Yesterday at my Aunt Ana’s East Bronx apartment on Eastchester Bay opposite City Island, my father Cruz’ four surviving siblings gathered for a rare reunion. Joining Ana and me were her sisters Ofelia, Elie and May, all in their late 80’s or 90’s, and all still living in Puerto Rico. My wife Erica and Ana’s loving daughter my cousin Lily arranged the get together occasioned by the auntie’s rare visit to New York from their island home in the town of Bayamon, a suburb of San Juan the capital.
The trip was motivated by Aunt Ana’s failing health and the collective desire to spend time with this wonderful, gentle Puerto Rican soul who became my Jewish mother’s best friend. Cousin Lily, a Bronx-based Evangelical minister is named for my mom, Lily Friedman Rivera, now 95. My daughter Sol’s middle name is Liliana, homage to my mom and favorite aunt.
I am honored whenever I am referred to as a Jibaro. And remembering my father and grandfather, I wish every Jibaro reading this a Happy Father’s Day.
What struck me at the impromptu gathering was how long ago that was and how much we all had changed since that summer of 1959 when I turned 16 living with them and my grandparents in their crowded but happy home. The three aunties up from Puerto Rico still live in the same home and we reminisced about how much their brother, my dad meant to them and me.
He was the first of his family to graduate high school and the first to take the banana boat up from Puerto Rico to New York. He sent me to live with his island family so that I was forced to learn Spanish, which I couldn’t speak a word of when I got there. Sending me there was a wise move because no one in his ancestral home spoke English and I was speaking and dreaming in Spanish when it was time to go home to New York for school that September, 56 years ago.
My dad’s dad, my abuelo Juan and I went fishing and swimming in the Rio Bayamon, raised rabbits and chickens in the backyard and ate lots of rice and beans.
I worshipped my grandparents who had 17 children in those long ago days when each kid grew up still working part-time in the sugar cane plantations that have long since given way to suburban sprawl, shopping malls and highways.
One of Puerto Rico’s main highways, Route 52 cuts through the center of the island from San Juan to Ponce on the south coast. As the highway approaches the Caribbean Sea, there is a statue dedicated to the proud Jibaro, the Puerto Rican everyman from the old days when the island was still basically agrarian. The statue depicts the Jibaro, who’s a sugar cane worker or farmer with his ever-present machete, standing alongside his wife holding their small child, and embodying everything noble and valued in island lore, a hard worker, guide and teacher, protective, genuine and loving, just like my dad.
Erica and I have a home in Playa Salinas on that south coast and I think of my father and grandfather every time we drive past the statue of the Jibaro. In island culture there is no higher compliment than to be called a Jibaro. I am honored whenever I am referred to as a Jibaro. And remembering my father and grandfather, I wish every Jibaro reading this a Happy Father’s Day.