A Childhood In Ponce

Family And Neighborhood Environment

The neighborhood in which Don Pedro was born, Barrio Tenerías, was established following the abolition of slavery. His home, not far from the Bucaná river that much of the community used to bathe, was one among many homes built there of wood with straw thatched roofs. The entire neighborhood was without electricity. When Don Pedro reminisced about his youth during a February 1948 speech, he highlighted the sense of community, saying, “all of the children of Puerto Rico encountered in every Puerto Rican woman a mother, and in every Puerto Rican man a father.”

Don Pedro’s mother Juliana was challenged by her mental health and was known to wander the street all day talking to herself. On one occasion she burned garbage inside of her home, causing a fire that damaged the interior. On another occasion she took Don Pedro and another child under her arms to the river in an attempt to drown herself with them. Juliana eventually did die of drowning in 1895, leaving Don Pedro under the care of her sister Rosa who actually had intervened when Juliana tried drowning herself with her kids.

The oral history provided by Ruth Reynolds to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies provides several insights into Don Pedro’s childhood, much of these insights having been told to Reynolds through direct conversation with him. Don Pedro’s relationship with his aunt Rosa, for example, appears to have been a rocky one, with a young Don Pedro feeling she was overly strict. Apparently, there was a period of time when he would regularly run away from her home to spend time with a 100+ year old black man he had befriended and who impressed upon the young Don Pedro ideas regarding the responsible treatment of women. When this man died Don Pedro was devastated, both because of his death and because he no longer had a place to get away from home.

Childhood Activities

What seems to be the case is that Don Pedro was inclined towards sports as a child. It is said that he played baseball and eventually started the practice of jogging. He is said to have been good with a slingshot, having killed a few birds but then refusing to do so anymore. In an interesting parallel to a common sport among the Basque region his paternal family was from, Don Pedro is also said to have regularly lifted the heavy, rounded stones that he would find along the local river. One account also says Don Pedro liked to train animals, even training goats to perform tricks.

Growing up with his aunt Rosa, one thing that was consistent in Don Pedro’s childhood was weekly visits to the local church for Sunday Catholic Mass. One story related by the late Puerto Rican nationalist Isabel Rosado explains how Don Pedro would always take off his shoes for the long walk to church as they were not comfortable for traveling such a long distance. Once at church he would notice people looking at what he thought was his aunt’s hat. Don Pedro eventually realized that people were instead paying attention to his being barefoot with his shoes tied around his neck and hanging down both sides of his body.

According to Ruth Reynolds, Don Pedro remembers a time when he was about 12 years old and was causing his family much difficulty due to his nature. His father Alejandro apparently hired a young man named Simón to keep him company, during which time he taught him to dive and swim better, among other things. It was also around this time that Don Pedro remembers being beaten by his aunt Rosa and choosing to run away from home, hiding in trees and eating fruit for 2-3 days until turning himself in to his friends. His father, again, stepped in and told Rosa that if she ever used corporal punishment again he would take Don Pedro away from her.

Clearly Don Pedro had some relationship during his childhood with his father even before he was legally recognized as his son in 1913. Don Pedro spoke to Ruth Reynolds about his father visiting him often, even daily, and Reynolds was told by Don Pedro’s wife that he even at one point lived with a paternal aunt in Ponce. In his research on Don Pedro as a university student, scholar Anthony De Jesús found that, on his application to Harvard, Don Pedro wrote that he had traveled to Brazil, Cuba, Santo Domingo, Venezuela, and elsewhere in the West Indies between 1907 and 1909. Apparently, this traveling was done with his father.


References:

  • I have endeavored to seize the beautiful opportunity for learning offered here: Pedro Albizu Campos at Harvard a century ago, by Anthony De Jesús (Latino Studies, 2011).
  • Pedro Albizu Campos: Las Llamas de la Aurora- Acercamiento a su Biografía, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2008).
  • The Ruth M. Reynolds Papers, Center for Puerto Rican Studies Library and Archives (Hunter College, CUNY).

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