My parental grandmother Maria Dolores Ramirez Sepúlveda, whom everybody called Doña Lola, married my future grandfather when she was between 16 and 18.
It was always my grandmother’s dream to come to New York and soon after they got married, the young couple came from Puerto Rico to the US. It was possible thanks to the Jones Act, which gave people in Puerto Rico American citizenship. Moving to the US, was, however, not an economically-driven decision for them. The family had a little property in Puerto Rico and my future grandparents could have lived there relatively comfortably, while in New York they had nothing. In order to support the family, my grandfather worked in a grocery store, as a cab driver, and a janitor. They had seven children and my grandmother worked equally hard.
My abuela’s goal, however, was to go to school and get education, which, despite all her difficulties, she achieved. She had an amazing gift for languages, and most importantly, she enjoyed studying them and was persistent at it. She found time for studying by putting little flash cards with verb conjugations over the stove or the sink so she could learn while cooking or doing dishes. When she graduated from Hunter College with a master degree in linguistics, she was the only woman in her class. She mastered seven languages, including Japanese. Paradoxically, she spoke English in a very distinctive way and never got rid of her own accent.
While linguistics were abuela’s first and most important passion, she also had numerous other talents. She was a genuine math whiz, and I would never have passed my ninth grade geometry class without her help. At the same time, my grandfather had only four classes of elementary education under his belt, but was never jealous or bitter of his wife’s accomplishments. Instead, he was consistently helpful, loving, and incredibly proud of her. He also never spoke a word in English, but I suspect, he understood quite a lot!
They were such an amazing couple that it is impossible to tell her story without including him. Every day when they got up, they sat side by side, holding hands, and read the Bible together. They were both children of African slaves in Puerto Rico and were always very proud of this heritage, and of how much they have accomplished. They created a big, very tight family and always told us stories about their slaves parents. This implanted in us the same pride of our ancestry, which includes both African and indigenous blood. This mixture exposed us to a variety of influences.
It was crucial for my abuela that all her grandchildren spoke very proper unaccented English, something that she helped us accomplish. She taught us to love books, herself read a lot and chose a wide variety of texts for us to study. She also taught us to listen and understand people, without passing judgment. This is probably why there are so many lawyers and teachers in our family. She and my grandfather gave us incredibly strong foundation and I am forever grateful to them for that.