My Grandmother was born in Puerto Rico. I’m guessing somewhere on the outskirts of San Juan, but I don’t really know, and she can barely remember her own name let alone where she was born. Her name back then was Felipa Diaz. She had three sisters, all of who are now dead. Her mother and father were very poor, and she was sent to work at a very young age.
When my grandma started working, she was barely sixteen. She worked for a wealthy white family. She would clean the house from top to bottom, three days a week. It was hard work, but her family needed the money. The Gringos(1), as she called them, were relatively nice to her, for the most part anyway. She never complained about the cleaning, in fact she seemed to always like cleaning, even well into her old age. The Gringos would make her work long hours, and in the summer heat, with no air conditioning, this was a chore. Sometimes, when she was done cleaning, they would give her a chocolate. She never knew whether or not to eat the chocolate or to save it for her sisters. They never gave her more than one.
By the time she finished working for the Gringos, it was very dark out. Puerto Rico was not like the United States. There were no street lamps lighting up the streets at night. This was not the city that never sleeps. No, the Puerto Rican sky was pitch black, the only lights were a few house lights and the glow of the stars and moon. There were no restaurants or twenty-four hour McDonald’s. There were no cabs or trains or late buses. The only way to get home was to walk, and the only way to get to her house was to walk through the barrio(2). As a young woman, you can imagine how dangerous this was. She still has nightmares about it till this day.
My grandmother moved to the United States when she grew up for the opportunities it held. She wanted to get away from that life she had lived in Puerto Rico. Like all immigrants, she struggled to learn English and find a job. She married my grandfather, and they had four girls, my mom and my aunts. My grandfather semi-abandoned the family when my mom and aunts were young. My grandmother struggled to make ends meet, and eventually landed a job at a hospital. Her job was to take the food trays to all the different patients, and sometimes help out in the kitchen. She worked here until she retired. It was a full time job. She worked late hours. She didn’t have much time to take care of my mom and aunts, and so my mom, as the eldest, usually ended up taking care of her younger siblings.
While my grandmother had very little education herself, she fought for her daughters to have a good education. She sent them to Catholic school and had them walk many many blocks to avoid going to the school closest to the apartment; that school was less celebrated. She made sure they knew not to talk to strangers, especially strange men. When the neighbor started to take a liking to my aunt Ingrid when she started going through puberty, and tried to take her out to lunch and take her home from school, my grandma made sure he would never do so again. The apartment had never seen such an outburst. She sent all four of them to an all-girls private Catholic high school, Saint Saviors in Brooklyn. She allowed my Aunt Angie, the youngest of the four, to take the specialized school test to go to Brooklyn Tech, and the summer courses necessary (though in the end she deemed the neighborhood too dangerous for her daughter). She always made sure they had nice clothes to wear and looked “como un principal,”(3) even in poverty. All of her daughters ended up going to college and graduate school.
My grandmother is the reason that I live in comfort, that I get the education that I need, and that I have a strong work ethic. She made sure that my mother received an education and held herself high, despite her disadvantages. She made sure that my mom had a better life. My mom, in turn, passes that down to me. I was going to college; there was no room for discussion. It was expected. I would get a scholarship. Also expected. I will then go on to get a graduate degree and maybe even a PhD. Because my grandmother set this standard, I have all of these resources and encouragement that I may not have had otherwise.
I’m sad to say that most of the Puerto Rican culture was lost on my generation. My father was Irish and Polish, and my mother learned to cook from her Italian college roomates. They were both Francophiles, and so even my name serves as no connection to this culture. I never learned to properly clean a toilet, and I wouldn’t even dream of attempting to cook a bacalaito. I was never taught to work with my hands. I can barely cook, clean, or make a bed the correct way. This physical hard work trait was lost on me. I’m too young to have seen where my family came from, yet I’m pretty much in control of where it is going. That is a little scary, to be honest.
My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzeimer’s, as were her mother and sisters. She is mostly gone now, she can’t tell whether she is speaking English or Spanish at any given point, but every now and then she has a flashback to her childhood and young adulthood. I was sitting in her room a few months ago and it was time for her to go to bed. She was so frail and couldn’t tell if I was Angie or Ingrid or Cindy. I went to turn off her light, and she said in Spanish, “Leave the light on, I don’t want to be in the dark again.” She thought she was walking home from the Gringo’s in Puerto Rico. It is impossible for me to know what her life was like or how far we have come, but after hearing the sheer fear in her voice, even after all these years, made me realize how much my family has grown. I left the light on.
Being Puerto Rican doesn’t really define who I am. I’m a mutt. However, I am impacted in the sense that I have so many opportunities and encouragements because of where I came from. My grandmother saw to that, and for that I owe her everything. I may not carry much of where I came from with me, but I hope to bring at least a little bit of it to where I’m going.
(1) Gringo- An offensive slang term used in many Latin American countries; it refers to a white person who speaks English.
(2) Barrio- This generally translates to ‘neighborhood’ in Spanish, but here it is used as a slang term equivalent to ‘the hood.’
(3) Como un principal- My grandmother’s way of saying looked good, or looked wealthy, or best dressed.