Isaac E. Ramos Oliveras

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The smell of a whole, roasted pig drifts through every corner of the house.  The house sits atop a cliff near Ciales River, so the air is chilly and comfortable. It’s New Years, 2008, and without fail my grandparents’ house is crowded with aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters and brothers and their kitchen is full of typical food like arroz con gandules, lechón asao’, pasteles de masa, morcillas (blood sausages,) and potato and macaroni salads, among others.

This has been our typical gathering since I can remember, a house full of my many relatives and kids running around like crazy little animals. Then there’s my uncles and aunts playing at the many domino tables, each with a can of beer by their side. There is unnecessary amounts of alcohol, as in, a lot. Coors Light and other beers sit in ice under a table that also holds bottles of Pitorro (an illegal drink made of fermented fruit,) Ron Cañita, Coquito, Bacardi, DonQ, a variety of wines. Alcohol is a pretty big thing in my family, I have come to realize. But to me, what makes every celebration complete, is my great-grandfather, Pilar García, playing and singing for the enjoyment of all.

When he plays the cuatro and guitar at our family celebrations he sits in the corner of the room. He hugs his instrument tightly, singing and strumming tunes that come naturally to him. They’re mostly slow songs, and I don’t think I could name them. Sometimes I think he improvises them, which is impressive since his lyrics are very clever, telling stories about people he knows, or describing scenes from nature.

Bisabuelo Pilar with a great-granddaughter.

Bisabuelo Pilar is definitely a hero figure in my life. His stories of how he worked as  a farmer and builder at a very young age for long arduous hours under the blazing sun for five to ten cents a day shows how much honor the responsibility a job and family represented to him. The most fascinating aspect of his stories for me is that though his life was extremely difficult and very far from my own experience, he never complains about the way his life turned out. Imagine raising fifteen children near Ciales River, with great poverty and without much help from anyone at all.

He is a proud jíbaro, wearing his distinctive hat made of hay everywhere he goes. At ninety-one-years-old, he still enjoys going about the hills near his small country house, digging the soils for some of the best verduras (root vegetables) in town. He is without a doubt a man of strong heart, body and faith. Maybe drinking a shot or two of Palo Viejo every day helps him in some way too.

I remember one of my last visits to his small wooden house with my mother, Mayra, and my sister, Tania. My grandmother, Abuela Jean, who is also Pilar’s daughter, her sister (my great-aunt,) Tia Blanquin, also joined us. They are the eldest of Pilar’s fifteen children.


Bisabuelo was sleeping when we entered the house. Tears rolled down his cheek, even in his sleep.  Yet when he awoke and noticed us there, he quickly blessed us. “Dios te bendiga,” he said with a smile.

The door to the balcony was wide open, and the small house was chilly from the mountain breeze floating through it. The house itself was much like the small studio apartments I am familiar with from college, with the bed facing the wall to the left, a kitchen on the wall to the right, the balcony door on the wall to the north, and the door to the bathroom to the right side of the front door. Tía Blanquin walked to the kitchen sink to wash dishes piled in the sink, while Abuela Jean cared for the old man.

He was very weak. He had been sleeping for long hours every day, barely eating anything. It took him a while to sit up straight.  Even with the help of my mother and grandmother, his body constantly shook. Still, he quickly let us know how happy he was to have visitors, since he had been so lonely since “her” departure. We knew by “her,” he meant, the passing away of his wife, Bisabuela Tomasa, ten years earlier.

“I saw her the other day,” he said. “I was here in my bed, just about to fall asleep. And I saw her. She came in and cleaned the cigarette ashes from the floor for me. Then she sat next to me in my bed and we talked of herencia. We talked of all we accomplished. And we talked about that one time I had to walk over to Manatí to deliver the tobacco leaves I had grown. Then she went away. I hope to see her again today, she hasn’t come in a while,” he said sadly.

“Are you sure she came in? Next time you see her tell her she’s bad at cleaning. The floor is still dirty!” Said Tía Blanquin jokingly.

He was crying by then. I could barely hold back my own tears. I did not want to cry, mostly out of respect, I think. He did not accomplish great wealth or property, but he was proud of the big family he created with Tomasa, and proud of the sacrifices he made to give his fifteen children a start for a good future. It occurred to me that maybe he sleeps so much because it allows him to be with Tomasa again in his dreams.

I had to take a break and walk outside to the balcony overlooking a portion of the Ciales River. I was awestruck by the view my grandpa had built for himself; the mountains green and full of life and the sky overwhelming with a cold breeze dancing through the air, coming from the river far below. I sat down to take it all in. There beside me was the old man’s guitar. I imagined him sitting here, perched above this beautiful scene and playing his guitar for hours.

Ciales River Valley

Two years later, on New Year’s Eve, we had a much smaller celebration in one of my aunts’ homes. He was too ill to attend. Neither did most of our family. We did have a good time. The fireworks were impressive, the food was never-ending, and let’s not forget about the alcohol! Yet, though I had most of my closest family members present, it still felt empty. Bisabuelo Pilar, in my opinion, was the main reason why our family is united still. Family celebrations changed dramatically when we lost our beloved Tomasa. They will never be the same when Pilar leaves us too.

Pilar Garcia Ambert – October 12, 1919 – November 14, 2011

Isaac E. Ramos Oliveras – 2011

1 Comment

  1. It’s interesting how the oldest in the families are the ones that unites the families most. Since my great-grandmother died, it’s been like 3 years since my father hasn’t been with his entire family. All the parties, festivities, birthdays, New’s Eve, had been in my great-grandmother’s house. Now, since she left, all the family is scattered and we dont even know about them. Wonder if those moments will happen again. Thanks for your memories.

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