“A Latin Family from the City of Lakes”

Janette Rodriguez was born and raised in Villalba, Puerto Rico. Dominico Rivera was born in the Bronx and raised in Papo and Jenny with their childrenVillalba. They met there and started a family… Villalba is known as “La Ciudad del Gandul” (pigeon pea city) and “La Ciudad de los Lagos” (City of Lakes). Beautiful “Lagos” and Janette proudly shared with me photos of her sisters and other family members enjoying at one of the lakes. They go there all the time. Villalba is located in the central region, northeast of Juana Díaz; south of Orocovis; and west of Coamo. “I grew up in the country (en el campo). We always yearn of going back but our four boys got married and started families here in Syracuse and now we have nine beautiful grandchildren. Our roots are deeper here” says Janette.

Dominico was working as a guard in one of the jails in Puerto Rico but the income was not enough for their family. They already had three boys when Janette decided to move to the Bronx. Axel, Arnaldo, Alex and Janette moved to the Bronx in April 1985, Dominico soon joined them. They were there only three months. They had to walk a lot in order to take the kids to the parks. They didn’t like the “rush” in which people live in New York City. So as soon as Axel finished kindergarten they took the train to Syracuse. That was in June of 1985, one of Janette sisters was already living in Syracuse. In November of 1986 they moved back to Villalba. By then they had their fourth child, they were hoping things will get better. They like their town and being close to family. But the economy was still bad so Dominico still could not bring enough income to support the larger family. They returned to Syracuse in August of 1988 and stayed with her sister.

They found a house for rent on a dead end street on the Syracuse Westside. Twenty eight  years later and three landlords, they are still in the same house. Janette loved it because the kids could play outside. They never wanted to buy a house because they always dream of going back to Puerto Rico. The two oldest boys started school going to HW Smith on the Eastside because they needed the ESL program. When the other four were ready for school they attended the schools on the Westside. “Papo and Jenny” as many people lovingly call them, were very proud of their Puerto Rican roots. They wanted their children to never forget the language and their culture. Running the house as if they were in Villalba which meant the food, the rules, the music and things they did reflected that environment. It also meant that the kids were not allowed to be out too late, go to sleepovers and hangout farther than their dead end street. That didn’t prevent their kids from having friends. Jenny remembers having the house always full of kids. Papo and Jenny prefer it that way so they would know what the kids were doing and what they were up to all the time. “We had rules and everyone was expected to follow them” says Jenny. Even though the house was small and confrontations happened between the kids, they were not allowed to fight. Jenny would say “Basta Ya” (That’s Enough) and the kids would stop.

La Familia RiveraOne of the success in raising their children is that Papo and Jenny support each others’ decision even when they disagreed. They never contradict each other in front of the children and using foul language or saying bad words is never allowed. If the children ask Papo permission to do something, he would ask them first “what did your mother say”. Well, “No” if she said you can not go”.

Papo worked for 16 years at Zebart. They received public assistance because it still wasn’t enough to support everyone. Jenny stayed in the house to take care of the kids. That allowed her to be very involved in their schools, especially at the girls’ school. Being the two youngest and females, both parents felt it was better if Jenny volunteer in their school. They also served on the Nosotros Radio’s board for over 10 years and as they became acclimated with the things happening in and around their community, they participated. Papo and Jenny never went anywhere without their children. Everything they did was as a family together. On few occasions and only when Jenny’s mother was around, they would go to an event without the kids.

The children did well in school and never got into trouble. The boys were into sports and the girls were very focused in school and
being home. Jenny proudly mentioned that Anette, the oldest was Valedictorian and Ashley, the youngest was Salutatorian in their respective middle school graduations. The two oldest boys graduated from Fowler High School and the four youngest from Corcoran.

Jenny was always home for the kids. “We were always paying attention to what they were doing. If some one that know us saw our children somewhere, they would call us to let us know and if the kids were not supposed to be there, we would go get them”, says Papo. One of the most important values Papo and Jenny thought them is to always get together and spend time with each other, be there for each other.

Jenny says, I tell my children “Whatever you decide, I am going to back you up. I am going to support you but you go to work, make some money, put yourself together and move out”. Papo says, “We teach them responsibility”. Like any proud Puerto Rican would say; “Si se caso, amárrese el cinturón y a criar su familia” (If you got marry, tighten your belt and raise your family). Papo and Jenny both feel proud that their children are doing well and none of them need to be on welfare.

My parents ran a “tight ship”, says Alex the third of their boys. Mom was the “Heavy handed” (manodura) at home. Alex who does communication Papo and Jenny's Grandchildrenand computer systems for Meridian IT remembers that when they were young they had tones of friends, play sports in front of their house. He says “My kids live in Liverpool, as a child I was always outside. I want that for my children. I want them to experience that and not being stuck in the house all the time with electronics and computer games”. Alex also remembers his parents always made sure that they were taking care of, have cloths on their back, were well fed and that there was always food in the house. He smiles, “We still come home and go straight to the cupboard to find goodies”.

Ashley the youngest has always been focus on academics and has worked since she was 14 years old. She has been very structured and focus on her goals. She completed a Bachelor in Science from Utica college. She believes that she has really good friends. For Ashley things in the community changed throughout the year but she believes that you have to give respect in order to received respect which she shows when there were few kids that were messing with her parents’ van and she went to them and respectfully got them to stop. Ashley has always like working with the youth and feel good to share with them that anything is possible, that no goal is too big. She coordinates a Syracuse 20/20 reading program title “Book Bodies” at Seymour school. “Family is always first, we do not allowed each other to go without. We always help each other. We stay within the family to get things done, even the little things like babysitting are big in retrospect” proudly shares Ashley about her family.


Axel, the oldest is 37 years old, works at Federal Express, is married and has four children. He proudly shares; “We bought a house, we are doing well right now.” As the older in the family, he thinks there were not as many opportunities for him as for his younger siblings. When they first move to Syracuse his parents didn’t realized what was out there and as they learned and found out about opportunities for the children, they got them involved. In high school he played football, wrestling and baseball. Right now he does not do much as far as sports, he does a little bit of softball playing but that’s about it. “In this family, there was not much freedom while we were growing up. We were all treated the same but I believe that my siblings look up to me. I ended up going to college for a few years”, says Axel. He was the first one in the family to attend college. It was kind of hard and he ended up not completing. He believes that the two youngest (the girls) saw that he was not able to do it, and said “we got this”. Axel remembers that him and his brothers were pretty hard on their sisters, although they were very good girls. Growing up it was expected to take care of the younger ones, so they did.


Axel shares that they were able to go outside and play until eight o’clock at night. Nowadays things are different, he does not feel safe letting his kids play outside without being supervise. They go to the park together. “One of my fondest memory is going every weekend to Green Lakes in the summer, cooking out and hanging out with the family along with friends, that was pretty cool”, says Axel. One of the biggest values he got from his parents and he would like his children to also have is to be positive and polite to everybody. As his parents, Axel would also always be there to help out his children for any reason.


Anette’s recollection and narration of growing up gives us a deeper look at how it was at the schools. She is the fifth in the family but the oldest of the girls. Anette got her Master thru SUNY Oswego in ESL and Special Education and her Bachelors’ Degree at LeMoyne in Childhood Education. She now works in the Rochester Academy Charter School teaching 7th and 8th grades. Being raised very much with the Puerto Rican culture, there were few key things part of the American culture that Anette’s friends would say, [“oh, you do not know about this or that..?”]. She had to remind them that her parents are Puerto Rican and that she grew up in a home where everything being thought to them was about the Puerto Rican culture. She remembers listening to Spanish music, going to church, waking up early on Saturday mornings to clean the house, not being allowed to go out until they had breakfast and had taken a shower. You can very much sense the Puerto Rican culture but being in Syracuse, there were some things they missed or didn’t know about their Puerto Rican roots. Fox example when she was close to turning 15 years old her parents said they were celebrating a “Quinceañero” (a Sweet Sixteen in the American Culture). She was not sure what that was but as with the many other things that her parents got the into she said, “let’s do it”. Eventually her youngest sister also had her Quinceañero. It is a big passage of being a little girl to turning into a young lady, a very special celebration for all and a proud moment for the parents.


Anette and Ashley went to Delaware elementary for three years. Their kindergarten class was a bilingual class so it was very easy for them to use the Spanish that they new and continue to learn the English they began to learn in preschool. They actually went to school only knowing Spanish so it was kind of difficult to learn the language. Then they went to Blodgget when it was an elementary school and there they had a lot of kids from a couple of other cultures and that’s were Anette started her ESL classes and she was able to learn English pretty quickly. “I think it was because of the way my ESL teacher thought. She made it fun and interesting. I believe she is one of the reason why I became a teacher. I actually worked with her last year which was awesome. I tell her whenever I see her [Thank you for the way you thought]”. Says Anette. Then she went to SheaMiddle School. That is where she met a lot of the other Puerto Ricans and Dominicans from the community. At first and since she has such a light skin complexion they were not sure if she was Puerto Rican but it was easy to make friends. Some of them Anette still sees around. When she was working at Delaware she ran into few of them from SheaMiddle School. They had a conversation about the success they had and what they have done with their life’s. Then she went to CorcoranHigh School, there were not too many kids of her Latino side but she definitely made few good friends. Annette actually ran into one of her peers in Rochester. It was kind of nice to see that her peers are still trying to finish their education and succeed.


Anette remembers that her mom was the tough one in the house. As a good Puerto Rican mom, Jenny always made sure everything was in order before the children had fun. It was expected of them to come home from school, get their homework done first before they can go and have fun with their friends. Anette believes it kind of help her because it thought her that it was easy to get things done quickly before hanging out. Having that structured at home help her because when she went to college, she had the structure to get things done before going and hanging out with her friends. It allowed her to learn how to manage her time properly. It also helps her now when she is at work. She gets things done first and do not have take work home or spend hours of her own time to prepare for her teaching job.


When Anette was 14 or 15 years old she would hang out a lot in the kitchen with her mom when Jenny would cook dinner. More to sit and talk not really learning how to cook. And Jenny would start and encourage Anette to learn how to cook and Anette would say, “I would rather go play sports with my friends than being here stuck with you cooking” which it kind of backfired because now that she is 27 years old and she has to call her mother and ask her “Hey Mom, how do you cook this or how do I make that..?”.


Anette first job was at NoJaims, being bilingual helped her a lot at that first job. It was easy and she was able to help the customers. The Spanish language definitely brings people together. She remembers going to the Festival which made her feel at home. She also remembers that going to the Nosotros radio show was a lot of fun. At the beginning it was, “oh well, something else mom sign us up for”, says Anette but it ended up being fun.


Anette says, “Dad always let you do everything as long as we were being safe. He worked on cars as a mechanic and he thought me a lot about cars. We never have to wait, he is always there for us. He has an answer for you and always help to solve the problem.”


Anette feel that as far as getting an education and making sure she was doing well, she had to be successful so her sister can follow her footsteps. They both went to college and did very well, they both have degrees in education. They are both working in different fields but still with children. She feels that to an extend Ashley did follow her footsteps. Anette thinks that growing up, they have always being very close. They used to hang out together in middle and high school. They had the same group of friends. Even in college, they became friends with each others friends in their respective colleges (Utica and Lemoyne). As far as being a big sister and giving Ashley advise, Anette still does. She tries to share lessons learned and resources she knows about to make the road easier for her baby sister.


Anette feels the structure she had at home contributed to her success but a person that helped her to become who she is today is Maria De Jesus (CNY Latina Feature September 2015). She worked with Anette at NoJaims. Maria was not only going to LeMoyne while working there but also raising a child. Another person who influence her is Ofelia Anamaria Villarreal (CNY Latino Family Store July 2016), one of the volunteer hosts of the Nosotros Radio show who was also a teacher in Seymour Elementary School while going few days a week to Buffalo to work on getting her masters degree. These two Latinas became an example of perseverance and strength for Anette. Something Anette wants the community members to get out of reading her family’s story is what she learned at home “to keep pushing for what they want, to be family oriented and to remember to appreciate their culture”.


For this family culture and honoring their roots means celebrating Christmas, especially “El Día de los Reyes”. “They still leave gifts here for the kids and in our house you can still see Christmas until Las Octavitas”…  Unmistakable Papo and Jenny achieved their goal of keeping their culture alive even though they were raising the children so far from their home town Villalba. Papo doesn’t talk much but he does feel very proud of their children. Up until today, they are doing well. He says, “We have always been very involved in our children’s life and now we do the same for our grandchildren. One way we do this is by taking care of them every day. Our kids do not have to relay on strangers to take care of them. We are here and very excited to take them to enjoy the parks and to events in the community. One of my favorite time together is when we all took vacation to go to Puerto Rico. It was amazing to spend time together in our home land”.


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