Talking to Doña Gina the other day was like taking a time machine to the past. She filled me in with information that was just as descriptive and colorful as a trip to my mother’s home in the nineteen twenties and thirties would have been. Her information wasn’t simply coming from copies of flimsy papers with dates and names but rather with the insight of an eyewitness. It wasn’t so much a story as much as an objective account of life on my grandfather farm. She filled a gap I had always had since I was only two years old when “don Pepe,” mi abuelo, had died. So I barely knew about my family’s past, other than what my mother had told me which was barely nothing other than that she ran up the hill with her brothers after lunch was over and she had washed the dishes. Not an easy task when you have five brothers and four sisters. She had told me about la vega (the meadow) and la laja (a big rock in the middle of the river), both places on the family farm that she found beautiful. Unfortunately for me, by the time I was a teenager and had returned to the island with my parents, the farm had long outrun is original glory.
All I remember about the old farm was el ranchon and the big wooden house on the top of the little hill with its spacious front rooms creaking as you walked in the house, and a cool breeze that trailed through it from the wide front porch to the kitchen in the back. That was all I could remember. I had seen a picture or two but had heard bits and pieces about these mysterious people who were my close relatives. One story was about a stingy uncle, yet it was the Great Depression after all. Another was about a difficult uncle who drank too much and had angry outbursts and moved far away; then the story of my much loved uncle, Tio Angel, who went off to war in Europe, and finally how eventually most of the family moved away to remote San Juan, and someone tearing down the old house and leaving only a rocky stump where the old foundation had been.
So what kind of farm was it? As I questioned Doña Gina about the farm I also learned about what kind of person my grandfather was. You see Gina was close to my mother’s age, and she had her eye on a handsome young man who was a peon on the farm. She was only 12 then and blushingly told me how she found an excuse to see him daily by taking him some lunch. The farm which I thought was only big enough to sustain the Morales clan, actually was large enough to hire 15 peons, who helped around la finca by tending cows, feeding chickens, pigs, and ducks. Other than the animals, la finca also had cuerdas (land) for planting guineos, plantains, rice, and tobacco. This was not to mention the annual gandules and habichuelas, as well as orange, grapefruit, breadfruit, coconut palms, and avocado trees that are still on the land today. With that same produce they made and sold some of the best pasteles in the area.
Peons were paid 25 cents a day. My eyes must have shown surprise as Gina reminded me this was during La Gran Depresion. Though the laborers were only paid 25 cents a day, they were also paid with a sack of produce as needed once a week for their own family’s needs. "Nadie nunca pasaba hambre que trabajara en la finca." No one ever went hungry. More than one time in that conversation she told me about how generous my grandfather had been and how much he was loved in the community. That is why, on the day he died in the early 1950’s, there was much weeping and consternation in Las Lomas in Naranjito. Who would take over the farm now that Don Pepe was gone? How would they be able to make it? Ahora que ese arbol de roble habia sido derribado que pasaria con ellos? Now that that old oak tree had been hewed down, what would happen to them? He had been their source of income and influence. It was indeed a sad day in the community and you could almost imagine someone singing El Lamento Borincano.
In addition she told me she knew so much about my family because she became part of the help in the Morales farm and that Mami was one of her favorites. She recalled bringing water up from the river with a big can braced on her head. Later this water was boiled and filtered for consumption. She mentioned un anafre having to do with the water. Now all the water running must have been before they built the cistern whose walls are still up there on the top of the hill. It was quite large so I am sure getting water from the river happened when there was a dry spell.
Gina told me that some years later she found work in the tobacco factory in town. When that factory closed down a flower factory opened where she also worked with my aunt, Titi Georgina. Years later Titi Georgina showed me some of the flowers and supplies she was given when in turn that artificial flower factory had shut its doors.
Random facts were added about other members of the family that I had only heard mentioned by name and some not at all. She mentioned that my great grandfather, Don Tano, "Papa Tano" for the family, had mostly coffee on his plantation, and that he had a best friend, Evaristo Nieves, who was nicknamed Don Baro and was blind. Don Tano, Don Pepe, and Tio Elias all were good friends with Don Baro and often visited. Just knowing that speaks well about their character, doesn't it? She added that my dear aunt, Titi Sarita, my mother’s oldest sister, had her own seamstress shop, in a wooden building separate from the main house where people were constantly coming to order shirts and pants to be custom made for them.
Was this an eye opener? The answer is a huge yes! I got a new appreciation for my ancestors. The organization skills it took to run a working farm of that size and manpower, to not only sustain a family of twelve with ten children and two adults, but also at least 15 other families in the community, astounds me. I had no idea. It makes me proud to know I had such an admirable grandfather. Whereas before he was in the shadows, now he has come into the light. God rest his soul.
So that is what happened to me on a quiet Tuesday afternoon as I visited Mami in El Hogar El Quijote en el barrio Van Scoy in Bayamon. I wonder what will happen today?
La finca- the farm
Cuerdas- Spanish size measurement for land, smaller than an acre
Gandules- Pidgeon peas
Pasteles- plantain based tamal wrapped in banana leaves