Friday, April 22, 2011

Buscando muertitos

Searching for my antepasados makes me realize that we are surrounded by the dead-- when we watch films, listen to music, talk about classical works. But what genealogy enables me to do is to find those connected to me by blood. I've found cousins and family ties that resembled the mundillo I studied, a net comprised of individual turns and crossings. Latino genealogy is at a crossroads today, thanks to a growing demographic and the use of digital technologies, and I teach people how to get started.

Buscando muertitos, looking for my dead relatives has given me a lens to consider the past, my relationships, and the randomness of fate. It also enables compassion as one learns of various hardships and struggles that many people shared across different times and places.

When the passport photo of my grandfather and his family was taken in 1926, he did not know what was to come. He would have known that his father had taken chances, as he did in arriving in Puerto Rico from Ourense, Galicia sometime in the 1880s to later become a farmer of coconuts and fruit in the first decades of the twentieth century.  My grandfather was born at the start of the century and details about the life of his father, Juan Fernandez Quinta still remains a mystery.  I know who his parents are from a birth record for his son, Andres Fernandez Matos in December of 1899 in Puerta de Tierra, a barrio of San Juan. Juan was the son of Joaquin Fernandez and Maria Quinta, who probably remained in Spain, and were probably born sometime in the 1840s. What ultimately possessed Juan to leave?

Emigration never stopped in Puerto Rico-- this ebbs and flows across time, from the fifteenth century to the present. 1880 is still late; Ourense is Galicia's only landlocked province, an area one left by foot, train or river at that time. There's another document of my grandfather that says his father was from Santander, but my aunt said Ourense. Could Quinta be Quintela from Quintela de Leirad?  I hope to find another document that will clarify this.

It seems that Juan Fernandez Quinta arrived in Puerto Rico alone, and settled in an area that continued to grow beyond the walls of San Juan.  Modernity soon existed near the port, with the building of the Porto Rican Railroad, begun by French engineers from Marseille in 1888. In 1896, he married Catalina Matos Maldonado in the developing section of Santurce.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

San Juan, Chile, New York

During the 1920s, my grandfather worked as a chauffeur for the president of the Sunshine Biscuit Company in New York. Born in Puerto Rico's Puerta de Tierra, for his siblings the first decades of the twentieth century were a time of dispersal, whether it was via the drafts of the first World War, or to take advantage of opportunity through the latest wave of emigration out from Puerto Rico to New York City.  Like many he made his way to the City, and worked a variety of jobs.  His chauffeur job soon became something more, and he became a personal translator for his boss, who wanted Ramon to travel with him to Chile.

He took his wife Carmen Dorios Picon (1901-1926), from Guayama, and his three children to Valparaiso. Exactly how long they stayed is unclear.

Ramon Fernandez, Passport photograph with Bobby, Sylvia & Dolly, 1926
Carmen was pregnant and she died together with the baby on 20 November 1926. Ramon went from what promised to be a growing family, to losing his 25 year old wife and fifth child, a daughter named Violeta.  Now he was a widower with four small children to care for, and he had to find help. He left the two youngest daughters, Silvia and Carmen, both toddlers, with his parents in Puerto Rico, and took his son Rafael with him to New York City.

Thus began Moncho's search for work in the garment district of Manhattan, and he became an elevator operator. He hardly had money, and wore the same suit all week, save for the day it was in the cleaners. My grandmother was born into the short-lived marriage of Ventura Calo and Julia Vasquez in Barrio Barrazas, a rural section of Carolina largely settled by families from the Canary Islands. At some point, she too left the island for New York City, where she met my grandfather on a bus. She was young, and impressed that he wore a suit, she thought he had to be doing pretty well for a single man, but little did she know.

What Angelina Calo discovered was that Ramon was a poor widower with four children, two of them almost half her age. In 1927, they married in Manhattan, and promptly added two more children to their new family. With the Great Depression came the birth of my father, who slept in a drawer that served as a makeshift crib. My grandmother worked as an operator in the Garment District, until she had another child. It wasn't easy, and they made it through difficult times. He worked driving trucks, cabs and buses over time. The truck came in handy as they moved countless times in an effort to maintain a roof over their heads when the rent came due. Finally they settled in the South Bronx, in an tenement building at 1022 East 156th Street, in Mott Haven.

Despite being a functional illiterate, my grandfather had a photographic memory, a skill prized in numbers running, since there was no incriminating list of bets to carry. He was able to recall many details, yet remained largely stumped by newspaper articles. Angelina and my dad, unsure of how well he could actually read, put him to the test. Moncho was adept at repeating back what he heard, and now forced to read a new article out loud, his secret was out. He could make out little of what was on the page.  Later in life, I recall how he spent a part of the morning perusing the illustrated pages of the NY Daily News and NY Post while eating pan y aguacate at the kitchen table.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Ramon 'Moncho' Fernandez Quinta (1900-1974)

This is my grandfather, Ramon Fernandez in a postcard photograph from the early 1920s.  I'm not sure who the seated gentleman is, who appears to be in his early 30s.  An indoor wooden chair was brought out to a shady patio where they were photographed together, and Ramon's arm, draped behind the man's left shoulder suggests more than a casual friendship, possibly a brother in law.

Ramon Fernandez Matos was born in 1900 in Puerta de Tierra, a neighborhood adjacent to Viejo San Juan in Puerto Rico, the fifth of ten children born to Juan Fernandez Quinta and Catalina Matos Maldonado.  His father was born in northern Spain, either in Ourense, Galicia or Santander, Spain, but so far, he is the only person with this surname in Puerto Rico since his arrival in 1887. By 1920, his family moved from  Calle San Agustin in Puerta de Tierra to Santurce; Juan was doing well at this point, since he had a servant living in the household, along with his, wife, six children, his brother in law Etanislaus Matos and Luis Gomez, another relative.

A decade later, Ramon's father Juan was a supplier, a commerciante de provisiones, and his wife Catalina worked the counter. There were three daughters at home, along with three grandchildren, two of them Ramon's daughters with Carmen Dorios Picon, Silvia and Carmen. For Ramon, the twenties proved a horrifically difficult period of time, that went from hope to loss and hope again once he returned to New York.

More than just Fernandez

I'm sitting in Craig Siulinski's Blogging 201 class at the California Genealogical Society today and decided to start another blog, this time for my paternal side of the family. If you're interested in my maternal side on the west side of the island, please visit Babilonia Family History.

Among the surnames are: Fernandez, Calo Birriel, Vazquez Rivera, Matos Maldonaldo, Matos Ramos, Fuenmayor, Jimenez. What we have in common is Manhattan, the east side of Puerto Rico and the twentieth century. We are not bluebloods, nor descendants of conquistadors, but Indians and emigres and slaves... in other words, survivors.