Tag Archives: Puerto Rico

My Puerto Rican Visitors

My great-aunt Laura and her husband Felix visited me in northern Virginia the last week in April. My great-aunt is 83 years old, Felix a few years younger, and they live in Puerto Rico. She was the youngest and now the only survivor of a robust line of siblings of my grandmother, Doña Yuya. (Abuela died at 96 1/2 years old in 2003.) Laura and my mother, who turns 80 this summer, grew up like sisters in the barrio of Santo Domingo in Caguas, Puerto Rico. When they get together, they like to talk about the chickens who lived with them. When the chickens became sick, Abuela would burn tires. Most of the chickens would die, but the ones that survived were declared cured.

Like he does every time we see him, Felix talked about his tough childhood in Puerto Rico and New York City. His schooling ended in the third grade as a result of his mother’s death. His father sent Felix off to stay with other relatives, who put him to work at a restaurant of sorts in Puerto Rico, where Felix says he might as well have been a slave. He only had one shirt and one pair of pants, he said, and didn’t attend school. He was saved by an Americano who would come to the restaurant and who eventually offered him a better job. Felix ended up in a cold water flat in New York City. He had no idea of how cold water could get until he took his first shower in the winter.

Felix was constantly on the phone, checking on his network of friends and family in Puerto Rico.Felix (It is unusual for Laura and Felix to travel anywhere now that they’ve retired.) Felix is the facilitator, the engineer of his social circle. His areas of expertise include car repairs, cell phone bills, and baseball, particularly the New York Mets. He also knows what most things should cost and was surprised that the Burger Kings in the US mainland charge more than the ones in Puerto Rico. He appeared to know to the penny what he should have been paying.

Labor Unions. Felix recounted his experience at his first job as an adult. He was working at a factoria in New York City and eventually ended up as the shop steward, even though he did not speak much English. (He still doesn’t.) During some kerfuffle he was fired and he filed a complaint with the New York Labor Commission. When they investigated, according to Felix, they discovered that the owner of the factoria was also the head of the labor union. Felix was always a union man; he believed companies always took advantage of Puerto Ricans and blacks.

Economics. Felix eventually became the treasurer of a social club in New Jersey, Amigos Unidos. He became frustrated by the endless hassle collecting annual membership dues, so he suggested to the club leadership that they drop the dues and rely on bar revenues for income. Most of his colleagues were dubious but, as Felix recounted, his plan worked. They made more profit from the bar than they ever made from membership dues. The club became so profitable that it eventually acquired its own building, which was an overstretch. They also ran afoul of the local liquor commission, which began to impose stricter conditions for a liquor license.

Cemeteries. Perhaps the highlight of Felix’ and Laura’s visit was when we visited Abuela’s and my father’s graves. Abuela is buried at a lovely cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. My mother grieves every time she visits but this time Laura was there to reassure her. Visiting AbuelaMy father is in Arlington National Cemetery, which always makes for an impressive visit. My mother is calmer when she visits my father. She only says the Our Father at his grave and omits the Hail Mary because he was a Protestant.

Felix loves to play cards and claims to be a successful gambler. One day I invited a friend who knew Abuela to come over and play cards with us. Abuela knew her as La Alta Flaca. We played Spanish cards–Briscas, and Felix was a good teacher of the game. He also won.

All in all, it was a good break for Felix and Laura. He left us with his favorite saying: Cuídense que de los buenos quedan pocos. (Take care, because there aren’t too many good ones left.)

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Compassion is a Special Kind of Intelligence

I posted this tweet just about an hour ago. Like many of my tweets, it has a back story, and I thought I might share this one.

I’m in Puerto Rico with my mom for Thanksgiving, and that’s because we are Puerto RIMAG1055icans–my mother born and bred and me born and sort of half-bred. We don’t have much immediate family left on the island, but one of our favorites who is still there and with us is my great aunt Laura. She’s my grandmother’s youngest sister–25 years younger than Abuela. Laura is 83 now–the only one of her siblings still alive. This is a picture of her from earlier today–she’s eating so that’s why her mouth looks a little funny.

The genetic material on that side of the family is choice. My grandmother lived to be 96 and her mother topped 100 by several years–no one really knows for sure because she never was clear in her own mind. She was born, she said, a few years before some horrible hurricane hit Puerto Rico and was a young woman when the Americans landed.

Almost all of my family in Puerto Rico were poor and not well-educated, at least through World War II. My grandmother only finished the first grade and could barely read and sign her name–although her command of financial matters was astute. She never learned to speak English except for counting from 1 to 75–the Bingo numbers.

And Laura wasn’t well educated either. She is not book smart. The modern world escapes her. She only ever worked as a laborer. She never learned to drive.

And yet as we drove back to the hotel from our last visit, I reflected on my great aunt Laura’s personal kind of smarts. She has no idea how the internet works or the economic fundamentals behind her electricity bill. Instead, she feels deeply the injustice in the world. “Ave Maria” is her most common phrase which she uses to register her sympathy with your plight–or anyone else’s. Her last story was about her neighbor’s dog, who is chained in the backyard and shown no love. “I cannot tell you how much I suffer because of him.” she said.

Compassion. That’s her form of intelligence. And it has grown through a lifetime of empathy for everyone she’s ever met.

So that tweet was for my great aunt Laura. She will never see it. She does not know Twitter exists. But now Twitter will know she exists.

Being Puerto Rican–A Network Analysis

I was born in Puerto Rico and I try to go back every year for at least a week. This is one of those weeks. If you haven’t been there, it is a diverse and beautiful island with some of the best examples of karst topography in the United States and hundreds of miles of diverse coastline, from pure white beaches to dramatic bluffs. Most people who just visit San Juan never get to experience this diversity and may get little appreciation for the Puerto Rican people and culture.

Speaking about Puerto Rican people and culture reminds me of how I  learned that “being Puerto Rican” had (has?) a certain malodor, at least in some major cities of the East Coast. I came to live as an adult in DC as a transfer college student. Previously I had been in Texas for 8 years, which is why I consider myself a Puerto Rican by birth and a Texan by nationality. And I had no real concept of what being Puerto Rican meant on the East Coast. (To this day when I meet someone new, the chances are 50-50 that, when they find out I’m Puerto Rican, they will just assume I grew up in NYC. Conversely, I take great and flinching pains to rescue them from that idea, which reveals my prejudice as well.) Anyway when I got to Catholic University, I started working in the dining hall and I just innocently told my coworkers I was Puerto Rican. And this fellow student from Connecticut advises me: “If I were you I wouldn’t tell too many people that cuz where I come from Puerto Ricans are lazy and dirty.” (To this day I have had a prejudice against any Connecticut, including always rooting against their excellent basketball teams. But it can’t be helped.)

Once you get away from San Juan it becomes clear how different the island is from the States. If Puerto Rico ever became a state, it would be, by a 50% factor, the poorest state in the union. The economy as currently structured does not generate enough jobs for the young men and women who live there. So everywhere you go you see large clumps of young people, mostly men, mostly doing nothing. Another indicator of the absence of youth engagement are the large pied-piper party trucks and vans that bounce along the roads, topped by about 6-foot speakers, blaring out rhythms enticing all to join them at the best place to party that night and this weekend. My mom observing all this said, “We Puerto Ricans are lazy.” I said, “I don’t think so. But there is certainly a messed up rewards structure here.” When there is nothing to work for, we humans, being reasoning animals, often choose not to work. Sensible.

In terms of manmade structures, most of the island is just a mess. For example, there appeared to have been no zoning laws for much of recent history, leading to just the ugliest stretches of suburban blight I’ve ever seen. And, and this is my opinion, the Fast Food industry appears to have been allowed to run roughshod over the local food culture (which truth be told wasn’t too healthy either, but at least there was less of it usually served).  What I find really appalling are the huge billboards all over the state, tempting you to “take a break” by eating about 2000 calories of carbohydrates and fat. Diabetes is, of course, an epidemic.

So as I drove around the state, visiting relatives (and I thought it would be impossible to drive 400 miles in one day in PR but I am here to attest it can be done) I realized the entire state is a very good example of a very poorly designed network. The risk/rewards structure facilitates nonproductive behavior. Lack of design thinking at the very beginning leads to consequences one could have foretold. (Is there a design checklist out there? There must be. That actually reminds me of another lesson, #20, as a CIA manager. The importance of checklists. Most serious professionals I’ve known are offended by the concept of checklists–we’re above that, they say. As a seriously flawed human being, however, who claims to very little expertise, I love checklists. But I digress….)

The road “system” is the most obvious if not the best example of bad networks. Intersections between major highways are particularly clumsy, leading to creative workarounds by drivers. I wish I had a picture to show you, but of course I’m always driving at the time. But the lesson is clear: people will adjust themselves to even the most badly designed network. But making the most of bad situations allows for survival, but not prosperity.

My relatives in Puerto Rico are real characters. A real highlight is Juana, my mother’s cousin, I think, although determining exact family connections is a challenge given the alarming rate at which people recouple, at least in my family, and produce half-brothers and half-sisters. Anyway here’s Juana telling us one her many wonderful stories. I particularly liked the one where she went to visit the grave of her beloved husband (I was going to write deceased husband, but thought better of it given that’s why he’s in the grave in the first place). Anyway, she’s at the gravesite when a sudden burst of wind manifests, blows her down–that wind was substantial!!–and deposits her exactly alongside the burial site of her departed Gabriel, precisely where she will lie when she eventually joins him.

And here are some of her beautiful orchids.