By Edgardo Hernández Burés
On Sunday mornings Toño and Cuca like to drink coffee on their wooden deck next to the pool and appreciate the nature that surrounds them. The big mango tree in their backyard provides them shade, and the hot freshly brewed coffee heats them from the chilly winter breeze.
Toño is the nickname of Antonio Burés Salellas, a civil engineer and surveyor. He’s about 6 feet tall, burnt skin color, and he always wears a chain with an Puerto Rican flag charm. He is currently retired but he still works with some paperwork in his company whom his eldest son now runs.
Toño and his wife Cuca, who is Carmen García, have four children and live in a big house in San Juan, “I am thankful for my family, my house, and all the things I have” he said. “My childhood wasn’t that easy, except for my early youth” he explained, “the first 11 years of my life, when my father was alive, it was a rich life. In my house there was a laundry maid, an iron maid, a kitchen maid, many house maids, and even a messenger who took me to school.” Toño said.
Toño was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico on February 4th, 1936. “I am the third out of five siblings” he said. “My father was an engineer, he was born in Adjuntas PR. He studied in Cornell University and graduated on 1912, he was very wealthy”. Toño studied in Academia San Jorge, but then went to Colegio de la Milagrosa in Río Piedras because his father constructed a house in Trujillo Alto. “It was a big house, made out of wood, but it burned down when I was in third grade and I returned to San Jorge” he confided.
Santurce is one of the many districts in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, and it is divided into 40 sectors. Toño lived in Delbrey street which is in the sector Machuchal.
At the age of 11 years Toño’s father passed away, and drastic changes began to occurs he explains, “when my father passed, the economy wasn’t the same, the food wasn’t the same, there wasn’t any more servants, the maids were reduced from five to one, and that only one came sometimes during the week.” Toño explained that his mother went to the San Jorge to talk to the director when his father died, “she was going to take us out because there was no cash to pay for the tuition. But the director said no, that we’d stay and he wasn’t going to charge us”.
“I had to take the bus or walk to school. My mom started to to buy houses and fixed them to sell them and earn some cash. But one day she bought a pharmacy in Villa Palmeras with the little money she had.” he said while cracking his knuckles. Villa Palmeras is another sector of Santurce in which Toño lived from 1950 to 1955 on Eduardo Conde avenue. Toño and his brothers had a shift in the pharmacy to work during the night every day of the week. “I used to be messenger also, I went in my bicycle to deliver medicines and pick up orders.” he admitted.
“When I got to 10th grade I decided to go the Central High School, which I regret because in San Jorge we were like a family.” Toño said. “ It was a bad decision, the only good decision you’ve ever made was to marry me” said his wife. Toño explains how the english courses in San Jorge where more advanced “when I got to Central High the english was like the one you learn in first grade. But I left, and I graduated in 1953 from Central High.”
In 1953 Toño entered the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez as a civil engineer student. In Mayagüez he lodged in a place known as “the home of the many” he explained, “it was a very big room with a lot of bunk beds, and about 60 students stayed there”. Toño did not have any books, “I had to wait for my colleagues to finish studying so I could borrow their books, it wasn’t easy, but believe it or not I finished my bachelors degree in 5 years, not with the best grades but I finished it in the time it’s supposed to be”. He explained that he never withdrew a class, even if he was failing he never left the class. “I studied full time but during the summer I worked with the Autoridad de Acueductos y Alcantarillados where with my paycheck I paid the tuition for the “colegio” and the rest I gave to my mom.” he added. “And with some of that money he took me to the movies and to eat ice cream” Cuca said while smiling and looking at Toño.
“In 1958 I graduated from UPRM and I got a job with the AAA where I earned $300 monthly.” he said. He explains how he got the job, they sent him a letter accepting his application even though he didn’t apply, but because he worked there in previous summers they accepted him.
After working with the AAA he went to Los Angeles, California to work with the North American Aviation. “I left because the pay was good, we’re talking from $300 that I earned in the AAA to $490. Even though it was a good pay, and after six months they raised it to $550, I left and came back to Puerto Rico” he said with an annoyed look on his face. He explains how people in the United States know very little about culture, “I met this guy while working and I started having a conversation with him and he didn’t know where Puerto Rico was located, and he asked me how the natives dressed, referring to us like indians” he said, “I was very annoyed about that, and even more when he told me that he made $610 monthly, $60 more than me, and that he was still a student!”. He did not like the prejudices and the abuse against the latinos and thats why he returned to Puerto Rico he says. “One of the reasons why I’ve always supported the independence for Puerto Rico” he added.
“Little by little I started progressing in my career. I changed jobs many times seeking for a better salary till I started my company and the money started to flow in, it was not easy, but I did it” he said. He explains how his life is like the letter U, “Every morning I wake up and I think about it, cause its funny you know, I started wealthy and then everything collapsed and I worked my way from the bottom to the top again, as the saying goes, I had to grind glass”.