“My Puerto Rican Grandmother” won an “Honorable Mention” in the 2009 GENEii Family History Writing Contest, sponsored by the Southern California Genealogy Society.
In the Puerto Rican culture “la abuela” (grandmother) is a revered and honored position. My “abuela” was no different. Grandma Sarah and Grandpa Carlos migrated from Santurce, Puerto Rico to New York in 1949. Their first residence was a tenement house in the South Bronx. Over the course of several years they would move from the Bronx, to Manhattan’s East Side (Spanish Harlem), and ultimately to the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. With barely a sixth grade education Grandma overcame tremendous odds. She raised three biological children, fostered four, adopted one, and mothered eight grandchildren at various stages. In the Puerto Rican culture, multi-generational homes are the norm, not the exception. Indeed, that was the case at my “abuela’s” house. Grandma turned her little house on 57th Street into a refuge for many throughout the years.
Despite Grandma’s place of honor in my family, most of us have enough memories to keep from romanticizing her. As my uncle rightly surmised at her funeral, “She didn’t walk on water; she made everybody else.”
Grandma was a very strict disciplinarian. Her parenting skills, if questionable then, would be considered criminal today. “El cordon electrico” (the electric cord), or “la cuchara” (the large cooking spoon), were just a couple of her favorite objects that left the kids running for the hills whenever she gave her famous “pela” (beating). If you spent any time at Grandma’s house, you learned quickly what a “bofeta” was. The actual translation of a “bofeta” is a slap. Grandma’s version of the “bofeta” carried with it all the weight of a punch!
Like many immigrants, Grandma believed that a beautiful home was an indication of status. As such, she took great pains to keep her house immaculate. All the kids in the house used to refer to the first floor, which was reserved strictly for company as, “El Museo” (The Museum) because everything in “El Museo” was perfect. The glass tables were impeccably Windexed. The faux grapes, oranges, and bananas in the fruit bowl were always in perfect alignment. The plastic wrap on the lampshades had never been removed – nor would it ever. The thick plastic covering over the couch was always zipped up tightly. In the summertime, your thighs would stick to the plastic so bad that when you got up it made an embarrassing sound.
By today’s standards, Grandma would most certainly be considered obsessive compulsive – especially when it came to housecleaning. She had a love affair with “la limpieza.” In Spanish a “limpieza” is a thorough and deep cleaning. Grandma of course, took the “limpieza” to new heights. A few years after Grandma and Grandpa retired to their homeland, Grandma did such a thorough “limpieza” in her own house that the thought of a dirty street outside her sparking clean house was an absolute offense. She took a bottle of Clorox, a bucket of hot water, and a huge warehouse broom, and proceeded to scrub the streets barefoot. After several hours, she limped home only to discover that her feet were so raw from the chemicals that a neighbor had to drive her to the Emergency Room.
Grandma was a strong advocate for those she loved. In second grade, Grandma convinced my mother that I should be a contestant in one of the community beauty pageants. Why? Well, everybody knows that all Puerto Rican girls between the ages of five and sixteen must be in a pageant. When I didn’t win first place, Grandma caught wind that “politics” were involved. So, she worked the phones to make sure that I was secured a premiere spot on the float for the Puerto Rican Day Parade. And, oh, the Puerto Rican Day Parade! What can I say about the parade? It was a giant party, and call it what you will (a stereotype) but we Puerto Rican’s will look for “cualquier razon” (any old reason) to have a party!
Grandma was an extremely stubborn woman. If she believed something to be true there was no telling her otherwise. My grandfather, who liked to operate outside of his giftings, had a knack for pulling things apart (like household appliances) and then forgetting how to put them back together. Moments before the New York City Black Out of 1977 Grandpa, or “Papi,” as we liked to call him, was downstairs in the boiler room of the basement changing a light bulb. In an unfortunate coincidence for Papi, at around the same time, a lightning bolt struck a circuit breaker in Westchester. That first lightning strike was the beginning of a series of events that led to what would become known as the New York City Blackout of 1977. It left virtually every neighborhood in New York City powerless for almost two days. Despite the fact that the entire household rallied to his defense, for Grandma, the timing was too close to be chalked up as a chance happening. For the rest of her life Grandma would be convinced that Papi had something to do with the City Wide Black Out of 1977.
Grandma was an impressive cook. Whether it was the cilantro, garlic, and onions cooking for the “recaíto,” or the “chuletas fritas con tostones” (fried pork chops with fried plantains), or the “bacalao” (dry salted cod fish) the house was always filled with a delicious aroma. No one ever left Grandma’s kitchen without eating something. She would happily serve you a heaping plate of “arroz con gandules” (yellow rice with green pigeon peas) brimming over with portions fit for King Kong. Then, after you left she would criticize you for being too fat.
Grandma and Grandpa loved to pass the time playing dominoes late into the night. I can remember many summer nights watching them eat their “pasta de guayaba” (guava paste) and “queso blanco” (white cheese) over saltine crackers. As they mixed the dominoes on their utility table with their wrinkled hands, I could hear them singing along with the music coming from the Spanish radio station. And, I could almost feel the cool island breeze whenever they sang, “En Mi Viejo San Juan” (In my Old San Juan):
“Me voy (ya me voy)
Pero un día volveré
A buscar mi querer
A soñar otra vez
En mi viejo San Juan.”
Even though Grandma and Grandpa successfully assimilated to the American way, their hearts always longed to return to their beautiful homeland of Puerto Rico. Years later, God would grant them that desire…and much more.
Those close to Grandma knew there was “more to the mortar” than what the world saw. You see, this little old lady carried a burden much larger than her little shoulders could bear. It wasn’t until years later that I would learn just exactly what was behind all her stubborn tendencies. As a young mother, Grandma left the only world she knew behind. She said “goodbye” to the family she loved, and like a loyal wife, followed her husband to New York where the promise of a better future was before her. With no support system, and only a small grasp of the language, Grandma had all the hopes and dreams of any young married woman. All of those dreams quickly turned into a nightmare when my grandfather’s addiction to gambling and women could no longer be kept secret. She felt the sting of rejection. She knew the agony of public humiliation. She suffered the pain of abandonment. Behind all those “bofetas” was a bleeding heart.
One day my grandfather disappeared without a single word or explanation. He simply abandoned my grandmother and his young family. Years later he would appear at her doorstep; a repentant husband, on his knees, begging forgiveness. She took him back almost instantaneously. In Grandma’s mind, he never stopped being her husband. Despite her faith in Christ, Grandma never worked through her ordeal apart from the anger and the bitterness within a biblical framework. Grandma, for all intents and purposes, would hold his moral failures over him. And, Grandpa, though fully repentant, lived under the dark cloud of condemnation for too many years.
In 1988, Grandma and Grandpa sold their house and moved back to Puerto Rico. God granted them the desires of their heart. It was with great joy that they returned to their tropical island paradise. It was there, in Puerto Rico, where the miracle of their union took place. They both repented of their sins and extended and received true biblical forgiveness for the first time ever. They found a church and a community of believers that embraced them. They also came to appreciate how a sovereign God uses all things, including pain and suffering for our good and His glory. Family members in Puerto Rico reported that the two were like newly weds all over again. Their final months were marked by a sweet tenderness that only the amazing grace of God could bring about. God showed himself strong and mighty on behalf of my grandparents – especially my grandmother. He redeemed what was stolen. He restored what was broken. He breathed life and resurrected what was long left for dead.
A few months after Grandpa died, I visited her in Puerto Rico. We sat and talked about her future without Grandpa. With wide eyes, she held up her hand with her wedding ring in full view. Then, with trembling voice, she proudly proclaimed, “I only have one husband. I will never look at another man.” At the time, I wondered how many men were actually fighting to get her attention, but I was overwhelmed by the strength of her conviction.
For all of Grandma’s challenges, she is one of the best things that ever happened to me. The influence this little woman had on my life can never be overstated. I grew up watching her read the Bible into the late hours of the night. I listened as she prayed with fervor. I took comfort as she sang the great hymns of the Church in Spanish with all of her heart. At the time, I didn’t know what she was doing. However, I saw enough to know that Grandma had laid hold of something eternal that I had yet to experience. Many years later, when I came to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, it was evident to me that Grandma’s prayers were being answered. Sadly, Alzheimer’s had already crept in, and I never got to tell her how Jesus saved me. As time went on, Grandma lost her ability to recognize even the closest people to her. Not surprisingly, there was one name that Grandma always did seem to recognize. Jesus. Even when her Alzheimer’s was at its worse, the mere mention of His name would cause her face to light up like a Christmas tree. My grandmother left a wonderful legacy. Grandma was living proof that the foundations of life can crumble, but the loving kindness and faithfulness of an eternal God will always remain.
This is powerful. Thank you for sharing. It is wonderful to hear about God’s grace in your grandma’s life. But, I also learned about the story of immigration and some of the challenges that people faced.
Jay Velez says
Que siga viviendo las memorias de mis padres y que su influencia atraves de sus hijos y nietos transformen multitudes y generaciones por nacer! Viven aun hoy en nosotros!
Thank you Lord for the blessed memory!
Jay Velez says
May the blessed memories of my parents continue to live on and that their influence though their sons and grandchildren transform multitudes and generations yet to be born! Their lives live on in us!
Thank you Lord for such a blessed memory!
Lil' Jay says
I absolutely loved this! Man, I miss her so much! Lol I remember when she would play solitare at my house.I love her a lot. 🙂
This story is the story of many of us who are 2nd generation in this wonderful country. Being Puerto Rican I laughed and cried and I relate to the sentiments. Mi abulas influence me also greatly. How sweet to reminisce. God bless you and keep writing the stories.
I AM SO PROUD, HONORED, AND HUMBLED TO have had her as a mother. I miss her so much. One thing I learned is never to give up on life no matter how dark it is.
She showed us tht the greateest thing in life is the love of our Lord Christ. I also miss my Papi with his philosophical views of life. How hectic and chaotic it was yet there was happiness at 57th Street. I HAVE BEEN BLESSED FOR HAVING PARENTS WITH VALUES AND LOVE.
This is a wonderful homage to all immigrants (not just Puerto Rican) to this country, who sought a better life, not for themselves but for their families. My childhood mirrors that of your mother and her siblings. Your grandmother’s life is a testament, that God answers all prayers in due course, according to His plan. On another note, you are truly blessed with the gift of writing. Take God’s gift to you and follow it where He leads you.
Inez Perry says
I have been a close friend of your Mother for many years now and when I hear you speak of your Grandmother and Grandfather it was an echo of your Mom. She, like you, have wonderful memories of them. This was a good read and I enjoyed it very much.
I am the child of immigrant parents. I never met my grandparents as they were long dead before I was born. My immediate family was close but very alone in America– with no extended family to fall back on we formed a bond that many American families will never understand __us against the world. My parents famous line the door is always open…you can always come home –no questions asked and they meant it —nothing we could do would stop the love or ever turn them against us.
As a child I always envied my playmates when they would head off to their grandmothers to be spoiled. I wanted the grandmother —the protector who would be my friend. I was blessed to experience a grandma when I met yours in my 30’s. I was devastated after a break-up and going through a really difficult time. I will never forget your Grandma in her house dress wanting to kill the guy that upset me. She didn’t know me but she knew my pain and in her broken English managed to pick my spirit back up. I laugh today when I think how she wanted to beat him up—and still can hear her say your pretty and too good for him….and she was right ..LOL
What a fitting tribute to my Titi Sara. She was such an major part of my upbringing. Not a day goes by without thinking about titi & mom. Those weekends when they would get together and play dominoes, or around the holidays when we would all get together and make “pasteles” at Titis house in the basement. Nobody makes pasteles like those two!
My childhood memories are filled with memories of Titi coaching us for the “Monchitos Reinados”, those sacred pageants I dreaded. Titi would give us classes on everything from etiquette and speech to walking and posture. I would hang on her every word.
Titi was the one I would got to as a kid when Mom wouldn’t understand me. Titi was the one who would soften mom up and convince her to let me try new things when mom would say “no.” We called her “la abogada” (the lawyer) because she would speak on my behalf to mom and would win the case.
Her integrity and her faith was only matched by the size of her heart. She truly had a special love for children and gave of herself unconditionally.
Nicole Arianna says
Very well written Chrissy! being one of the younger grandchildren, I got to experience Grandma at the tail-end of her life. This was a great insight to who she was and the extraordinary family I happen to be a part of. I love you!
Precious Nicole! How Grandma loved you — and, how she prayed for you and each and everyone of her grandchildren. I am so glad that we are related and I am so proud of the woman that you are becoming! God bless you and may He cause His favor to rest on you.
P.S. I heard you and your mom saw Steven on the train yesterday. Just when I got off, too! Sorry I missed you guys! : (
Nicole Arianna says
Haha thanks! my mother told me how she used to call my “la munieca”. Thank you for all the blessings and yes we did see Steven! haha Hes gained some weight but he looks good! Still smiling. It was nice to see him considering I didn’t see him the other night.
What a loving and lovely tribute to your grandmother, whom I loved and respected too. I think having known her, as anyone else who did might say, you couldn’t be anything less than moved by her greatness of spirit and love and the tremendous warmth that surrounded her.
Beautifully written and apparently divinely inspired.
God Bless you and her and Papi!
Oscar colon says
Thanks………Big man crying!!!!!!
What a wonderful memoir! I laughed and cried reading this amazing account of your dear “la abuela”. And so beautifully written too – you truly have a gift for painting a picture for the reader.
Thank you very much for sharing this.
Patricia (Pollywog Creek) says
My goodness, Christina, that was so good!!!! I loved reading about your abuela. What a rich heritage you have, and you have a gift, dear friend.
Your final comments about your abuela knowing only the name Jesus reminds me of a woman we encountered in a nursing home many years ago. Every time we saw her all she would do is sing…”I love the Lord and the Lord loves me.” So sweet. I hope that’s me.
Mamasita! You truly have a way of transporting the reader directly into your memories!! That was so beautiful, and I felt like I knew your grandmother, too. Your story also brought back memories of my father….similar culture, and proof that God loves the simple and pure of heart. They may not have been much in stature in the the eyes of the world, but through all of their many trials and heartbreak, in the end they were ready to meet their Savior, and every tear was wiped away. Thank you, Jesus!!!!
What a beautiful tribute to your abuela. Clearly, she was a force to be reckoned with. Your story reveals how you received the blessing of being privy to her “private world” and seeing the redemptive hand of God in it all.
Many blessings to you, Christina,
Thank you so much for taking the time read this! I couldn’t have said it better myself — my grandmother’s testimony is indeed a constant reminder to me that God is a redeemer! Bless His name!
Pray you had a beautiful Christmas yesterday!
Love and blessings!
Deejay O'Flaherty says
Tried to post this yesterday but think network blogs messed the url up:
This was an awesome read; made me weep. Your grandmother shows that often all it takes is one person to make a difference. Women like her seem to be rare in our days. Thanks for sharing such a testimony of God’s grace
Awww…..I almost missed your comment Deejay! Thank you so much for taking the time to read about my grandma.
It makes me happy to be able to share her — something tells me that the two of you would have gotten along so well!. 🙂 Her life was not easy but God’s grace was greater and you said it well — “all it takes is one person to make a difference.” I don’t know where I would be were it not for her faithful influence in my life.
Celeste Catala Casado says
Wow, your story could easily be my story – word for word. I laughed and cried and marvelled at the similarities. My abuelita is gone now (also to Alzheimer’s disease!). Reading your blog made me realize that now my mom is the abuelita and that I need to cherish every day that she is here and to keep those traditions alive for my children’s sake.
How wonderful to meet you and thank you so much for your comment. I’m sure that if you and I were to sit and compare notes there would be even more parallels than this little post could ever contain! And I couldn’t agree with you more. Let us be diligent to pass on to the next generation — not only our cultural traditions but also the great heritage that we have in Christ! Joshua 4:19-24. God bless you and your family!
This column made me remember so many memories which also were very similar in my life growing up in Puerto Rico and having my abuela alive at the time. It also made me laugh in many parts! God Bless!
Awww…thank you for taking the time to read Heidi! Your comments are a nice surprise for me tonight! Love and blessings!
MIles McKee says
Thanks Christina! An excellent account of grace.
Thank you for taking the time to read brother Miles! Though we have never met, I feel as if you are an old friend given how much brother Jon has spoken to me and Steven about you! God bless you!
Laura A Matesi says
Came here for the Women of the Reformation and stayed for the My Puerto Rican Grandmother. What a wonderful story! I must add that I enjoyed the comments that followed. Especially from your family and friends that knew her.
I will be reading thru the Women of the Reformation now. And if it’s ok with you I will probably want to link it to my blog. I admire all who were part of the Reformation. And it will be enlightening to know the women too. Thanks for your work.
Myra Lapinski says
This was good! What a reminder how God hears our prayers. How you are fruit of her many days and nights praying for your salvation. It was a great testimony how God restores broken hearts. I really like this one. If God chooses for this story to win in the Family History Writing… He will get all the glory and I do pray that He will be glorified. Let this testimony encourage others who have lost all hope, and they can know that God is able to do the impossible for them. We serve a Mighty God!!