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This was supposed to be posted last Tuesday but my travel plans precluded it, so here it is now with slight amendments.

On Friday I wrote about a dishonorable ancestor, Samuel Ladd. Today I’m writing about someone honorable instead. We recently celebrated Valentine’s Day and my wife’s birthday soon after, so naturally I’m thinking a lot about my wife (something I usually do anyway). I’m also thinking about her great-grandfather in Puerto Rico, an incredible man whose birthday was the day before my wife’s, and the unlikely path that led to my marriage.

Abuelo in later years with one of his dozens of grandchildren

“Abuelo,” as he was known to one and all (it means “grandfather” in Spanish), was born February 17, 1907 in a rural town in Puerto Rico, about 30 miles from San Juan. One of the things I find fascinating about him is the way his day-to-day lifestyle really has become a thing of the past in our country. Abeulo was well past 30, with a large family of his own, before he had a radio, telephone or car. In the rural Puerto Rico of his youth, as in many parts of the United States at that time, most roads were not paved and most travel was by horse or foot. He married his childhood sweetheart and they lived their entire long lives in the same small rural town where they were born.

Images of Puerto Rico in 1907, the year of Abuelo's birth
Abuelo’s ancestry is more legend than established fact, but it’s believed his grandfather fled Venezuela (directly south of Puerto Rico) after running into legal problems related to a love triangle. He landed in Ponce and settled in the town where Abuelo was born. Abuelo’s parents were born in that same small town in the 1880s, when the island was still under Spanish control. But even during Abuelo’s parents’ childhood, there was talk of change. The United States, with its global trade expanding, was looking seriously at developing its navy and finally constructing the Panama Canal to connect Atlantic and Pacific. Decades earlier Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, had proposed purchasing strategically located places, including Puerto Rico, for use as coaling stations for merchant and naval ships.
Puerto Rico spent four centuries (1493-1898) under Spain's rule
Spanish troops in Puerto Rico, early 1898
As was the case in nearby Cuba, many Puerto Ricans chafed under oppressive Spanish rule. An independence movement was founded in New York City in 1895, and an uprising, quickly suppressed, took place in Yauco in 1897. Puerto Rican nationalist leaders convinced the government in Spain to grant a higher level of autonomy beginning in 1898. The island was to have a partially democratic legislature and a governor, with veto power, appointed by Spain. This government went into effect on July 17, 1898.

It did not last long. The United States, officially at war with Spain since March of that year, had already blockaded San Juan Harbor and attempted to invade Puerto Rico. On July 25, 1898, only eight days after the new Puerto Rican governmental structure took force, American forces landed in Puerto Rico to a largely welcoming response. Within three weeks, Spain would cede Puerto Rico to the United States and the island would never again be the same.

Puerto Rico taken by the Americans, July 25, 1898
Although the 1900 Foraker Act gave Puerto Rico some control over its own affairs, by the time Abuelo was born in 1907 it was essentially an American colony. Not until March 2, 1917, when the United States wished to draft Puerto Ricans to serve in World War I, did Congress pass a law making all Puerto Ricans natural-born citizens of the United States. (The groundwork had been laid by the landmark González v. Williams, 192 U.S. 1 (1904), case in the U.S. Supreme Court, in which a woman won the right for Puerto Ricans on the island to move to the mainland U.S. without going through immigration procedures; she was pregnant and moving to New York to marry her fiancée when Ellis Island tried to turn her away as an “alien immigrant likely to become a public charge.”)

In the late 1920s, when he was about 20 himself, Abuelo married a young woman he’d known growing up, Dominica. Over the next 15 years or so, they had ten children. Abuelo was a laborer, be it agricultural or in construction. During the Depression years he sometimes had to leave to find work, but he always came back to the country town he called home.

Abuelo's hometown, in some places looking not much different today than a century ago
In those days of few paved roads, and few cars, Abuelo spent a lot of time on horseback or riding in the back of his boss’s flatbed truck with a couple dozen other workers. Much of the local land still was owned by the small number of semi-aristocratic families that had owned it under the Spanish. Abuelo was a hard worker, up before dawn every day. He didn’t drink much, didn’t curse, went to church regularly, and adored his wife. He was a kind and gentle man, but also a stubborn and upright one with a commanding presence.
A 1940 census form in Spanish
One by one, his children started to marry and have children of their own (though not necessarily in that order). Yet still Abuelo worked long hours, primarily working in the fields or building houses in the area. One day, several decades ago, a large landowner for whom Abuelo had worked approached him. He wanted to sell to Abuelo, at a very good price, a huge tract of land. Abuelo wasn’t sure he wanted all the hassle, but said it would be nice to have a place where his whole family could live together. Abuelo’s youngest brother, some 20 years younger, then stepped forward and offered to buy the land. The seller quoted him a much higher price, and only on the condition that Abuelo be left alone on a smaller tract within the tract. Thus began “The Compound,” a worthy rival to the Kennedy Compound in Hyannisport.

Abuelo and his family built, with their own hands, seven houses for them to live in, with Abuelo and Dominica’s house at the center. The Compound is next to a curve on a one-lane country road, with palm trees in abundance and coquís croaking all night long. There are lizards everywhere and chickens roam freely. Various of Abuelo’s descendants moved to San Juan, or to New York, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, Florida, Chicago, California, and other places. But to this day, The Compound is the center of the family’s universe and Abuelo lived there the rest of his life.

The center of The Compound
The back of The Compound, looking out to near infinity
Abuelo kept working, building houses and doing other odd jobs, until he was 83. That’s when his beloved wife died, and he told his family he would no longer work and he would no longer dance. They had always loved to dance. Saddened immensely after losing his partner of more than 60 years, he nonetheless soldiered on.
Another view from The Compound
I first met Abuelo in 2001, long before my wife and I were a couple. Some explanation is in order. In late 1999, not long out of college, I took a job at a nonprofit in New York City. My boss introduced me to my colleagues, one of whom was my future wife’s uncle, “Joe” (not his real name). “Joe” and I went for a drink two days later, and soon became good friends. He proved his worth as a friend when my mother died, somewhat unexpectedly, only weeks after we met. “Joe” got permission from the Executive Director and drove a van full of my new colleagues for hours in a snowstorm to attend the wake. He was there for me through the whole ordeal.

Throughout the year 2000 “Joe” and I became even closer friends. About a year after we first met, “Joe” told me he was going to Puerto Rico to visit his father and family, and to my surprise invited me to come. Thus it was that on February 10, 2001, “Joe” and I took off from JFK Airport on a trip that would change my life forever.

We landed in San Juan in the early evening, exchanging snow for 80 degree heat, and “Joe” told me he’d promised his sister we’d stop in at her daughter’s birthday party. They lived only about ten minutes from the airport. We entered the house and “Joe” introduced me to a bunch of very nice people, most of whom spoke little English. Though I had no way of knowing it, that’s when I met my future wife for the first time. I was in my mid-20s, she was barely in high school. She told me later that she thought I was an NBA player (I’m 6’3” and few people in Puerto Rico are that tall).

From the party we drove to The Compound, arriving late and going straight to bed. The next morning I met “Joe’s” father, who was living in Abuelo’s house. Right away they took me to see Abuelo, the patriarch and my real host. With “Joe” translating, he gave me a warm welcome and commented on my height as well (this would become a recurring theme with this family).

On the road from San Juan to The Compound

A few days later, my future wife showed up at The Compound, very early in the morning, with her mother and younger sister. “Joe” and I took off with them for a long day trip to the art museum in Ponce (my wife attended an arts-themed high school and is very talented), and to La Parguera in the extreme southwestern corner of the island. We arrived, after getting lost in the back roads, and went out on a glass-bottomed boat to the Bahia Fosforescente. When fish move in this bay, they cause millions of tiny organisms to glow in a spectacular light show.

The big event of that week, though, was Abuelo’s 94th birthday party on Saturday. This, to the family, was the event of the year. They came from far and wide, driving from San Juan and flying in from all over the U.S. There must have been over two hundred people at that party every single year. Preparations had been going on for days at The Compound, including the annual making of the pitorro. Pitorro is essentially moonshine, illegal homemade rum with prunes and other fruits in it. The stuff runs to an obscenely high alcohol content. Abuelo’s sons made it, only for family consumption, every year in the run-up to his birthday party. Then, on the morning of the big day, they buried the glass bottles in the ground (common practice to cure it), and dug up the previous year’s stash.

They're starting to arrive for the annual birthday party
As a visitor of dubious machismo, I was obligated to have a drink of the pitorro. I’m still standing but I’m not sure how. Then it was nothing but drink and food (they started roasting a pig at dawn) and music and dancing, for about twelve hours. I met literally dozens of cousins and saw my future wife for the third time. We wouldn’t set eyes on each other again for eight years.
The Party.
My wife tells me her own birthday always was overshadowed by Abuelo's, but in more recent years The Party became a celebration of Abeulo's birthday but also all the children in the family born in February.
The Party continues. They're almost all related, but few can say how.
Two more times after that I returned to The Compound. Although Abuelo was in his nineties and confined to a wheelchair, he commanded respect. There was no question who was boss there. Each time I went I brought him candy (he loved the strawberry Cream Savers), and he was always wonderful to me. He even gave a tongue lashing to members of the family who hadn’t been hospitable to me.
The boss turns 100
On September 26, 2008, I was once again living in New York, and putting the finishing touches on my party for the first Obama-McCain debate, when “Joe” called. He told me Abuelo had died that morning at the age of 101, in his bed in the small town he’d called home for his entire life. Like many of his relatives, “Joe” immediately boarded a flight for the funeral. I thought about the man, his simple strength and decency, and how little he had changed despite tremendous changes in the world around him during his century on this earth. And I hoped he was happy now, free to dance with his wife and get back to work, the two things he’d always most loved doing.

For us, though, the story continued. In February 2009, the first year the big birthday party didn’t happen at The Compound, I was brooding in a Greenwich Village bar about the brand-new President Obama’s failure to push for a sufficiently-sized economic stimulus plan when Joe called. He was in the neighborhood and his niece, my future wife (though I still didn’t know it), was visiting from Puerto Rico. I found them in the basement of a store on Bleecker Street, where my wife-to-be was getting a Henna tattoo. We went for dinner, and she and I talked about a lot of things, including Abeulo. Later that week, I drove her and “Joe” to Newark Airport and she returned to finish college in Puerto Rico.

Six months later, in August 2009, “Joe” called again. This time his niece was flying into JFK; could I help him pick her up? (I was one of the rare people he knew with a car in New York City and thus a valuable friend indeed). I learned she had planned to study in London, and bought a plane ticket to New York solely to spend a few days visiting before heading for England. But the financial aid couldn’t go through without a visa, and the visa couldn’t go through without financial aid. The whole thing fell apart, and she was left with nothing but a one-way ticket to New York.

Fortunately she decided to use it, and “Joe” (who for years had been opening his home to various cousins from Puerto Rico) convinced her to stay in New York for a while. Since I had the car, they called me up pretty frequently and we went all around the New York area. At the time I was coming out of a break-up, a long distance relationship that had lasted three years. My now-wife and I spent so much time together, and got along so well, that we just gradually fell into a relationship. “Joe” was less than thrilled at first, but my future in-laws down in Puerto Rico were supportive from the start.

Now we’re married and everything’s great. “Joe,” who came around once he learned his sister wasn’t mad at him over our relationship, gave a wonderful toast at our wedding. Each year, on February 17, we call “Joe” on the phone and raise a toast (thankfully not pitorro!) to Abuelo. “Joe” thanks him for being such a great role model as a grandfather and family man. I thank him for making my wonderful wife and best friend possible, and for being such a worthy ancestor to my children. I’m glad, through all the twists and turns, that I had the chance to meet this great man almost nine years before my relationship with his great-granddaughter began.

Spanish colonialism. Slavery. American colonialism. World War I. The raiding of Puerto Rico's economy by U.S. speculators, including the first American governor, Charles H. Allen of my own Massachusetts, forcing Puerto Ricans to leave the island for work. Adultery. Bureaucracy. A bad breakup. A great many things that, in themselves, are bad played a significant part in my wife's existence, and in my wife and I coming together. When I think of how it all happened, and the political and historical events that drove the personal events, I remember that (even though we always must strive to reduce the bad) good things can come of bad.

Originally posted to Genealogy and Family History Community on Tue Feb 26, 2013 at 08:00 AM PST.

Also republished by LatinoKos, Community Spotlight, and History for Kossacks.

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