Otmara Montero-Villegas

Otmara Montero-Villegas

Interviewed December, 2000

 

When I am not here, any knowledge you may want is gone. So I think this idea of sharing information is good. I’m sorry we didn’t do this with mom. She could have gone further. I’ve wanted to do this for a while¼to write these things down.

On my mother’s side they were all Spanish, from Spain. No other Nationality that I know of. My great -grand parents on my father’s side were French. However, my great- grand parents came from Spain and my great-grand father fought in the Spanish revolution when Cuba was trying to become independent. Even though he was Spanish, he fought on the Cuban side.

He was caught and held prisoner and was almost executed but escaped. His family, when they heard he was a prisoner, thought he was dead, that he’d been executed. When my great-grandmother heard the news that he was still alive, she made a promise that if he was able to escape or survive, she would wear only one fabric of clothing: black and white check or blue and white check. At the time she was a very young woman, but she held to her word until her death. I never remember her in any other style of dress. That, for the time, was a very typical Spanish thing to do. You make a promise and you kept it. Her name was Maria. I have pictures of her dressed like that. From this time on, my great-grand parents stayed in Cuba and this is how my family settled in this country.

I lived in Cuba for thirteen years, the first thirteen years of my life.

When I was born 1930. It was during the time of the Great Depression. The Depression in the states meant Depression in Cuba, also. Cuba was so dependent on the U.S.; it always had been. The Depression was terrible in the U.S., but it was even worse in Cuba. We relied so heavily on them. My grandfather worked for an U.S. company during this time at a sugar refinery. Because of his job, we never lacked for anything. We never went hungry. In this way we were very fortunate. The economy was horrible, though, until I was about six or seven years old.

I also remember hearing about the Lindbergh baby being kidnapped. I was a very young baby at the time and my mother was afraid. Everyone took it to heart. For years after that, I remember my mother speaking about that. We were always afraid that if something like that could happen in the U.S., to such important people, it could happen anywhere.

 

Before Castro, Batista was elected, but it was a forced thing. It was cheating. You would have to go to the voting places early. I remember my entire family would get up just as they opened because the people running it were against the Batista party. If you arrived too late in the day, they would check your voting card and decide if they would let you vote. And most times, those who were against Batista weren’t allowed to vote. I wouldn’t call that a democracy. But that is how it was.

I never knew my dad. He died when I was 18 months old. My mother was only 19 at the time. My mother was extremely protective of me. To the point of obsession. She really was. She did not want to lose site of me. If I were invited to go to a family’s home for a visit, she would come and get me before it was time to leave. She was obsessed with me in a way. Very protective. I was protected in all areas of life. For instance, if a funeral happened to be going by, she would make an excuse for me not to look, so that I wouldn’t have to see something unpleasant. She didn’t want me to see things like that.

My personality, although I did not know him, is more like my fathers. I’m not as excitable as my mom is. I’m more low-key. She worried about everything. I tend accept things a little easier than she did. Don’t get me wrong, I can be pushed, but I am for the most part, low-key.   My mom was a very happy woman. Very expressive. Very lively. Very outgoing with the family.

When my father died my mother and I went to live with my grandparents. My mom’s parents. There were five boys at the time and three girls. When we came back to live with them I made nine children living in the household! I was raised in very, very happy home. People would say things like, we were going to stop by and see you last night but we thought you had company. But we didn’t. It was just that we were all there together. It was a very close knit family.

My grandfather was very strict. Very Cuban. Very protective of his daughters, especially, more so than the sons. For example, the women in our family were never allowed to date one –on- one. I can remember my aunts’ boyfriends asking my grandfather for their hand (literally) to come and visit his daughter. It was entirely up to him if he would allow it. Assuming he said yes, then these young men would have the privilege of coming once or twice a week and visit for a couple of hours in the evening. They would sit in the living room, while my grandmother sat in the dining room with her back toward them, because she was embarrassed, but my grandfather insisted upon it. And they would visit for a couple of hours.

This was her role, so to speak, during the week. She would be responsible for overseeing their visits. You never left the house without a chaperone. My grandfather expected this of me, and my aunts. I was not allowed to be unsupervised.

 

The boys had expectations placed on them, too. For instance, they had to be home for dinner at a certain time. Mealtime was a very important time. We ate lunch at noon and dinner at six. The family had to be there at that time. If one of the boys came late, they would have to eat in the kitchen, alone. They were not allowed to interrupt the family dinner that was taking place in the dining room. They were not allowed to sit down with those of seated in the dining room. Lunch was also a big meal.

Despite the strictness and the expectations, my mother did not have an arranged marriage. My dad was 21 years old and my mom was 16 years old at the time they got married. He was a bank teller. I was not fortunate enough to know him, but my uncle, Rolando, said he was a very nice young man. And that the reason why my grandfather let him marry her. She was the first to get married and the second oldest.

The only religion I ever heard of, or knew of, was the Roman Catholic faith. That is the church that I was baptized in and received First Holy Communion, and all of the other sacraments.   But I don’t remember it being strict to the point were if you didn’t go to church on Sunday, you were committing a sin. My grandparents didn’t attend church regularly, but everyone attended church on Christmas Eve. I remember that. We would all go. One thing that made it difficult to attend was that there wasn’t a church in our town for many years.   Once one was built we attended more often.

On Christmas Eve, it was traditional to have pork, wine, black beans, rice, and of course arroz con pollo. A lot of families would come and get together. We were very family orientated. These occasions were more important to my grandfather, more so than my grandmother. She was always in the background. This was typical. Even with my mom she would be more subservient to a man. I never felt I had to do that. If I did it it was because I wanted to, not because it was expected.

January the 6th was a big holiday. It was the children’s holiday. Little Christmas, El Dia De Los Reyes, (The day of the Kings) it was called. It was when the three Kings supposedly brought the presents for Jesus. It was not done the day he was born. That is why we celebrated Christmas, His birth, and the day the Kings brought Him gifts. The gifts that we received on this day were supposedly given to us by the three Kings. We did not know or recognize Santa Claus.

 

Another memory I have is of my grandmother. She was a quiet woman. But each morning she would brew coffee for the adults and for the children. Of course the children’s coffee was very weak. While I was still in bed, she would bring me a cup of this coffee every morning. That was the way she would show her affection. She was a very subdued person. I didn’t feel like I really knew her. I don’t even think mom really even knew her. I sometimes wonder if she really knew herself. However, her sons adored her.

I always enjoyed school, mostly because it was a social thing. We didn’t have a great deal of things to do. We didn’t see other children very often, or have many things to do; we were usually with family. So going to school was a social thing. It was difficult thought; it wasn’t easy. Kindergarten was fun. A lot of fun. I can remember appearing in the little plays and things like that. Actually, the kindergarten teacher lived in our home. She came from a city in Camaguey. Our town was little and she came to visit with us during the school year and it was very enjoyable. I loved it. Our town was called Dertidents, after the sugar mills.

Following Kindergarten, I attended a one-room school. All of the grades were in one room. The American companies provided it. They built the school, paid the teacher, and we learned English; it was one of our subjects. The high school started in 8th grade. But then, you were only able to attend in our town through 8th grade, then you had to go to the city; our town didn’t have a high school. We had to travel to do this. We took a train. It was in Camaguey, which was also the name of the Province. At the time there were six Provinces, now there are many more. Castro has split them up. In our town, as I remember, most of the boys went to Catholic schools and most of the girls went to boarding schools.

I had left Cuba after 8th grade, and was admitted into the U.S. schools as a sixth grader because I didn’t know the language. I could do the math, the math was great, but I couldn’t speak the language.

To explain, my mother came to this country first, without me. My grandfather suggested this; to be sure she liked it first. I had an uncle that lived here; his name was Orlando. He had written to her and suggested that she and I come to the states. She thought about it and in August 1941 she came. And she loved it here.

 

In December of the same year Cuba declared war. Mom had written to her father asking that I be sent to the states. He was afraid of the danger and my being alone. It wasn’t until June of 1943 when my uncle said to my mom, “Do you want to go get your daughter?” She said, “yes!” She had missed me terribly. My uncle, being in the service, wanted to go then because it would be the only chance to leave, given his schedule and he wanted to see his family in Cuba. So they went to Cuba in September of ’43 and that was the month I left with them to go to the States.

Unlike Cuba, were I had my uncles who paid so much attention to me, I at first felt lonely with it being just mom and I. The worst part was going to school in the morning and not being able to say a word until I got back home.   I would leave the house every morning with books piled up to my chin and I didn’t have a clue what was in them. But in six months, I could understand almost everything that was said to me. And I could speak well enough to make myself understood. I learned. I had no one teach me differently. I was there with the rest of the children, in the classroom. .

I will never forget my first meal in the U.S. school. We had hotdogs and sauerkraut. I had no ides what it was. No idea what so ever. I came home very upset with my mother and very hungry!

After I finished that year, mom and I moved to another town nearby, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. From sixth grade I skipped right into 8th. Then I attended an all girls’ Catholic high school at the age of 15; my mother remarried when I was 16 and I finished high school in a public school. It was the first time I attended a public school in this country.

When I went to high school, my first year, the kids didn’t know much about Cuba. They wanted to know if we wore grass skirts and did we eat ice cream. They thought all Cuban’s were Black. Nevertheless, I never felt rejected by anyone at all. I never felt I didn’t fit. They never made fun of my accent and I had a thick one!

During WWII, many people of your generation didn’t realize what we went through. We were rationed; we had limited amounts of butter, sugar, and meat. And no one minded. The sacrifice we were making. If you wanted shoes you may have to wait a year. I remember I needed a pair of shoes and a woman, where mom worked said you can use my stamp for her shoes. We were very limited with what we could buy. For example, mom smoked and the little corner store knew us and knew this and they would let us know when a shipment was coming in so that she’d be sure to get a pack.

 

I was 16 years old when I met Bob (my husband). I had gone out with some other boys, but nothing serious. Bob came from a family that was considered upper class, I never felt inferior though. Part of that could have been that we were considered upper class in Cuba and I was not uncomfortable around this environment. I don’t know. I do know that I never wanted to work outside the home. I wanted to be a good wife, mother, daughter-in-law, and just a good family person. I never had aspirations of being in the business world.

During the Korean War when I was married to Bob. It was horrible because a lot of men were dying in the War and we had to send him off. It was very dramatic to leave him off in Philadelphia. I was very sad and lonely. He was initially stationed in Maryland. I didn’t see him for 8 weeks. Then he was gone for 3 months. When Bobby (our first child) was a year old, he was gone for 6 months. I lived with Bob’s parents at the time.

The years I remember most fondly was when the children were small, and Bob was working, he was out of the Navy. By that time he had his Master’s degree and we had a new home. Those were very good years. I was doing what I wanted. We were close to both families. After three years, though, it started to deteriorate.

It’s always hard to raise children, but I think today, it’s become extremely difficult. I know parents today have to have a great deal of understanding and patients. Still there is a great deal of potential in the youth today. You can’t categorize them as all being bad. And many people do. I remember when Bobby was in college and he had long hair and he looked like a bum, but I knew he wasn’t. So today, when I see other kids that have longhair too different style, I can’t say they’re bad. They are someone else’s sons. You can’t make a blank statement. They have too much though. They have everything and they’re still not happy. That’s sad. It’s not a perfect world. Hopefully, someday, everyone will fit. Be accepted.

There are children killing children and children killing adults for no apparent reason. And what’s really troubling is after the fact when they say, there was no sign of this. I can’t believe there wasn’t a sign. Another thing that is very scary is the single parent family. It’s hard. I realize I raised my children alone, for the most part, but I had the support of my family around. A lot of these parents today don’t have that. They don’t know their family. I’m scared for the young children today. I think I was fortunate to have had my children when I did. It was an easier life and a healthier, safer life.

 

Today, though, you do have so much more knowledge available to young people. For example, today your generation understands about alcoholism. It was sad that we didn’t know that. Maybe if we had this information, we could have saved Bob. Maybe. Still he had to do it for himself. His parents didn’t understand, nor did I. I just thought it was horrible habit and wondered why couldn’t he stop it? I tried, in my own way, to stop him, but I couldn’t. I think about it sometimes, but I don’t blame myself, I just wish I’d have known more.

I think we tend to pray when we need it most. We tend to ask a lot, but we forget to thank. I try to remember that more. I remember when mom died that was hard. When Bob died that too was hard. And I didn’t expect it, in a way. There was still a connection there. I prayed for him. I knew he was in terrible need. I seldom pray for myself. I figure he’ll answer me better if it’s for someone else

I never want to become a burden to my children. I never want my children to suffer because I am suffering. I guess it’s because I am self-sufficient. I feel like I can do it.   I do not like to ask for help. I am proud that way. It’s not a good quality at times. I don’t like to ask. Yet, when mom died and I was able to take care of her, I would not deny my children that. For a short time anyway. It was very good to be able to take care of her. It felt natural. I would do that all over again if had to. That was something that was very rewarding. To be with her and to take care of her, in her last days. And I am glad that I was able to do this with Debbie (my sister). We were able to get closer and I got to know her in a different way. There is such an age difference; she was like a daughter more than a sister was. The situation with taking care of mom helped bridge the age distance between us.

I would like to live as long as I have a quality life. I would like my family to remember me as having been good to them; that I did the best I could; I wasn’t perfect, we all make mistakes. I know I did. I would want them to know that I may not have always liked them, but I always loved them. I’d like to be thought of as a giving person; that I was fun to be with; and that at times I was a tough lady! And I want my grandchildren to think I was a cool grandmother.

 

I would like to have better faith than I have. I don’t feel as if I have enough faith. When I go to the Methodist church (when I visit my daughter and her family), I get a lot out of it. Yet I don’t see me as ever being anything but Catholic, although, I know their faults. I don’t feel fulfilled though when I go to church, like I do when I go to Dori and Tom’s church. I think, at times, the Catholic Church is hypocritical. I don’t see that they preach what they practice, I don’t see a great deal of compassion. I see that in the Methodist Church. The Protestant church does much more for their youth, also. I don’t feel the guilt in this church. Strangely, I sometimes feel guilty in feeling that! I look forward to going to the Methodist church. I even like going to the classes they offer. I don’t think God would ever punish us for not going to a particular church as long as we have faith and we are good people.

For so long the Catholic faith was the only one. Tradition keeps me going to the Catholic Church. I think I can go to both churches. Yet I wouldn’t go to the Methodist Church when I am at home. My faith would probably be stronger if I stayed in the Methodist church, but I haven’t tried it. I don’t know anyone else in my community that isn’t Catholic. My faith is sense of comfort. I have used this at difficult times in my life. I ask everyday that God protect my children and grandchildren. I ask to be kept in good health, not because I need it, but because I think my family still needs me. I am selfish that way. I believe they still need me.

As we age, we recognize that most of our days are lived. Let’s face it at 70 years old, you know that there is a limit from now on.

I don’t think people should totally retire. I look forward working the 12 weeks that I do. I like to do what I want in the morning; I like to work because it keeps me active. It gives me something to look forward to. But before the 12 weeks begins, during the year, I will think about work and start to plan in my head what I will do. It keeps me interested in things and keeps me thinking. Working with young people as I do, helps keep me young. It’s a rewarding 12 weeks. I work very hard, but I can do it because it’s a short amount of time. It’s very hard not to think of having to get up in the morning. I am very sorry that I didn’t realize my potential and my ability in the foodservice area. I wish I had realized it sooner. I would have done very well in it. I wish I started in this field earlier.

I remember one of my first jobs in this area. It was when Bob and I lived in New York. Bob had lost his job and our friends offered me a job making salads in their restaurant and that’s how I got started. Then when I moved to North Carolina, I started working at the bed and breakfast for our friends when they were away. I’d like to have earned a degree in business management. I’d love to have owned a bed and breakfast. I enjoy doing this sort of work and I’m good at it.

 

Everyday I continue to learn things. One thing I have learned, by necessity, is to be self-sufficient. To be independent. Although at times, I feel as if I haven’t been truly independent. If I had been truly independent, I wouldn’t have married again. In my own independence, strangely, I felt I needed someone to take care of me. I never had that. I mean I had it from my mother. But I have never felt secure in that respect with a man. I don’t mean monetarily either. In fairness to the men I have known, I don’t think I would allow it. I wouldn’t allow them to get close. It’s as if I got burned before and I didn’t want it to happen again. If I don’t need someone, then I can’t get hurt.

When I am not here, any knowledge you may want is gone. So I think this idea of sharing information is good. I’ve wanted to do this for a while¼to write things down.

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