The Abuela Chronicles: Rich at Last

Abuela Rigo lived a life full of adventures and hardships. She loved and fought for what she believed in and for those she loved the most. Her stories growing up very rich (and then very poor) in Puerto Rico are the stuff of legends, and I'll try to share them- and her- with you. Welcome to The Abuela Chronicles.

"This is your home, so when you get ready to die, come back and die in your own bed!"

And with those words, Petra slammed the door behind her husband as he left, suitcase in hand.

It was over. Over when Petra found out that Pepe had a girlfriend in every town they had lived in and had set each one up with an apartment, car, driver and housekeeping staff. Over when Petra learned that the endless sacks of money her husband spilled onto the mahogany dining table were not the result of his work overseeing the tobacco fields, but the illegal gains of his long nights gambling and moonshine-making. And now, with the police after him and a pregnant lover demanding him back or else, Petra said enough. Out Pepe went, but not without his wife's angry and unusual invitation to come back. She'd be damned to let her husband die in an undignified manner or away from his children.

A few years later, there was a knock on the door. Ten year-old Rigo opened it to find her father, Pepe himself, standing thin and sickly-looking in front of her. "Rigo, help me to bed," he said, as if he had just come back from running a quick errand. The tiny girl struggled to help her Dad back into that room Mamá had prepared years earlier waiting for his return. Petra came into the room among the commotion, and from then on she cared for her wayward husband as if nothing had ever happened.

Weeks later, Pepe passed away, and with him the lavish lifestyle they grew accustomed to. Soon, there were collectors demanding money owed and moving men carrying out all their nice furniture. But, by the time the bank came knocking to repossess their beautiful home in the outskirts of the city, Petra had already secured a job as a lunch cook at a local school, as well as a two-bedroom house in a more modest part of town-the only home she could now afford. She called it Refugio (shelter). Petra still had seven children at home to raise and care for, but she was moving forward. Long gone were the maids and cooks, the cars and the drivers, the beautiful Victorian parlor furniture and that exquisite mahogany dining table. She considered herself lucky to have an old borrowed couch, a mattress for each child and Refugio to keep her family together. But life as they knew it was never going to be the same.

Read about Rigo's extraordinary birth in "The Lizard and the Shoebox"

One afternoon, Petra came home exhausted after a hard day at work. She plopped her hungry, tired and onion-smelling self in the old, battered couch. For a quick moment she longed for that scrumptious cod dish her cook used to make. "Oh, I'm so hungry I could eat a big plate of Magdalena's serenata," Petra thought out loud without noticing that little Rigo was in the kitchen and heard her every word. Rigo knew exactly how to make that famous serenata, as she had helped both Magdalena and her Mom make it many times before. So, she ran to the girls' room, grabbed a few coins from under her mattress (gift money she had kept for a rainy day) and ran to town. She was going to surprise Mamá Abuela Rigo circa 1977Abuela Rigo circa 1977by making her favorite dish!

When she got to Don Gonzalo's market, her heart sank. The sign in front of the door said cerrado (closed). Of course! It was siesta time, and the entire town was down for the mid-day nap. A nap wasn't going to get in her way, so, Rigo ran up the stairs to the building's second floor where the market owner lived. "Don Gonzalo!" screamed the girl, pounding on the door. "Don Gonzalo, come down and open the store! I have to make Mamá a serenata!" The storekeeper, who knew there was no way of saying no to that little troublemaker, opened the store just for her.

Soon, Rigo was in Refugio's tiny kitchen, using a wood box as a step for boiling chopped plantains, yucca and malanga on the gas stove. She submerged the dry cod in cold water, and sliced a big tomato and half a yellow onion. By the time her Mom got up from her nap, Rigo had a beautiful serenata plate with olive oil drizzled on top. When Petra saw that her food wish had been fulfilled by Rigo, she had to gather strength to hold back her tears. She knew about the girl's hidden coin stash and how she would slide her a nickel or two to help pay bills or buy groceries. But this luxurious meal very likely cost everything her daughter had. There was so much love in that beautiful cod plate; at that moment Petra understood that while she may have lost every material thing she owned, the love of a daughter-- the little lizard born on the cold kitchen floor that no one thought would live-meant more to her than all the riches in the world. Petra, Rigo and the kids in the Refugio-it was going to be a good life.

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