr. Harry Worthing, the hospital's senior director.
"One family used to bring the other families," said Emilio Rodriguez. "Then they started working in the hospital, especially the women. That's why they came to Brentwood and Bay Shore and Islip."
Gil Caquias was in his late teens and already married when his mother, Teresa de Jesus Lopez Brugman, began coming to the country with the rest of the family. Known as Jesusa, she loved to sun herself on a wooden bench her brother had built at the side of the brick house.
Jesusa's husband, Rafael Carreon, had worked as a truck driver in the city, but changed careers when he landed a job at Fairchild Engine & Airplane Corp. as one of the 90,000 people employed at Long Island's airplane plants during the war. In 1951, they bought a house at 1801 Stein Dr.
The next year, Emilio and Martha Rodriguez decided to build a house on the property next door - the property they had owned for a decade.
* * *
EMILIO AND MARTHA were again following the lead of the Camachos, who had moved out of their Brooklyn apartment to live on Stein Drive year-round in a brick house that still stands.
One by one, the extended family made their visits to the country permanent. Antonia's oldest daughter, Julia, followed her mother. The next year Emilio, Martha and their three children made the move.
"It reminded me of my homeland, my island -- the fresh air," said Emilio. "And I thought, we can have the same sabor [flavor] as any place."
The east side of Stein Drive was filled with Emily's and Gil's relatives. The neighbors included the Carreons, Martha's half-sister, Carmen Amina, whom they called Amina, and Martha's sister, Julia, a tango dancer, and the Camachos. One Italian family lived on a side street that connected Fifth Avenue with Stein Drive. The rest of the neighbors were Puerto Rican.
Many of the people who bought houses in the area borrowed the mortgage money from Charles Alvarez, who had been a Brooklyn bookmaker. But Martha Rodriguez had some savings, and she and Emilio paid for their new home.
The Rodriguezes contracted with Arlo builders to have their home built for $7,500 in 1952. "That was her dream, to own a house," said Emilio Rodriguez."They only cleared part of the land for the house. The rest I had to clear with a machete. There were a lot of roots. In order to have something, you have to sacrifice. You have to work."
Once the house was up, Emilio began to make it his own. He added a porch; laid his own driveway, 40 feet long and 10 feet wide, "mixing the cement, pouring it, making it level. My children, they started [to help] and in a half hour they disappeared." And in the back he built "a nice brick barbecue."
"I was so proud to have my own home, to see my vegetables grow and to pick the fruit from my own trees," said Emilio. "I was so proud of that. My people in Puerto Rico used to have vegetables, and from that I already know a little bit how to do it."
The chicks that Emily, her sister and brother received on Easter, 1952, must have sensed that their days of living in a Bushwich Avenue apartment were coming to an end. That year, for the first time that Emily remembered, all of them survived. In June, the Rodriguezes packed up their apartment and moved into their brand new home.
"We came like the real McCoys," Emily recalled. "We had a dog, a white rabbit, six chickens, a turtle and some gold fish. I graduated from intermediate school on a Friday and on Saturday we were gone. We used to cry, my sister and I. We wanted to go back."
They would swim in the sand pit, an area behind what is now the Suffolk Police Department's Third Precinct. "That water was like the Blue Lagoon and the sand was white, white," Emily recalled. "It looked like you were in the desert with a beautiful, clean lake."
Brentwood High School did not even exist when the Rodriguezes moved there. "I had to be bused to Bay Shore," said Emily Rodriguez Caquias. "Gil's brother was in the first class to graduate from Brentwood High School." Ozzie Carreon Lopez is his name.
Although Emily was one of the very few Puerto Rican students at Bay Shore High School in the early 1950s, she has no memories of prejudice. "I never felt prejudice at all," said Emily. "Never. I didn't know what prejudice was." She said that because of her dark hair and eyes, most people assumed she was Italian.
* * *
GIL CAQUIAS, the boy next door, had just divorced his first wife and had moved to his mother's home at 1801 Stein Dr. Emily had graduated from Bay Shore High School the year before and still lived with her parents at 1805 Stein Dr.
"I met Emily when she took my daughter to school on a school project," said Gil. "My mom loved her very much. What a sweet girl, she said to me about Emily."
Once Gil asked Emily out, they were inseparable. By August of 1960, they had dated three years but were not engaged. One Saturday morning they stopped at a diner on Jericho Turnpike in Commack for some breakfast, and they noticed the American Home models across the street.
"The model houses were open and we said, 'Let's go take a look at them,"' said Emily. They put a $10 binder on a model they liked. It would have a sunken living room, cathedral ceilings and three bedrooms. The basement would run the full length of the house -- 66 feet. Outside, a patio would extend into the yard. For $16,000 it could be theirs.
Gil admits he stretched the truth a bit when the builder asked if he owned property and how long he had worked at his job. "I didn't own anything," said Gil. He had been working for six months at Fairchild as a radio drill operator but said he'd had his job eight years. When Emily and Gil went back two weeks later, they learned their mortgage application had been approved.
Not long after, on a bright August day, Gil walked out of his mother's home to find an older couple arguing on the street in Spanish.
"I'm going to sell the land and I'm going to sell it cheap!" the woman hollered at her husband.
"Oh, no you're not!" her husband yelled back.
Recognizing an opportunity when he saw one, Gil inquired about the location of the lot and its size. It sat right across the street from their family homes. "It was a nice 100-by-100-foot lot," Gil said. "She sold it to me for $800. Her husband kept giving me dirty looks."
Within three months, the builders had finished the house on that lot. Now it was up to them. When Gil and Emily married on Dec. 18 of that year, they had a whole house full of furniture they bought on layaway. A friend they met through one of the social clubs made all the curtains for their new home as her wedding gift.
* * *
BY THE TIME the Emilio and Martha Rodriguezs moved to Brentwood, there were enough Puerto Rican families in the area to support one bodega. The Sosa family opened the Tropicana to sell Latino products to the growing community. Elizabeth Sosa Guanill took it over when her father died. Within the next few years, Jose Enrique Lopez opened his barber shop nearby, and his son, Harry, opened a hardware store. Harry also dug wells, and did whatever else needed doing in the burgeoning neighborhood. Other stores began adapting to the growing Hispanic community. "We'd look for our products, and if the stores had them we'd shop there," said Emilio Rodriguez.
Social clubs were organized, not only for people to get together on a regular basis but also to keep the culture intact. Amistades Unidas was among the first, and Emilio and Martha Rodriguez were among the organizers.
The club began when Emilio and Martha met a couple in Babylon. Each couple brought in other couples, and soon 15 couples were in the group. "The purpose of this club was to get together and have a good time," said Emilio. "We used to go from house to house, one month was social and the next month was a meeting. The dues weren't much, only to donate your house once in a while and have a nice spread and drinks. Sometimes we'd have live music and sometimes records. I still have a bunch of them."
Amistades Unidas celebrated all the traditional Puerto Rican holidays: for Christmas, there would be pasteles, arroz con gandules, lechon asado, albondigas, leche en coco or arroz con dulce for dessert. The whole meal would be liberally laced with coquito, an eggnog-like rum drink. There were gatherings for Three Kings Day, Easter, the Fourth of July and Columbus Day, which was celebrated as Dia de la Raza, and the Day of the Discovery of Puerto Rico.
"We would go all out to make the best we could," said Emilio.
Amistades Unidas disbanded in the late 1950s, as people moved away, and a few years later, the El Cordero Social Club sprang up. "Our purpose was to bring good music from the city to the people," said Emilio Rodriguez.
The El Cordero social club organized Saturday-night dances. For $3.50 a ticket, people could come to the Oakdale Plaza, for example, and salsa, mambo or rumba the night away. Among the bands who played was that of Pete Rodriguez just before he hit the big time. "He started with us, practically," said Emilio. John Motoro and Johnny Alvino also played the El Cordero Social Club, so named because the cordero, or lamb, is on Puerto Rico's coat of arms.
The club members would put posters in the store windows and leave tickets for the stores to sell on consignment. They would sell the tickets door to door at people's homes and at the door of the dance. They tried to make sure they weren't competing with dances other social clubs in the area organized. The money they made went back into the neighborhood, to families in need.
The Pan American Association also tried to help the less fortunate in the community. It was founded in the 1940s and, by the mid 1960s, boasted more than 200 members. But by the early 80s, only nine members remained, unable to decide whether to sell or keep the one-story headquarters that sat on a five-acre tract at 39 Spence St.
"As the Pan American Association was going down, Adelante was coming up," said Rodriguez. Bill Laragui founded Adelante, and Paul Irrizarry, an assistant superintendent at Pilgrim State, eventually became its executive director. He recently retired.
"We started doing things for the community," said Rodriguez. "We wanted to show what kind of people we were, living in Brentwood, that we didn't forget our culture or traditions: love for our people, love for our parents and love for where we lived."
Many of those same members helped Manny Vidal organize the Brentwood Islanders Lions Club. There were doctors and teachers, social workers and administrators who joined the Lions Club, nearly all of them, except for Sen. Cesar Trunzo and one or two others, Hispanic. "When we did something we went all the way -- to the Huntington Town House, the Radisson, the Water Mill." The money they raised, they donated to organizations to run programs.
* * *
TEN YEARS s after the Rodriguezes moved to Stein Drive, they moved again, this time to Smithtown, where Emilio Rodriguez still lives. But 30 years after he moved away, his ties to Brentwood are stronger than ever. "I don't belong to the civic association here," said Rodriguez. "I joined but I didn't stay long, because I felt I could help my people better in Brentwood."
Emilio's beloved wife, Martha, died in 1994. Gil and Emily live in Central Islip; Emily's sister, Martha, lives with her daughter, also named Emily, in Smithtown; their younger brother, Emilio Jr., is in Babylon. The rest of the extended family either died or moved away from Stein Drive. But the cultural seeds that sprouted there have been fruitful. This year's Puerto Rican/Hispanic Day parade was the largest and best attended. More than 100 floats, bands and organizations filed past an estimated 100,000 people who lined Fifth Avenue, renamed Adelante Boulevard for the day. Along the way, the marchers passed La Tropical, as well as the dozens of new stores and restaurants that have opened since Antonia Lopez Velez Camacho and her husband bought their land on Stein Drive and Jose Enrique Lopez Brugman bought his first acre of land on Massachusetts Avenue in 1939.
Enough Latinos own their own businesses to have formed a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; they are among the ranks of the firefighters and the police; they are dancers and musicians; dentists and doctors; and they still work at Pilgrim State Hospital, having formed the Pilgrim State Hospital Hispanic Heritage Committee. Many of them still live in the area; others, like Emilio, return year after year to march in the parade.
It was the jobs that lured the Rodriguezes, the Lopezes and the Caquiases and others like them to Brentwood, but Brentwood became their home. "It could have been any place, because it's up to the people to keep their culture," said Rodriguez. "I helped my own people. I still remember my own people. And as long as I live. I'm going to help them."
Just after noon, the Suffolk police motorcycle escorts fired their engines and rolled down Adelante Boulevard. This year's grand marshal rode in a convertible, followed by the past grand marshals, Emilio Rodriguez among them. Emilio's eyes lit up and he marched off, smiling and waving to the hundreds of thousands of people along the way, members of a community he helped build.
He stood tall with pride, his white sash gleaming in the strong spring sun.