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Column By Geraldo Reyes Jr.
Less than 12 hours after the Waterbury municipal election was over, I found myself on a plane flying to San Juan to attend a four-day “SOMOS” conference about Puerto Rico’s ongoing recovery efforts from Hurricane Maria, an earthquake, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The conference was organized by New York elected officials led by the Latin Task Force including community leaders, influential non-profits and union leadership. To my surprise there were some Empire State political heavyweights in attendance; U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, outgoing NYC mayor, Bill de Blasio, newly elected NYC mayor, Eric Adams, and several candidates running to become the next governor of New York.
U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer spent several days at the conference.
There was a lot of talk about Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state, and the ongoing effort to fix the island’s electrical grid. There were more than 500 attendees at the conference, mostly from New York, but I was invited in my role as the chairman of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus in the Connecticut State Legislature, also one of our members Rep. Minnie Gonzalez was recognized for her work and service to Puerto Rico after the hurricanes.
I had a chance to interact with Senator Schumer several times and met some very influential regional and national leaders. One of the most interesting individual I met during my four-day visit had nothing to do with the conference, and I met him while getting a coffee on an early morning walk from my Airbnb to the conference. His name was Don Carlos Quintero, from central Cuba, who now calls Carolina, Puerto Rico, his home.
Don Carlos Quintero
Don Carlos was a colorful looking character with a huge black cowboy hat and fat cigar sticking out of his mouth. He was also drinking the smallest cup of coffee I have ever seen. He ordered an espresso and when it came, he asked for a second cup to pour half of the liquid in, and then threw the other half away.
Whenever I’m traveling, I like to meet new people and talk about life. This trip I met Don Carlos. He’s 85 years old, the picture of health, and has five generations of his family living in Greater Orlando.
After we both had a coffee we sat down and chatted about life. Don Carlos spoke eloquently about his family, and the many generations now residing in Florida and Puerto Rico. He told me he left Cuba when he was sixty years old, and now resides with his family in Carolina, Puerto Rico, on the northern Atlantic coast.
Don Carlos told me his family were strong supporters of the revolution in Cuba, and felt they were deceived by the Castro regime when they took control. They quietly watched as the Castro regime settled in and started impacting life in Cuba. Don Carlos saw the systematic dismantling of a successful economic engine that had put Cuba on par with many other thriving countries.
The Quintero family watched as quality of life progressively deteriorated and many of the highly educated family members were stripped of personal belongings, and even jailed for crimes they didn’t commit.
I’m always amazed at the resilience of people who’ve had everything taken from them, yet still manage to navigate through the change.
Don Carlos spoke about not doing anything in excess, and the importance of savoring each day. He moved in a slow and relaxed manner as he drank his tiny coffee.
I loved his zest for life, and the philosophy he had about living. Don Carlos had a nine-inch cigar in his mouth and told me he’s smoked since he was 10 years old in Cuba. He has a daily regimen that he adheres to every day and is very set in his ways, including his appearance.
Don Carlos Quintero
Don Carlos spoke of downsizing all material things as we age, because it’s only clutter in our homes and minds. He was proud to live in Puerto Rico and valued the Cuban – Puerto Rican relationship.
“We consider each other two wings from the same bird,” he said.
When I travelled to Havana, Cuba, in 2015, I heard Cubans use this phrase over and over. Cubans have great respect for Puerto Ricans. A little-known fact is that both islands planned a revolution together against Spain. Puerto Rico’s plan was thwarted, and Cuba carried theirs out. Colonization has limits. Don Carlos referred to Maximo Gomez as the revolutionary leader for Cuba’s independence from Spain. He spoke of Jose Marti who joined the battle and became a martyr dying in battle for Cuba’s independence.
We had a fascinating conversation over our coffees, and I listened intensely as history is a passion of mine. We talked until Don Carlos said he needed to meet someone local, and we said goodbye.
If you see a colorful and intriguing character while traveling, and they catch your eye, don’t let the moment pass. Speak with these people, they may be the messenger. •