Mi Abuelita (Laura Maria Rosa y Mendez) was born in 1896, two years before Yanqui troops invaded. She and all of my father’s side of the family are Jibaros that come from a small town in the mountains of Puerto Rico called San Sebastian.  They were comparatively middle class, at least by pre-conquest standards, as there were many teachers and government employees among them. Laura on the other hand is rumored to have been the “black sheep”, as at some point she was cast out to fend for herself. It is said, she did so by selling ron caña, essentially “moonshine”, made from sugar cane. Pepe, my father was her "lookout" amd one day he fell from the tree he had been perched in and lost his two front teeth. She was briefly married to Esteban Lopez Acevedo at the age of 17. She and had children from different men, Narciso Costa Valdivieso sired Lucy and Carmen. My Grandfather was Jose Antonio Faris a dentist. This explains how my father was given his maternal name and passed it on to me. I of course knew nothing of this as a kid, but when I stated to piece it together, the idea of my sweet, little Abuelita being a bad-ass, always made me smile.


Abuelita after her makeover

One of my father’s half-sisters, Lucy, was the first to move to the mainland. She had met a good man, married and eventuallylived in a house on Long Island that her brother Pepe helped pay for. Not long after she arranged for her mother (abuelita, Laura Rosa) her adopted (de crianza) sister Margie who was given to Laura by her father (Manuel Gonzalez) whosewife (Maria Nieves) had died in childbirth and as he lived in Pueblo Nuevo a bad part of San Sebastián, decided adoption, was the best course. He gave all the money he had to Abuelita to help with the girls' expenses. The little trine included little brother Pepe (my father) to move in to the apartment on Sacket Street. There was another sister, Carmen, but she had married and moved to California and later moved back to La Isla to a House my father bought, to become the matriarch of the Island branch.

Titi Carmen min

Titi Carmen

Abuelita loved to play bolita and it is rumored that she sold it back in the day. Every day a man would show up at her apartment and she would give him a set of numbers and some money. Usually it was just a quarter, but sometimes, if she was feeling lucky she would go as high as $5. I once told her that is she just gave me the money, I would pay her back 75% of it every week and we should both come out ahead, but she just laughed at me. I think over time she actually broke even, at least. I always thought it was ironic, the Pepe (her son, my father) was a big time racketeer, who made a t least a part of his money from the numbers, yet his mom, would play with another collector.

Abuelita would go to the local shops several times a day and exchange gossip and stories. This was a lrage part of her social life. At home she spent much of her time watching telenovelas with a favorite being one name after her, Laura. 

Margie young

A young Titi Margie

Before my mother gave her a “makeover” in the late sixties, Abuelita dressed in the ways of old world widows, her hair done in a bun, and every dress black. All this even though at the time she cannot have been more than mid 50’s. She brought with her the old ways and spoke no English at the time and never did learn much beyond runimentary phrases. Years later, those ways were my ticket to the past, a time of traditional Puerto Rican music. I had no appreciation for the music (at the time) although it did ingrain itself on my brain, probably the best example is a song known to ALL Ricans but especially significant to those outside the Island; En Mi Viejo San Juan. She also had appreciation for more current songs, like one from a Spanish Heartthrob at the time, who had a hit with her name Laura mentioned. There was even a bit of crossover from the Italian neighbors, like Volare.

Then there was the food... Everything made from scratch. Luckily she lived in an old Italian neighborhood, where most items were easily available and those that weren’t could be found in the Bodega down on Columbia Street. Many days were filled going to the live poultry market where she would pick out the chicken and it would be killed and dressed as we waited. There were 3 bakeries within two blocks although she preferred one in particular, so I was often sent with very specific instructions not only which bread she wanted but from which baker. One of those (her second favorite but the only one to survive, until recently) was later featured in the film “moonstruck”.

Cammaries bakery

Cammareri Bros. Bakery

Meals would take forever to prepare, a typical dinner staring early that morning and sometimes the day before. Many hours were spent looking for tiny pebbles among the beans. Before Christmas, all the grandkids would sit around the table grating platanos, yucca and yautia. She made pasteles with raisins, but knew I did not like them, so a special batch without was prepared just for me. A pork roast (pernil) was set to marinate for hours before it ever went near the oven, and the beans would simmer half the day in sauce that I would love to have the recipe for, although of course she did everything by heart.

I mentioned the neighbors upstairs and the mom there was also “old school” but in a very Sicilian way. She too made everything from scratch; homemade pasta, sauces from fresh tomato, etc. One of the few items store bought was sausage, but as there was an Italian butcher on Henry Street, it too was made to the tastes of those who still had memories of the old country. The two woman became friends and often traded dishes, not recipes mind you, but actual food. So when Abuelita made something special there was always an extra casserole to be brought upstairs. In exchange there would often be a knock on the door by my friend from upstairs holding a full tray of lasagna, baked ziti or other dishes straight from heaven above, well, from above anyway.

One of Abuelita’s favorite food items was bacalao (salt cod) which back then was considered ‘poor people’s fish’. She would prepare ‘ensalada de bacalao‘ and potatoes, onions and yucca and bacalaitos which consisted of the fish, dipped in batter and deep fried. For anyone not familiar with it, the fish comes in wooden crates packed with salt so that it requires no refrigeration. The one thing that strikes most right away is its unique smell. Whenever I went to visit her and she was preparing one of these she would playfully put a finger under my nose and laugh as I reacted to the salty stink. One day, when I was around 15, she did as usual. Only this time it was I who laughed and her reaction was basically ‘ah hah!’ and that moment I realized what a wise old woman my little abuelita was.

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Jose Rosa

Jose Rosa

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