Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sunday Obituary: Fredy Babilonia Rodriguez (1933-2014)

Fredy Babilonia Rodriguez, early 1950s. Photo: E. Fernandez-Sacco
We weren't exactly close. He had stopped talking to me because I asked him to do a DNA test, in the hopes of learning more about his paternal ancestry, but he probably took umbrage because he thought it was a straight paternity test.

Location of Santa Isabel, P.R. Image: Wikimedia
Fredy lived in the barrio pueblo (town ward) of Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico, having returned to the island for his retirement. It was a struggle for a meager living, and he worked for a metal company in Brooklyn that made pots and pans. He might have had a pension, but someone stole the pension money from the company he worked for in Brooklyn. The embezzler left him and his co-workers without any money for their old age beyond whatever meager amounts Social Security could provide. His golden years were not exactly comfortable, and he was plagued by health issues. Still, I was glad to see him when I was in Puerto Rico, and to have the chance to talk to him a few times.

He began life in Moca, Puerto Rico, on  November 23, 1933, the son of Alicides Babilonia Lopez and Felicita Rodriguez Vale. They died, first Felicita and then Alcides, and the family was split up to be cared for by relatives. As soon as they came of age or near it, each sibling left the small town to make a life for themselves between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Perhaps it was the string of deaths begun by his brothers, each named William, dying, one as infant and the other as toddler, followed by his mother and then his father, that kept him moving. He married and had partners, and left a legacy of several children in the city, my wonderful cousins. They too would have liked to know Fredy better.

He loved baseball, and played locally in a team both in Puerto Rico and in New York. He told me about an incident in New York in 1952, where he boarded a bus and the driver had a heart attack along the route. He rushed up to the front, took control of the vehicle and was able to drive the bus and its passengers to safety. It was a newsworthy moment that brought him some coverage in the local press and a degree of pride that he responded so quickly.

Fredy Babilonia Rodriguez, 2006. Photo: E. Fernandez-Sacco
I'll remember his smile, the face that shares the features of my mother, my aunt and the grandparents I never got to meet or see in photographs. One of his daughters went to Puerto Rico and saw to his care after suffering a brain aneurysm. She hoped to bring him stateside once he recovered, but his condition was too fragile, and he died a couple of weeks later in the hospital in Ponce, on my mother's birthday. Seneko kakona, tio, QEPD.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Maria Monserrate 'Malen' Hernandez Vale (1935-2015)

X-posted in part from Mundillo, encaje y vida

Que noticia triste esta manana.

Malen Hernandez Vale passed away yesterday on August 22, 2015. She together with her siblings Ada Hernandez Vale and Mokay Hernandez Vale worked with other lacemakers to keep the awareness of mundillo alive. I was fortunate to spend time with them while researching lacemaking in Moca, and Malen made it especially possible as I stayed in her home in barrio Pueblo and in Rocha. She had a distinctive, scratchy voice, and was a feisty personality, a lot of heart in a small package. As her son, Julio Enrique Rivera said, she was a fire in life and is now a light in heaven.

Malen Hernandez Vale demonstrating mundillo at the Museo del Mundillo Puertorriqueno, Moca, P.R. Photo: Ellen Fernandez-Sacco, 2008.
What Malen shared with me was her passion for lace, and her stories of learning from her mother Julia Vale Mendez (1906-1991). She showed me her mundillo, made sometime in the 1940s, filled with dried banana leaves wrapped around a wooden core beneath the fabric that held the pins for making lace. She also donated some of her work, among them, a dress decorated with mundillo to the Museo Labadie in Aceitunas, known as the Palacete de los Moreau, named after the hacienda featured in Enrique Laguerre’s 1939 novel, La llamarada. At the Museo del Mundillo, back in 2005, Malen would come down from Rocha and help out with groups, giving impromptu demonstrations when the need arose. Julio brought her to town when the Festival de Mundillo was held, a massive gathering where people reconnected and celebrated their efforts to put lace on the map.

Malen with the mueble she learned on, 2006. Photo: E. Fernandez-Sacco
She was among the four children of Benito S. Hernandez Hernandez (1909-1980) and Julia Vale Mendez (1906-1991), and is my third cousin via the Vale line, there are likely more connections. Benito is remembered as the 'Sepultero de Moca' and worked making the concrete pantheons in the Cementerio Muncipal, a number of which you can still see with their chains alongside the perimeter in the cemetery. After Julia's death, Benito married Ulla's sister, Generosa.

Malen Hernandez Vale, Moca 1950. Photo: E. Fernandez-Sacco

Like many Puerto Ricans of the 1950s, Malen moved to New York and lived in Brooklyn. Her paths crossed with my aunt Maria, who was in Mrs. Perez’ class with her in Moca as a child. Although my aunt didn’t recognize her at first, Malen told her that they were cousins and that she knew her from the town. From then they visited each other until Malen returned to Puerto Rico. I was fortunate to know her, and will miss her deeply.  She was married to Julio Enrique ‘Ulla’ Rivera Gonzalez and had two children, Julio and Nicky, who survive her. She will be buried tomorrow in Cementerio Las Sauces in Moca.