Living in Puerto Rico

Alex in Puerto Rico

My brother Alex in San Juan, PR

On June 13th, 1961, thirteen days after the death of Trujillo, the despot that had ruled the Dominican Republic for 32 years, we left for San Juan Puerto Rico. For 10 years, my family had been on the enemy-of-the-state list. My father had spent 22 months in jail, part of that in solitary confinement. He was let out only if to command the Moineau, a large yacht owned by Trujillo’s business partner, Benitez Rexach, named after his wife, Môme Moineau; Lucienne Benitez Rexach, a french dancer. Don Felix had come to the DR to build the port of Santo Domingo which is one of the most important constructions sites in the history of the island. After, he stayed, became very good friend and business partner with Trujillo, and worked on countless projects for the Dominican Government, becoming a very rich man in the process.

He had long hair, always wore a hat that had seen better days, khaki pants, and an ascot. It was the first time I saw someone wear one. I saw him a few times, but never saw Moineau Rexach. By the time I was old enough to know better, she spent most of her time in their mansion in Cannes.

In 1959, due to the reports of atrocities committed by the Trujillo regime on its people, the recent kidnapping, torture and death of Galindez, a US citizen and CIA informant, and Murphy, the pilot of the airplane used to kidnap Galindez, and the failed attempt on the life of Rómulo Bentancourt, the newly elected president of Venezuela, the US and the Organization of American States (OAS) had imposed an embargo on the DR. Trujillo was running out of money and with Benitez devised a desperate scheme to dump Dominican Cement into Puerto Rico. The ship, commanded by my father, was to take the cargo, smuggle it in San Juan, then sell it through Benitez’ Construction firm in PR., passing it as Puertorican cement. My father jumped ship, asked for political asylum, and turned the ship, with the cargo, over to the US customs. This started a series of unfortunate events for Trujillo.

Right after Trujillo’s death, my family and I went across the street to my mom’s friend and mentor, Doña Fresa Socia’s house, where we stayed in her son’s room for about 5 days. After Trujillo’s death, his family and the government went on a rampage killing people that were against the government, political prisoners in the jails, and harassing their relatives. It was a very dangerous time. So we went underground for a bit just in case.

Ivan and Alex in Puerto Rico with my Granfather Fello

1961 Alex, Ivan and our grandfather Fello

One day, my mom’s uncle, Nadal Nadal Andrews, called her to come and visit him. He would send his car to pick us up. I had not seen my mother’s uncle in a long time. When we arrived, there were some gentlemen who worked with the OAS and had come to oversee the transition of government after Trujillo. They also came on my father’s behalf to help us get out of the island and reunite with him in Puerto Rico. They had pressured the government to issue us passports. All we had to do was get US visas, which they also arranged for us to get an appointment with the US Consul the next day. While my mother was in the consulate, she received a call from Jose Antonio Mora, President of the Organization of American States. (OAS) (OEA in Spanish). He was making sure that the US consul was issuing my mother visas. Said that, if there was a problem she could call him day or night.

On June 13th, 1961, we boarded a Pan American DC-3 plane for San Juan. This was my first flight and it was all new and exciting. I didn’t realize we were meeting my father at the San Juan airport. My mother didn’t dare tell anyone until we were in US soil and she felt safe. Even in the plane she felt that we could be returned back to the island. So she was very nervous during the flight. It might have also been the letters she was carrying in her bra from a few people in the island sending messages to their loved ones abroad. My mother was to mail them from PR.

We landed in the late afternoon and, after going through immigration, there was my dad waiting outside. It had been 14 months since we had seen him. I didn’t know what had happened to my father. He just left and no one explained to me that he had been in Puerto Rico all that time and lived with his aunt Rosarito and her husband Rafael. On the way to their home from the airport we stopped at a sandwich shop, where I had my first submarine sandwich. I will never forget how delicious it was. I had never seen one before. I also had my first US Coke. I didn’t like it. It was way too sweet. Coca Colas and Pepsi Colas in the DR were not as syrupy or sweet as they were in the US. There was a baseball field next door to the sandwich shop, and we all walked and talked until it started getting dark. We headed to the house and met the relatives. They were a very hard-working, sweet, older couple.

We stayed with them for a few weeks. in their Spanish-colonial home. I don’t know if it was an original Spanish colonial house, or a newer home made in the same style. It had arches and a tile roof. I believe it was painted a light pink. My aunt’s daughter, Sarah, and her teenage daughter Ligia also lived at the house. So, there were five adults, a teenager and 4 kids, all in a small, three-bedroom house and one bathroom. Yikes. I don’t remember much of the daily life, except that my mother was going to go nuts trying to keep things clean, cooking, cleaning and 4 kids in the house. My father, being a Latin man, did not help in the house. Even if he had wanted to, he wouldn’t have known what to do. But, everyone made the best of it under the circumstances, very glad and thankful to finally be safe from the dictatorship.

Grandad Fello and Pico Puerto Rico

Grandad Fello and my brother Pico, Puerto Rico

Tia Rosarito and Tio Rafael had a factory in the back of the house. They produced belts for dresses sold in department stores, and purses. They had all sorts of beautiful, rusty machinery. (I wonder if that is why I have always had a love of rusty objects, specially, machines and gears). I loved going in the back and watching them work. I learned how to set studs and eyelets. I never knew how the eyelets in my tennis shoes were done. So, I was impressed. I would go and help and learned how to make perfect belts. I think that my mother would have been horrified if she had seen where I was and the machinery I was operating. If I made a mistake, I could have lost fingers or worse, a hand. But, that never happened. At 9 I succeeded in making a few belts that passed inspection. I was very proud. It was my introduction to what kinds of things you could make with your hands. Up to then, I had only made sling shots, which my brother Pico and I had become very adept at making them out of guava wood, carving the handles to perfection, cutting leather, tying them and then carving decorations as the finishing touches. They were true works of art. This kind of work opened my mind to other possibilities.

A few weeks after we arrived, my parents rented a small house in Rio Piedras in a new neighborhood called University Gardens. The house was a regular Caribbean cinder block home with lots of jalousie windows to let the air circulate. At least, it had terrazzo floors, a yard, a balcony, a good size carport and it was a brand new house. It was now the middle of summer and San Juan was a very hot. We didn’t have much but we made do with very little.

My father tried to work in Puerto Rico, but, he had never done anything else but be a career navy officer, so he was not very successful at anything else. He tried to sell Encyclopedias door to door. My father couldn’t sell water in the desert, he would have given it away because he felt sorry for the thirsty people. He then tried to sell reel to reel players that were the latest gadgets. They were very cool machines that could record from a turntable that was included, or you could just play the reel to reel. Even though my father also failed at selling those, we ended up with the one that he used as a demo. This was a life changing experience for me. I took over the machine and learned to record, splice tape, and make my first “playlists”. I would combine music in a tape to set the mood while I painted or hung out in my room. I would continue to do this until iTunes changed everything with their “playlists”.

My mother’s father sent money every month to help us live in PR. This is something that he would do most of my life until his death, since my father had a very difficult time living in a world that he could not understand. He was good at doing things but couldn’t really deal with people very well. Life had left a bad taste in his mouth. And, of course, in those days, people didn’t realize how much damage traumatic experiences could have on humans. PTSD had affected him. Neither my father nor any of us had any therapy or even acknowledged the damage done. So, everyone in my family dealt with the aftershock in their own way–some drank, some went within, some became more aggressive, and some just escaped. None survived being damaged in some way by our experiences though.*1

Tia Rosarito also had two sons, Gilberto and Vinicio. Tio Vinicio and his wife Carmen lived in San Juan and soon became my mother’s lifeline. My mother remained very close to them, through the years, until their death. Vinicio and Carmen taught my mother the survival skills to make it in San Juan. My mother had always had maids and was not used to doing everything herself. This was a rude awakening. Even when we lived in the apartment in Santo Domingo, my mother still had a couple of maids. Now she was the maid. Tio Vinicio and Tia Carmen also entertained her and, most importantly, made her laugh. It had been a rough 10 years at this point and my mother had not had much laughter in her life. One day Tia Carmen came over and found my mother mopping the floors with a regular mop. And she says: what are you doing? That is not how you clean the floors. So, she turned on the radio, full blast, blaring Merengue tunes. She got an old towel, she threw it on the floor, grabbed it with both feet and started dancing across the living room. From then on, my mother danced all over the house instead of just mopping a floor. Mopping the floor had a new meaning for all of us.

Since I was at that time the only girl, I was the second maid, or assistant maid. My brothers were spared most of it. My brother Pico occasionally had to help with dishes. But, that job usually fell on me.

Vinicio and Carmen were two people that absolutely loved each other, lived life, loved their children, and just were a bundle of joy. They had three children and late in life adopted a boy that was left on their doorstep… for real.

I loved visiting them in their house in Puerto Nuevo. It was always an adventure. I found out about grocellas*, quenepas, un bellón, una piragua, and Spanglish, which my cousins had mastered. I also learned which words we used were bad words in PR or offended people. Everything there was a very different experience than what we knew in DR. Since it was an American property, a lot of Latin customs had merged with the American. We were also exposed to big department stores. I had never seen one. I was hooked for life. More about that later…

If you have never been to Puerto Rico, you have been spared from the Coquí. small frogs that inhabit the island and named after the sound the male makes calling the females. With that in mind, now think of thousands upon thousands of these frogs singing all night. It is a very difficult thing to get used to. It was probably weeks before I could sleep through the night.

The next thing that was curious was that the garbage was only picked up once a week. A Caribbean city that is hotter than hell itself, and they picked the garbage once a week. This was before plastic garbage bags had been introduced into the market. So, my parents got what everyone else in the city had: a big oil drum. The oil drum would stay out by the sidewalk all the time because the stench was unbearable and it attracted many flies. We threw the garbage wrapped in brown paper supermarket bags. After a few days, maggots would cover the outside of the oil can. I remember one day coming home from school and my mother was outside hosing the carport because the maggots were making their way up the driveway and towards the house. It was and still is one of the few things in my life that made me throw up. Since then, I can’t see maggots in a movie, documentary and worse, in real life.

One of the biggest culture shocks was going to stores. San Juan had a Sears, Woolworth, and several other department stores with escalators. I had never seen or ridden on one before. As, I had never been to a large store like that where you could buy consumer goods. In the DR, us kids went to a toy store in downtown SD, La Margarita, once a year close to Christmas to look around and make our Christmas list. That was it. It was not a huge store. Just a small toy store. The rest of the time, we didn’t have access to stuff. Now, I was walking in a store with Barbies, toys, clothes, and crap as far as the eyes can see. I was totally overwhelmed. One of the things I discovered upon arriving in PR was crayons. I had been coloring with pencils since I was very small and was quite good at it. Kids in PR were using crayons. So I thought I would try it. I wanted the big crayon box that had all the beautiful colors. What a disappointment, It didn’t take me but a few minutes to figure out that you had no control with the crayons and that they are perfect for little kids that just want to scribble. But, to do some serious tight art, nothing beat coloring pencils. Faber to be exact. they came in the most beautiful dark green alligator skin texture pencil case. The inside was gold. Nothing made me happier than getting a new case of those pencils. We couldn’t find them in San Juan. I had to settle for cheap small pencils that fell apart when you sharpened them. I made do.

We were getting along as well as we could, when my uncle Marino, my father’s oldest brother sent his 18 year old son, Vinicio, to visit. He was afraid that my cousin was starting to get involved, like other young people at the time, in the political unrest. So he sent him to my parents. Vinicio slept in a folding bed in the living room. And he proceeded to have nightmares every night, poor guy. I can’t imagine what demons where going through his head at that age. He stayed with us for a few weeks before my father shipped him off to his aunt’s house where they had a little more room, so we could get on with our lives.

No sooner had my cousin left, when my father’s other brother Laito arrived with his wife and their 3 kids. Now we were my father and mother and 4 kids, and my uncle and his wife and 3 kids, all living in a three small bedroom house and one bathroom. Although us kids had a blast, I don’t know how my mother survived it. For me, being one of the oldest and a girl, it was hell. I was my mother’s right hand in take care of the motley crew. My father and uncle just sat and listened to the radio programs and baseball games and talked politics. My aunt was sick with heart problems or high blood pressure. My father, my uncle and aunt were smokers also to add to the nightmare. My brothers and my cousins just played all day. And my mother and I cleaned, cooked, cleaned, cooked, and … you get the picture. When we moved to that house it had just been finished and the garden had been planted with grass plugs, making most of the garden just black dirt. The kids ran in with muddy feet and went out the other side tracking the said black dirt. The bathroom was just an absolute mess. There were never ending dishes to wash. There was a never ending food production.

After a few weeks of the disaster, it was also evident that my mother was pregnant. Every time my parents got together after a separation, my mother got pregnant. This was right on cue. I have never met anyone else that had morning sickness like my mother. So, now, on top of everything else, my mother was puking all day. So, one day, my mother left the house. When she returned, my uncle, his wife and the kids had mysteriously disappeared. I found out later that my mother had gotten an abortion (they were illegal in PR at the time so no one talked much about it. she couldn’t be pregnant in exile with all the insecurity). On the way to the hospital, she told my father that she didn’t care how he did it, but that when she got back from the hospital, his brother and his family better be gone or she was gong to New York to her father’s who had just moved to NY from Europe. I don’t know where my uncle and his family went, but, they were gone by the time my mother returned to the house. Tia Carmen came over and cleaned the whole house, made a pot of soup and got some semblance of sanity back into the house. 🙂 My mother was forever thankful. I was really sad to see my cousins go. We were having so much fun, but, I was also tired of cleaning.

A few weeks later, we started school. Through the years, my parents moved a lot, we went to many schools in different countries. Of all the schools I had a pleasure to have attended, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe had to be the worse in the world. A Catholic school run by Catholic nuns in San Juan. At this point, I had gone to one school all my life, Sagrado Corazón de Maria in Santo Domingo. A private school that I couldn’t wait to get to every day where boys and girls were all together and everyone was like a family. I loved it. It occurred to me a few years ago, that the owner of the school had to have gotten Montessori training. It was just a place of learning and exploration. Anyhow, Guadalupe was the direct opposite of this. A strict, oppressing, Catholic school where the girls and boys were separated, the classrooms were dark and hot, the books had huge letters and were totally boring, and worse, the illustrations were just horrible. It didn’t take me very long to learn something that was very shocking but would come in handy then and later in life: Catholic girls were the devil’s spawn: mean, vindictive, and huge hypocrites.

About the school uniforms: I had to wear a blue wool jumper, yes, in San Juan in 100 degrees, a white blouse with puffy sleeves with a pink and blue bow-tie, knee-high socks with black, very heavy, nun tie-up shoes, a rosary beads hanging from the jumper and the best part, a pink and blue beanie hat with a pink pom-pom on the top. I looked ridiculous! The first day I just cried and cried. I told my mother I wasn’t going to this school because I wasn’t wearing this ugly uniform. I was informed that I was going no matter what and that was the end of it. I am sure the last thing she needed was to have her dumb kid hassling about a stupid uniform after all the crap they had gone the last few years. Kids really have no perspective.

The school bus would pick us up very early because we were some of the farthest kids from the school. So, that meant that we spent more time on that bus and, in the afternoon, we were the last to get off. Most of the windows were busted so they didn’t open and it was hot as hell. Kids would literally pass out from the heat on the way home in the afternoon. My brother Alex fell asleep one time and ended returning to the school in the bus. My parents were going crazy because we had had all the political persecutions, etc. and now my brother was missing. But, the bus driver found him asleep in the bus when he went to clean it. I don’t know why my brother Pico and I didn’t notice that he didn’t get off the bus. There was never a dull moment with Ivan and Alex though.

I went to that school for three months. I don’t remember ever doing homework, reading any of the material, or participating in class. I shut down. I couldn’t function in that environment. I was by then a ten year old liberal in hell and the middle of oppression and as far as you can get from a creative environment. So, I went to school every day and sat there and daydreamed. It wasn’t the last time I would do that. It came in handy to visit the same daydreams in high school, when my family finally fell apart. (Depression and the Teenage Years)

By December, things were more stable in the DR so my parents shipped all our belongings and bought tickets to fly back. While we were waiting for our flight, my father was paged. It was a call from a friend and mentor, Manuel Imbert, who was letting him know that a civil war had just broken out in the DR and that we couldn’t leave. Our belongings were now on their way to the DR, so we left the airport and stayed at the Hotel Britania. We were in a one bedroom hotel suite with a small kitchen-aid – my father and mother and four kids–for about a month. I remember that my parents bought my brothers a toy helicopter and it was so cool. We played downstairs in front of the hotel for a long time. The hotel room had a small refrigerator. like the ones kids now use in college. It was the first time I had seen one of those. The hotel room had air-conditioning. I believe it was the first time I slept in an air-conditioned room also. My parent’s bedroom in SD had a window unit, but we never slept there. Us kids didn’t even have fans. However, I don’t remember ever being hot in my bedroom. In the evenings, sometimes you even got cold.

Towards the end of January of 1962 we finally arrived back in the DR. The political situation was still precarious, at best, but there was talk of the island’s first democratic elections. Many political parties formed and there was hope in the air. By 1963, we had elections which was a great sign towards stability. However, it would be a long time before that was a reality. Juan Bosh won the elections. He was not what the Dominican High class and the US had in mind when they thought of a democratic government. Juan Bosh leaned more to the left and made the mistake of wanting to change things too fast. He had big ideas to help the poor and get the country back on it’s feet. But, in a country were the ruling class has ruled for centuries you can’t go so fast as to make them nervous. I often wonder what the country would have been like if he had been able to implement his socialist ideas. He didn’t last long in power. The coupe d’etat that followed was one of many within a few more years of unrest.


*Grocellas are like a Caribbean cherry tree. The fruit is green and they are very tart. Quenepas are known in the DR as limoncillos and are green fruits with a large seed that has a peach color fruit all around it. Bellón was the name for a nickel, what it cost to get a piragua, shaved ice with flavors. My favorite was licorice.

1. My father was a renaissance man… He was an engineer, and architect, a doctor, a marine biologist, an astronomer, a great carpenter, an electrician, a great navigator, a meteorologist, and on and on, but he suffered from PTSD and we didn’t know it. When I was a teenager, If he was home he spent most of the time in his office typing, or in his wood shop building something. We were not allowed to disturb him. If anyone came to visit us it made him upset. We didn’t eat at the table with my father. He did not sit with us when we would gather to talk or tell stories. Sometimes, my mother would make him and he would stay for a few minutes. If the conversation did not include one of his favorite subjects: fish, science, weather, he would get bored and leave. It is very sad that we didn’t know about PTSD to be able to help him and ourselves.