By: Keysalis J. Fermín Pacheco
Slanted eyes, pale skin, black wavy hair, only 13 years old and suddenly all alone. Rosalba Ruíz Ruíz, also known as “Cuchy,” had no option but to attempt to pursue the “American dream.” Headed for Manhattan, New York, little Cuchy had a stomach full of butterflies and a suitcase full of memories and sadness.
“I never met my mother; she died from cancer when I was one year old. My dad was out of the picture so my grandmother and my great-grandmother took me in as their child.” says Cuchy, 71, while looking at the ceiling and swinging back and forth in her rocking chair.
“I couldn’t ask for a better childhood back in the ‘40s. They gave me everything. Growing up I was always riding a bicycle and playing baseball with the neighborhood boys.” She chuckles, “I guess you could say I was a tomboy back then.”
Cuchy’s grandmother and great-grandmother were both strong women but taking care of a teenager while dealing with old age started to get tough.
“I was thirteen when my grandma and great-grandma died. They died one week apart from each other. I could not believe they were gone. Suddenly I felt alone.” Cuchy has a sad look on her face and tears start running down the wrinkles on her eyes.
Having lost her two care takers, Juana Flores (great-grandmother) and Dominga Ortiz (grandmother) she felt great pain and sadness. She had to leave her barrio Candelaria in Lajas, Puerto Rico and head out to the Big Apple to live with her Aunt Juanita Ruíz and Uncle Samuel Ruíz.
Getting to the plane was very nerve racking for Cuchy. Luckily she wasn’t alone. Bienvenido Ruíz, a.k.a “Johnny,” a foster brother who grew up with Cuchy in Lajas, was also going on the trip with her.
“After my grandmothers died, Uncle Samuel bought me and my brother Johnny the plane tickets to go live with him and my aunt because I refused to get on a plane alone.” She wipes the tears off her face.
Cuchy and Johnny landed in New York on March 11, 1958. She says that as soon as she got off the plane she thought to herself: “his is definitely not Puerto Rico anymore.” The difference was unbelievable. The streets were all paved and she had never seen buildings that tall before. She will never forget that first day in New York.
“Uncle Samuel and Aunt Juanita took Johnny and me on a car ride to visit the city. We went to Central Park, we saw the Empire State Building and we got a ride on the Statue of Liberty’s ferry to Staten Island.” A big smile appeared on Cuchy’s face and her eyes filled with joy as she relived her adolescent memories.
When at great first, Cuchy and Johnny were separated. He went to live with other relatives while she stayed with Samuel and Juanita. Although Johnny and Cuchy didn’t live together, they had to see each other every day; they were inseparable.
“I had to see my brother every day. If not I would feel uneasy and lonely. He was the only thing left from my childhood in Puerto Rico aside from some cachibaches (random things) I brought in my suitcase,” she keeps rocking back and forth in her chair.
Cuchy had no trouble settling in New York. She learned English while she was in school back in Puerto Rico because all her classes were mainly taught in English back then. She never felt like she was an outsider because there were a lot of Puerto Ricans where she was living on 164th Manhattan Ave. She started working when she was 17 in a textiles factory. All her relatives that were living in New York at that time worked at the same factory on 34th Street and 8th Avenue.
“Johnny and I started working together in the factory as floor assistants to help the seamstresses clean up around their stations but after that I started doing a little bit of everything.” recalled Cuchy.
“I taught myself how to sew,” she smiled. “I used to practice with my own dresses. I would rip them apart and sew them back together.”
After a number of tries she got hired as a seamstress and then she got promoted to floor manager. Since then she’s considered herself a professional seamstress and that’s how she still makes a living today. Cuchy worked at the textiles factory for 12 years and in that time she made great friends.
“I always loved her happy attitude when we were working at the factory. She would always come on time and ready to work,” said Norma Castro, a seamstress that worked with Cuchy during the 12 years she was there. “We were always together and laughing about everything. I went to her wedding and she went to mine.”
“We always had the same schedule: 9:45 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. One time after work we decided to take a train together to explore the city a little bit,” Norma recalled. “We got off the train, we walked through the streets looking at everything and laughing about things that happened at the factory that day.” Norma looks at Cuchy and winks at her as if they were hiding some exciting adventure at work. Cuchy smiles and winks back. “After a while, we realized that neither of us knew where we were at so we took a taxi. It turns out we were only two blocks away from Cuchy’s house,” said Norma laughing loudly along with Cuchy.
Cuchy got married when she was 23 years old. She met her husband while on vacation in Puerto Rico in 1966. They got married that same year at the Riverside Plaza Hotel in New York City. After the wedding, they decided to come back to Puerto Rico and establish themselves in Mayagüez where her husband lived.
“I’ve always lived in the same place since I came back from New York. Mayagüez is my home now. I’ve made family here. My two kids were born here and my grandkids too.”
Cuchy says she always dream of being a teacher and although she only made it to high school she has fulfilled that dreamed because she’s had the opportunity to teach all her neighbors in some way. All the little kids call her “Abuela Cuchy” and she has become a mother figure around the Ramírez de Arellano neighborhood. Now widowed and 71 years old “Abuela Cuchy” still does some sewing here and there.
“It’s what I’ve always done…I don’t think I’ll ever stop because I love doing it, and I’m good at it. Well… maybe when I’m dead I can stop,” she stops rocking her chair and laughs loudly.
Cuchy lives alone but she always has the company of the children and all the other people that come to her house in need of some sewing. Ripped blouses, long pants that don’t fit them right, even broken shoes, she can fix it all. No matter what she will always welcome you with: “Come here sugar, I’ll fix it.”