“You may not be born in Puerto Rico, but Puerto Rico is definitely in you,” Rosie Perez
During the quarter-century following World War II close to a million Puerto Ricans arrived in the United States. While most migrated to New York and other Eastern states, a significant number settled in Chicago and Northwest Indiana. In 1948, facing a serious labor shortage, U.S. Steel airlifted 500 Puerto Ricans to Gary, housing most in Pullman Palace cars on a stretch of mill property nicknamed Pullman City until the company hastily constructed 38 six-room apartment units. Managing the crowded quarters was Mexican-American Joseph R. Arellano, who also acted as a translator and adviser. According to nephew Brian J. Arellano, “there were numerous potential problems, including gambling, prostitution and violent crime, none of which Joe tolerated.” In an article entitled “Shirt Off His Back” that I published in “Latinos in the Calumet Region” (Steel Shavings, volume 13, 1987) Brian wrote:
Joe Arellano’s connections proved helpful to many of his needy tenants. When they got sick, he referred them to a physician, Joseph Goldstone, who was not prejudiced against Puerto Ricans. He helped men find more adequate housing when they got married or brought their families to the Region. Not infrequently, he took the time to go to court to help people who had gotten into legal trouble. Years later, people have come up to me and said they have not forgotten all that my uncle had done for them when they first arrived in Gary. “He would give you the shirt off his back,” one concluded.
Some Puerto Ricans lived in Gary prior to 1948. In 1935 Roberto Rosario, for instance, moved to Gary from Mayaguez with his family and found work as a bellhop at the Hotel Gary. After economic conditions improved, he hired in at work in the mill. According to Roberto’s granddaughter Bridgette Morgan, tragedy struck when his wife died giving birth to their fourth child. In an article that appears in “Latinos in the Calumet Region” Bridgette wrote:
It was believed that her life would have been spared if she would have had proper medical care. Denied entry to Mercy Hospital, she was forced to give birth at home. Roberto now had the responsibilities of being both a mother and a father to his children.
Roberto’s children attended Froebel School. Miguel, born in 1928, worked summers at Sally’s Grocery. Some whites didn’t want him delivering their groceries, claiming he might contaminate the packages. After graduation, he attended IU on a track scholarship. In 1956, Roberto died of cancer, the same year son Miguel graduated from medical school. Bridgette’s father was an army physician for many years and then a surgeon at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. Married to high school sweetheart Patricia Morgan, an African American, Miguel continued to reside in Gary to be close to his mother and aunt but hoped one day to open a free clinic in Mayaguez. Daughter Bridgette wrote:
I am fortunate to have two cultures, African American and Puerto Rican. I first visited Mayaguez when my Aunt Carmilla died. I expected it to be a city similar to Gary. I was surprised at how beautiful it was. Most of my relatives there own farms and grow sugar cane, coffee, tobacco, fruits, and vegetables. Every Christmas and summer my brothers, sisters, and I visit Mayaguez, where we swim in the Caribbean Sea.
In “Ethnics in Northwest Indiana” (1984) Ernie Hernandez profiled attorney Itsia Rivera, whose Puerto Rican-born parents, Candelario and Carmen, met in Gary. He was a steelworker and she reared ten children. Istia told Hernandez that her father “instilled in us he idea that education is important and that we should be bilingual.”
Marissa Tompkins interviewed Alba Pomales while a student in Steve McShane’s class.
Alba Pedrero was born in Puerto Rico on December 22, 1947, the daughter of Carmen Diaz and Juan Antonio Pedrero. Her father left when she was young, and her mother, grandparents and uncle raised her. Her sister Edith was two years older. Alba came to Gary on March 21, 1957, when she was 9 years old. Alba said, “It was hard coming to America so young and not knowing any English. Moving from a farm in Puerto Rico to this new city environment was kind of a shock.” The weather was not to bad, however, so she and Edith made new friends and got more familiar with Gary. That winter Alba and Edith experienced snow for the first time.
Alba’s family came out to Gary for a better life. Her uncle built a house for her family in Glen Park right across Franklin School, which she would attend. It was a primarily white neighborhood, with only one Latin family, in addition to hers. She lived with her grandparents, uncle, and sister Edith, while her mother Carmen looked for work in New York. Her uncle landing a job in Inland Steel gave her family an opportunity to have a better life. Opportunities like this were not always available in Puerto Rico.
Alba said her favorite food at this time was everything. She loved to experience different nationality foods. She said that “we ate what we had, if I had a plate of food put in front of me, I ate it. I wasn’t picky. A treat for me was always popcorn and corn flakes. My aunt would bring them home to us in Puerto Rico, so when I got here, I loved eating them both.”
Alba’s classmates Sandra and Linda helped teach her English. Alba was shy and did not have many friends; her only true friend was sister Edith. A very good student, Alba always made honor roll. Her favorite subject was math. She said that the teachers and staff were really strict. Students were required to wear dresses and their nails had to be cut short. In business class, you weren’t even allowed to wear gym shoes. Her life consisted of school, housework, and church. At the age of 9 Alba was head of household. Her grandparents were older and had a hard time moving around, her uncle worked, and her sister was lazy, so Alba had to cook, clean, and take care of the family, all at nine years old.
When Alba turned 13, her mother returned from New York, bought an apartment, got a job in Chicago as a tailor, and commuted there daily; She left at 5 a.m. and did not come home until 6 or 7 p.m., so she was just basically home to sleep. Now attending Tolleston School, Alba’s household duties continued. A few months after the move, Edith came down with double pneumonia and then tuberculosis, requiring a 10-month hospital stay. Edith got married at 18 and moved in with her new husband. Alba kept on with her household duties, and schooling. After she finished high school at 17, Alba went straight to work at the tailoring factory where her mother and uncle worked.
Alba met Jorge, an army man, at church. They started having chaperoned dates when she was 18 and got married when she was 20 at the Latin Pentecostal church in Gary. She was a good friend of his sisters. Her mother liked him very much. They bought a house in Glen Park. Their first big purchase was their furniture. Then Alba became pregnant with Laura. She said that raising her children was not hard, she loved being a mother more than anything else and found it rewarding. She had a son Jorge two years later, then ten years later she gave birth to Valerie. Laura would call the ice cream truck “culooloo.” She heard the term from her aunt and mistook it for the culooloo. In Spanish, it sound like she is calling it the Butt truck. So Alba washed her mouth with soap. Once she told Jorge to drink his milk, so he can be strong like daddy. After he drank his milk, Jorge yelled at her, “I’m not strong like daddy!”
Alba’s husband abandoned the family when Valerie was born, and she raised all three children on her own. Her son Jorge stepped up and worked many jobs to help the family survive and so his sisters could stay in school. Alba was very thankful. At 18 Jorge joined the army.
Alba’s favorite time of year is Christmas. She goes all out decorating the house. One Christmas she will never forget. Jorge got a called and was ordered to pack his bags because he was going to Saudi Arabia. It was the darkest Christmas she ever had. The best Christmas was when Jorge came home and surprised sister Valerie. Alba got to see her son and see the wishes of her daughter answered.
A year after that, Alba got the surprise of her life. Her son came back from the army for good and told Alba that he met a woman in the army, named Catherine. They only knew each other for two weeks and got married! Alba was shocked and happy all at the same time. A few months later, Catherine was home from the army for good, and Alba got to meet her. She said, “Catherine connected with the family right away. Here, we don’t have in-laws, we gain a new family member when someone gets married. The girls loved her and so did I. Jorge also loves her and that’s all that mattered to us. He is happy.”
Two years later Catherine gave Alba her first grandchild. His name was John. Alba’s favorite memory of him was when he’d run around her house and scream “ HUKUNA MATANA!” John was always at her house because his parents worked a lot. When John’s parents decided to move to Pennsylvania, where Catherine was from, John cried and cried, and didn’t want to leave his NaNa. He was Alba’s baby, and didn’t want to see him go. Catherine subsequently had another son named Matthew. Alba’s daughter Valerie had a daughter Jazmyn nine years later. Then Alba’s last grandchild, Julissa, was born a year after that. Alba was always a big part of her grandchildren’s lives, claiming she has had one of them over every day for 21 years. She loves her children and grandchildren more than anyone in the world. She also cooks, cleans, and helps her 90 year-old mother Carmen get around the house.
Alba helps her son, and grandsons learn recipes for their cooking business. Alba is showing them how to cook old style Puerto Rican food, so they can incorporate it into their new restaurant. She loves cooking for her grandchildren, and she loves hanging out with her family and decorating her house for the holidays. Her house is one of the brightest in Lake Station, and her grandchildren help her decorate since they are taller than her. Until this day, Alba still is head of house and takes care of what’s needed. She says, “I’ve been doing it for over 60 years. I’m not going to stop now.”
Miranda Mercedes with Gonzalo Soto; Tori and Anthony with Del Soto
Alba’s home is in Lake Station, where daughter-in-law Delia Soto grew up. Delia has relatives in Puerto Rico whom she visited with Phil and the kids a year or two ago. There is a sizable Hispanic presence in Anthony and Tori’s high school in Wyoming, Michigan, and they identify proudly with their ethnic heritage.
IU offers a Chicano-Riqueño Studies program dealing with Chicano, Puerto Rican, and other Spanish-speaking Americans. During the 1970 Nicolás Kanellos started a similar program at IUN. In “Forging a Community: The Latino Experience in Northwest Indiana,” (1987) Ed Escobar and I included Kanellos’ article on Latino theater. It described Christmas dramatizations at a Puerto Rican church, Primera Iglesia Cristiana, as well as playlets performed by a group Kanellos himself directed, Teatro Desengaño del Pueblo (People’s Enlightenment Theater). One of the most popular was “El Frijol and la Habichuela” or “The Bean and the Bean.” Mexicans generally say frijol and Puerta Ricans habichuela. The skit poked fun at perceived stereotypes concerning differences between the two cultures. Interviewed by Richard Dorson, author of “Land of the Millrats” (1981), Kanellos elaborated:
The habichuela says to the frijol, “What an ugly bean you are, all mashed up and all wet.” That uses two things, see: Mexicans eat their beans mashed; and the word watered, mojada, means wetback. And the Mexican bean says: “I’m a frijol and 100 percent pure Mexican” “Mexican, huh!” says the Puerto Rican bean, “That’s why there’s such a stink here!” The frijol says: “Stink! That’s my chili. And that’s how I sting.” See, chili has three meanings; hot pepper, Mexican hot sauce, and the male sex organ. So the habichuela answers: “Well, I’m even tastier with my sauce.” Salsa, the word for sauce, also means Puerto Rican dance music. We have a macho Mexican playing the frijol and a beautiful Puerto Rican girl playing the habichuela.
The beans hurl insults back and forth until a fork descends from above. Kanellos described the denouement:
One says to the other, “Ayyy! El tenedor” (here comes the fork), and they huddle together facing the fork. And the other one says, “That’s right, the fork doesn’t discriminate, it can’t tell us apart.” And the first one says, “That’s right, we’re equal, we’re the same.” And they go off together, trying to evade the fork’s aim. “We’re the same, we’re the same.”
Teatro Desengaño del Pueblo seeks to arouse a Latin-American constituency to the possibility of pressuring the state legislature to protect its Hispanic language and culture. Their vehicle that transmits the message itself constitutes an element of Latin culture: the theater of social protest.
NWI Times photo by Jonathan Miano
At a basketball game between Andrean and Bishop Noll, some 59er students displayed a Fathead photo of Donald Trump and began shouting “Build the wall, build the wall.” Noll counterparts, many of whom are Latino, shouted back, “You’re a racist.” When Andrean students pointed to blacks among them, Noll students yelled, “You’re a token.” Both ESPN and USA Today reported on the incident. Some observers claimed it was good-natured fun; others castigated school officials who allegedly made no attempt to stop it (a charge they’ve since denied).
At Inman’s I watched James bowl his first 500 series, including a 184, and said hi to Puerto Rican-American Chris Lugo. We were once teammates at Cressmoor, and I tried to persuade him to join the senior league at Hobart Lanes. Afterwards, Dave and I got in three board games with Tom Wade and enjoyed leftover Chinese fare before Dave and Angie left to lease a new Corolla.
Sunday I saw “The Wizard of Oz” at Memorial Opera House. The 35-member cast included kids of all ages, including the delightful eighth grader Logan Oxdyck, who played a crow, a jitterbug and a citizen of Oz. The playbill mentioned that Logan, like Becca, was in Oliver when in fourth grade. African American Jamel “Yogi” Williams was a crowd pleaser as the Cowardly Lion. At Parea Restaurant afterwards I told Dick Hagelberg that the original book by L. Frank Baum was a satire on the Populist Movement and that the Cowardly Lion represented anti-imperialist William Jennings Bryan.
Staying up for the Oscars, I was pleased that Leonardo DiCaprio won for best Actor and Mark Rylance for his supporting role as a Russian spy in “Bridge of Spies.” I enjoyed the musical numbers by Sam Smith, Dave Grohl, Lady Gaga and The Weekend. Lady Gaga sang Diane Warren’s “Til It Happens To You” about victims of sexual assault from “The Hunting Ground.” Assault survivors gathered around the piano with “Not Your Fault” written on their arms. Very moving.