I was born in New York in 1949, a fact I blame on my parents. They moved to New York in 1948 from the enchanted island of Puerto Rico, seeking their fortune. My dad was a cook, later became a seafood chef at one of New York’s finest restaurants and we lived in the heart of the Bronx where he had an easy 5:00 am commute to Manhattan each day.
As a young child, I remember being my mother’s champion, advocating for her because she only spoke Spanish. I was taught to interpret the English language newspaper for her every day and was quite bilingual by the time I went to kindergarten.
When I tell my daughter that we never locked our doors back then she laughs. She only knows New York City as it is today. But while I was growing up, it was a different place. We (our neighbors) were mostly related to one another and had apartments on the second floor of a 5 story walk-up. Mom cooked for the neighbors and I baby sat, so there was never a need to lock our doors. We simply went back and forth from each other’s homes at will which instilled a sense of having an extended family.
My dad loved Friday nights as this was his “domino night” with the men. It meant drinking too much rum and having some time away from the wife and kids. He adored seafood, fishing, cooking, and swimming at the beach. Mom on the other hand was entirely allergic to seafood, swimming, or anything to do with the sea. She was however, a nurturing mother and a good friend. Her claim to fame was that she had never tasted liquor, never smoked a cigarette, and never danced but Maria was blessed with the gift of gab. She knew everybody in our neighborhood and what they were up to. My two brothers and I grew up surrounded by our parent’s friends, watching the “novellas” (Spanish soap operas) at night and debating the foibles of men.
I attended St. Anselm’s Parochial Elementary in the Bronx, graduated from St. Pius V High School, and led the sheltered life of a first generation Latina in the South Bronx. I used to point out my black elbows to friends explaining they were black from propping my head with both hands, watching life go by from my second story window. This protective existence actually led to a love of reading maps of far-away places in our World Book Encyclopedia, eventually helping me get a grasp of chart-reading and navigation at sea later in life while instilling a sense of wanderlust in my heart forever.
After graduation I got a position as an executive secretary, and began commuting to the city during the time of the Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations. This was the era of “burning bras” on Fifth Avenue, the Broadway musical, “Hair”, and the Woodstock Festival. New York City was truly electrifying in the ’70s. My boundaries were expanding and I was no longer the sheltered little Catholic school girl that mom brought me up to be. I didn’t smoke or drink, but did I ever dance!
In a way, I’ve considered myself a world traveler — a citizen of the world. I say this because my mother’s boundaries were so limited that when I ended a marriage of seven years to my daughter’s father and decided to venture out in to the real world, contrary to what was expected, mom became my biggest fan and enabler. She made my costumes when I decided to teach middle eastern dance to the nurses at Bronx Lebanon Hospital where I worked for many years, later cared for my daughter while in college so that I could run off to France as a student, enabling me to experience another culture quite different from my own. Most of all she was a loving, caring grandmother to my daughter, forever establishing a truly unique bond as they were both Pisces and very similar in nature.