Kelly Cari

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Fank Cari Family – left to right: Linda, Kathy, Bill, Frank, and Robert


Being half “North-American,” as Americans from the mainland are called here, and half-Puerto Rican has complicated things for me. My mother is Puerto Rican, born in Brooklyn, NY, yet she was raised in Lares, PR. My father, however, was born and raised in the little town of Southington, Connecticut. They met when my dad was still in the Air Force, stationed at the Ramey Base in Aguadilla, PR. They were neighbors and my mom would check him out each day as he commenced and terminated his early morning jog past her house. They finally met through a mutual friend and the rest is history.

After I came along, we moved frequently, relocating every two years or so. We started off in Maine, my birthplace, and then moved to Florida, from Florida to Texas, and from Texas to California. At one point, my mother grew tired of traveling across the United States and wanted to go back home. She finally convinced my dad to move to the “Island of Enchantment” permanently when I was about six. I finished up the last half of the second grade in San Juan.

My first language was naturally English. My mother spoke to me in Spanish, but I always answered in English. I understood everything she said. But when I got to Puerto Rico, I could not understand the Spanish here. Even in a situation where my mom said the exact same thing in Spanish someone else had just said, it sounded completely different. I always found it confusing, shifting from one place to another, from one language and dialect to another, from one culture to another.

Don’t get me wrong; I love knowing about various cultures. I was always fascinated by differences and traditions, but actually living in two cultures was not always as romantic as it sounded, especially when most people I knew didn’t understand the difficulties I was going through.

Regardless of the complications, I never lost my fascination with other cultures, especially Europeans. My parents willingly cultivated my interest by teaching me about my heritage. I see my heritage as a cultural chain that shows me where I am from and how I am connected to the past and how it has shaped who I am. My mother’s grandparents came to Puerto Rico from Spain. On the other hand, my father’s mother was Welsh and his father was Italian. It’s the Italian blood raging through my veins that fascinates me the most but of which I know the least.

I never met my Italian grandfather, Frank Cari. As the story goes, his family emigrated from Italy in the early 1900s, when he was just a “tadpole.” They were part of the over 4,000,000 Italian immigrants who relocated to the United States between 1880 and 1920. Like many immigrants, they changed their names to hide their ethnicity due to the stigma and prejudice they encountered in their new country. Cariseo was changed to Cari. Sadly, the rest of the family history is a bit hazy but it is certain that Frank probably struggled hard for everything he gained. When he grew up, he became husband to the elegant Kathleen Wright and fathered four productive children.

Just to clarify, my father, Robert, was the youngest of the four, preceded by Kathy, Bill, and Linda. They were a tight bunch, quite like the Brady’s, or so I heard from my parents. This 1950s sitcom-like family lived in a middle-class brick house on Visconte Ave, in those days a sparsely populated street in the little town of Southington, Connecticut. It was only about three blocks away from the main town square. My grandfather had built the house with his own two hands. It was a cozy little thing.  Well it still is, seeing as the present owners still have not had to do any major renovations.  I visited the house once when I went to my grandmother’s funeral back in 1998. I was eight and in the third grade at the time.

Sadly, my grandfather passed away when my father was still in high school. Perhaps that was why my father left home at an early age and joined the Air Force. He eventually earned Associate’s degree.

What’s even more sad and eerily coincidental is that my own father died when I started the ninth grade. Both Frank and Robert Kari’s hearts failed due to coronary disease. Both losses left a lot of unanswered questions.

When he was alive, my father barely mentioned his father. I wish I had asked my dad more about his personal experiences and his past. For instance, what was my grandfather truly like? Was he the harsh abuser I had sometimes overheard my mom mention, or was he just very strict? I had a tight bond with my dad, but did my dad have a tight bond with his own father? Was he afraid of him? I imagine that my dad must have looked up to his father somewhat. My grandfather had to have been at the very least, a hardworking and dedicated family man based on his devotion to his family.

I love to imagine that the Italian blood that raged through Frank Cari’s veins, which also raged through Robert Cari’s veins, also runs through my own. I’ve had moments where my mother has taken me aside and scolded,  “un genio fuerte,” “a bad temper.” Then she tells me I’m just like my father. She likes to say I am a “copy and paste” of my father. I am generally both quiet and shy but when I get angry, beware! In fact, if I had been a boy, I could have been his clone instead of a female version of him. I am glad I have both those characteristics because when I need to break out of that shy and quiet stupor I’m always in, I can count on my hot Italian blood. It’s just like they say; us Italians are hot blooded.

Meanwhile, to unveil the mysteries of my father and his relationship with his family, of my grandfather and the not too distant Italian past makes me hungry to know more. It’s a legacy I need to unravel in order to integrate this link to my cultural chain.  For now my questions are left to linger. Perhaps one day, I will be able to lift the mysterious, hazy fog surrounding the story of my father and grandfather and learn more about who I am.

Kelly Cari

Last Summer, I joined the EFTours Europe trip organized and chaperoned by a professor from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras where I study in a graduate program of  Social-Community Psychology. We visited Italy and stayed there for about a week and I was fascinated with the culture and how similar I found Italian to be to Spanish. We drove through Naples and since one of my aunts once told me that our family came from somewhere near Naples, I felt really excited to be there. I breathed in the air imagining that I might be seeing and experiencing some of the same things distant family members may have seen and experienced. I felt like I was home.


  1. It is really interesting how cultures from so different places can encounter and mix. The mix of cultures is fascinating but i can imagine how difficult and confusing was for you when you were growing up. It is very nice that you have that interest in your roots. I hope some day you continue this adventure and get to know more about it and if possible answer you questions.

  2. It’s almost as if I was reading my mother’s family story. By what my mother always told me she’s been chasing the history of her last name since lifetime and it’s been difficult but not impossible. We have found a lot of “Valpais” lately and we have been gathering information. I hope you’ll never surrender at finding your roots and legacy. Good Luck!

    • Thank you for the luck ;). I still do searches here and there to find out more about the family, but my Aunt is the one who has found out a lot! Good luck to you and your family as well on finding out more about ‘Valpais’. (p.s.- I find Valpais to be a very interesting last name, I had never seen it before)

  3. Hi Dustin- we’ve never met but I’m from Austin and love following Austin phtregoaphors while I’m out in CA. I felt compelled to comment on your beautiful post because my path is exactly that of yours. I just flew home to Austin last week for my grandma (my hero’s) funeral and felt comforted that she was gone only to be with my grandfather who suddenly passed 11 months ago. Their love and my faith got me through last week and I’ll always cherish the memories I have with them and look forward to carrying on some of their traditions. Prayers to you and your family during this time. What a lovely photo of them to look back on and another reason we love doing our job, freezing moments in our life to cherish always!-Jessica Frey

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