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.

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