by family historian Norma (Garcia) Pettit
Last spring we built a storage shed on our property in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. At my request, Randy designed it to look like a typical Puerto Rican home of yesteryear. When it was completed, we saw people driving by, slowing down, and even stopping to admire La Casita, as we named it. We received many compliments on it, and some people said that it reminded them of their grandparents’ house in the mountains. It brings to my mind that Rafael Hernández song, “Ahora Seremos Felices,” in which the opening line says, “Yo tengo ya la casita que tanto te prometí.” (I already have the house that I kept promising you.)
Owning your own home is most people’s dream. I was blessed to grow up in a nice house in the Sunset district of San Francisco. My parents were responsible homeowners and took pride in keeping the house and yard tidy, maintained and attractive. My father, Oscar, was a Merchant Marine and my mother, Ana, was a seamstress at Lilli Ann’s clothing factory. While not wealthy, we kids had everything that we needed, including a roof that didn’t leak and comfortable beds to sleep in. As a lifelong genealogist who soaked in family stories even as a young girl, I have heard about the hardships of their childhood years, though.
My father, especially, grew up in poverty. His early years were spent in the mountain barrio of Santo Domingo in the town of Peñuelas. When his mother was alive she raised animals and their large family never lacked for food, but after she died when Dad was five years old, life became more difficult. Several years later, Florencio decided to move his family (which by then included Otilia Pacheco and two more babies) to Tibes, near Ponce. He sold the house and land in Peñuelas for $100, but somehow during the move, the money was lost. In Tibes, Florencio bought a house for $35 and went to work in the sugar cane fields.
My father’s younger brother, Isidro Rivera Pacheco, once described the living conditions in this childhood home. He wrote: “Our home (sweet home) was a cabin with one small room for the parents. The rest of the floor space was used as a kitchen, living room, dining room and bedroom combination. Our furniture consisted of a cot where Father slept, wire spring double bed for Otilia and a trunk (baúl) for her clothing, two benches and a table. At nighttime, grab a burlap sack (your bed) and pick your spot on the floor. You went to sleep with your clothes on inside the sack and while you sleep you push around until you wind up at somebody else’s spot. That shack was like heaven, like music to your ears. Some snored, others laughed, talked, sang and groaned in their sleep, and rain was like music on the tin roof.
Our kitchen consisted of a wooden crate with four legs and full of soil. Three large stones for a burner and three medium stones for small pots. Under the crate was a shelf for storage of pots and plates. The stones were strategically placed so as to consume the fire within. Our fuel was anything that would burn. We would go to the mountain to get wood for cooking. Charcoal was used in a hibachi for ironing. A kerosene lamp or “quinqué” was our light.”
After suffering an accident while working at Hacienda Burenes (a coffee plantation in Tibes) and subsequently winning a lawsuit against them, Florencio walked away with about $500. This was a lot of money! He bought a house with a balcony and a shed for $129.00 and bought furniture and clothing. He later sold that house for a profit and bought a two-bedroom bungalow in Callejón Cerezo in Ponce. They lived there for about a year. He sold that one and bought a beautiful home in Loma Bonita. This is the house in Loma Bonita that Aunt Delia drew from memory decades later.
All this is to point out the incredible progress made in the quality of life within one generation. Uncle Isidro went from sleeping in a burlap sack on the floor to owning beautiful homes in Belmont, CA, Guaynabo, PR, and Carrollton, GA. He accomplished this on his own, through education, military service, and hard work. Uncle Isidro, my father, and their other siblings not only pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, but also ensured that their children did not suffer the hardships that they did as children. The Bible says we are to honor our fathers and mothers. How can we not, seeing where they came from and what they accomplished?