On May 15, 2021, our family lost Bill Roig, oldest child and only son of Auntie Helen. He was 88 years old and had lived a long, fulfilled life which included a successful career as a renowned architect.
I first met Cousin Bill in the early 1960s when he traveled to San Francisco to meet his Rivera relatives. It was a big deal in our family and Bill was joyfully received by all who had the opportunity to visit him at Auntie Helen’s house. He had only recently reconnected with Auntie Helen after having discovered that she was his birth mother. I didn’t see Bill again until I moved to Puerto Rico in 1970 to begin my university studies, and I was present at his wedding to Evelyn Torres in 1971. Throughout the years, I saw Bill sporadically. He made several trips to California and his daughter Wilma and my daughter Tory connected, being only two days apart in age.
It was on one such trip—the very memorable party held at my sister’s house in Martinez on July 27, 1996—that Bill told me the story of his early years. The party was memorable because it was the first time that Auntie Helen had all three of her children together at the same time. The reunion was front page news in the premier issue of our family newsletter, “…y la familia?”, which was published on August 27, 1996. We recorded it on our video camera, and although the audio of that recording is not very good and the party was 25 years ago, I believe that I remember most of the details accurately. I can still picture Bill sitting at the picnic table under the umbrella in Olga’s back yard, telling his incredible tale.
Auntie Helen had been hired to work as a cook in the home of civil engineer Ramón María Roig Colmenero and his wife, María Matilde Valdevieso Becerra. Her job there ended when she became pregnant with Ramón’s child. According to Uncle Isidro’s story about Auntie Helen, which he wrote after she died, Ramón moved her to Santa Isabel, but Bill’s obituary says he was born in Salinas. Regardless, he was born on January 31, 1933 and named Luis Guillermo. Whether his birth record (which I have not been able to locate) says his last name is Rivera or Roig depends on whether he was “recognized” by his father.
The story goes, as told to me by Bill, that Ramón’s wife did not want him visiting his infant son because she was afraid that Ramón would continue his affair with Auntie Helen, so she suggested he go get the child and bring him home to be raised by them. Ramón watched and waited until he saw Auntie Helen leave the house to go fetch water, and then he entered the house and kidnapped the baby. On his way home, he stopped to visit his sister, Lucía Roig. Lucía’s husband, Teodoro Martínez, fell in love with the adorable baby boy and asked if they could keep him. Ramón agreed, and in a 1935 census record (pictured below), Bill appears as 2 year old William Martínez Roig. Bill grew up believing that Teodoro and Lucía were his birth parents and that their older children were his biological brothers and sisters. He thought that Ramón Roig was his uncle and that Ramón and Matilda’s children were his cousins when in reality they were his half-siblings.
Auntie Helen searched for her stolen baby, but as a poor single woman without many resources, she did not locate Bill until he was two years old. At that time, the woman who went with her to see about getting her son back (possibly another one of our aunts) convinced Auntie Helen that Bill was better off staying where he was. He was definitely loved by Teodoro and Lucía and was a happy, well-cared for child. In that home he would receive many financial and educational advantages that Auntie Helen was not in a position to provide. So, she reluctantly agreed to leave him there for his own good.
Throughout the years, even as she moved from Puerto Rico to California, Auntie Helen wrote many letters to her son. As luck had it, Teodoro Martínez was the postmaster of that town. He had all of those letters intercepted and kept them from getting to his adopted son.
The years passed. Bill grew up and went away to college to study architecture. On one visit home, he decided to look at the back of a picture of himself that hung on the wall. He noticed something odd about the name on the back, which appeared to have been scratched out and rewritten. He inquired about it, and after some hedging the truth was finally revealed to him. The family explained that they had never found the appropriate opportunity to tell him about it before. They were worried about how it would affect him and his studies.
Some time after that, Bill was able to meet his birth mother in an emotional rendezvous in Florida. This was recorded in an old family movie that is touching to view. Auntie Helen looked so pretty in her green dress and the joy of being reunited with her son was all over her radiant face. Bill, too, looked very happy.
Despite the dramatic events in Bill’s early years, or perhaps because of them, Bill became a successful architect who designed many buildings in Puerto Rico. Flash forward to the 2009 family reunion in Peñuelas which Bill, Evelyn, and daughter Wilma attended. The high school in that town, in front of which a number of us gathered the next morning to go on a trek to our ancestors’ barrio of Santo Domingo, was designed by Cousin Bill. Auntie Helen had already been gone for ten years, but it is an amazing thought that she was born in the mountains of Peñuelas in October of 1913 and then decades later the baby that was stolen from her grew up to be the prestigious architect of the new high school in her home town.