My Island, the Mennonites, and Me

My parents were Catholic, yet they enrolled me in the kindergarten at the Methodist Church alongside the town square. For them, my attendance at this school was more convenient, and there simply were not many other options in our small town in central Puerto Rico. I remember very little from that experience, other than a vague image of taking naps on a blanket in the upstairs loft of the church. I do recall, though, our teacher, an attractive olive-skinned young woman, who treated all of us children very kindly. Even after only one year in her classroom, she would still give me a smile and remember my name whenever we would meet.

For the first and second grades, my parents signed me up at the Colegio Católico Sagrado Corazón, a Catholic school located on the edge of my hometown of Aibonito. Here, our teachers were nuns who wore white habits. The director of the school, a short Spaniard priest in a long black cassock, spoke Spanish with a different accent, and peered at us through his gla tortoise-shell framed glasses. The lenses, it seemed to me, were as thick as the bottom of a Coke bottle. My schoolmates, meanwhile, belonged to the wealthiest and most influential families in town, some North Americans, others Puerto Rican. Many of their parents were professionals, businesses owners, large landowners, or administrators at the local glove factory, headquartered in the United States.

Whenever I attended the town’s Catholic Church for school activities, I was always fascinated by all the statues of saints. I was also very impressed by the church’s imposing historic building that had been built in the second half of the nineteenth century during Spain’s sovereignty. On one memorable occasion, I participated there in a Christmas play as “Melchor,” one of the biblical wise men. For that role, I wore a silky white robe, sported a crown full of "jewels," and carried a tiny chest containing “gold.” The reason I remember that event so well was that afterwards my father took a black-and-white photo of me, along with "Gaspar" and "Baltazar," in the atrium of the church with a borrowed camera. That camera belonged to my cousin Cástulo who had purchased it in Germany while serving in the Army—and he lent it to no one.

Adventures in the Finquita

Around that time, my family moved from town to a finquita, a three-acre farm along the main road between Aibonito and the neighborhood of La Plata. Situated on a very steep slope, the property featured a large two-story house with a wrap-around balcony and a spacious garage. Since not many people even owned a car at that time, that garage and our vehicles were among the few in the community. Our family, in fact, was really among the very lucky ones who did not have to walk, take a public car or travel by bus to get into town. This also explained why my father was contacted whenever there was an emergency in the neighborhood. “Don Monche, take me to the hospital. Margarita stepped on a broken bottle and cut her heel.” “Compay Monche, Cristóbal injured his hand with a machete. Please give us a ride to the Emergency Room.” My father was always willing to help. “Don Monche is such a supportive man,” I heard neighbors say on countless occasions.

I credit the finquita as the place where I began to feel a respect for the earth and its creatures. Our small farm shared space with chickens, pigs, goats, dogs, and even a horse and a cow. Now when I say that it was here where I acquired respect for animals, I'm not lying. In fact, it was Facundo, our biggest goat, the white one with the black spot on the head, who fulfilled his destiny to become my teacher. Let me tell you the story.

It was on one of those warn, sunshine-filled Caribbean-island forenoons that I got the clever idea to take the rope we had on Facundo and wrap it also around my neck. My intention was simple. I wanted to validate my theory that I, a healthy eight-year-old, could handle and control a goat, any goat for that matter, with just my neck. I must clarify. No use of hands or arms. Just the neck. That was my goal.

Unfortunately for my plan, Facundo had another. Abruptly, I found myself on a meteoric journey. There was no mistaking the moment: this goat was on a mission. He relentlessly dragged me all over the farm, uphill and downhill. The rope, meanwhile, tense and rough, was making itself painfully felt around my neck. After agonizing minutes—which seemed years to me—the rope came to its end. Facundo, finally unfettered, instantly disappeared among the banana plants. I, meanwhile, utterly battered and bruised, found myself face-down, with red volcanic dust still swirling around me. I completely updated my theory.

Regarding a growing appreciation for the earth, I would mention several lessons I learned during these years on our mountainside farm. I learned from my father that when hijos begin to cluster around the banana parent plant, it is time to transplant the baby plants elsewhere to thrive and grow. I learned that when harvesting sweet potatoes hidden from the ground, my dad and I needed to use a perrillo, a kind of thin and sharp machete, to locate them. I learned, too, that although the guavas on your neighbor’s tree look riper and juicier than those on your side of the fence, you should never climb the fence to pick them. Know why? Because the neighbor’s hired hand might chase you, you could fall and cut your knee, and he might notify your parents of the misdeed.

Entering the Mennonite World

During those years in our finquita, we had very few neighbors. Those who did live along our road, or in the back areas away from that main thoroughfare, were good and unpretentious people with the very common last names of Torres, Rosario, Rolón, Ortiz, and the like. One of the more well-known families was that of Doña Carmen and Don Abraham Ortiz. Don Abraham ran a mechanic's shop, located about a hundred meters from our house in the direction toward town.

Now, at that time my father was a nominal Catholic. Occasionally, at the request of the parish priest, he directed a religious activity or two in our neighborhood, but really did not make it a habit to attend church regularly, or live an exemplary Christian life, for that matter. Papi must have been feeling some spiritual concern, though, and must have been in search of change, because when our neighbor Doña Carmen invited him to her church, which the Mennonites had just recently started in the valley of La Plata, my father accepted the invitation. He also wanted us to go along with him.

I must say that my mother was not overly enthusiastic about visiting a Mennonite church. She had grown up in a Catholic home where her parents attended church regularly, and her father, my Abuelo Marcos, even assisted the parish by leading neighborhood rosary services. For her, the Mennonites were practically unknown. She had heard about the Methodists, the Baptists, and the Presbyterians, but the Mennonites were not around at the time she was growing up. During the past twelve years, though, the neighbors had been talking about these North American Mennonites who had transformed an old tobacco barn into an excellent hospital down in La Plata, and had also built a hillside elementary school and campus in Pulguillas, a community on the other side of Aibonito. Considering it further, Mami also thought—but was not completely sure—that her North American dentist was probably Mennonite.

After much deliberation, my family finally decided to attend a Sunday service at the Mennonite church down in La Plata. That morning in 1955 the little church was full of folks from the area and North Americans workers and their families. The small concrete building, with its two attractive royal palms in the front, suggested intimacy and simplicity. Inside, I noticed about twelve or fourteen benches, a pulpit, and a simple wooden cross hanging on the back wall. A little to the side, an unusual board indicated in black and white numbers the attendance of the day, the attendance of the previous Sunday, and the amount of money collected.

The pastor, speaking in Spanish with a slight English accent, gave us all a cordial welcome. We sang two hymns from a blue book stamped with gold-colored letters Himnos de la Vida Cristiana, that I had never seen before. Two men, one tall and blond and the other short and dark, collected what they called “an offering.” The pastor preached. My father sat in our bench with a smile on his face, pleased that the message was in Spanish, and not in Latin as had been his experience in the Catholic church. On leaving the “service,” as they called it, the pastor shook hands with everyone. He told us to come back, and we did. I felt I belonged.

On one of the subsequent Sundays, the pastor, who lived next door to the church in a green concrete house, invited us over to his home for a meal. That invitation was unforgettable; the food unique to our palates. The pastor’s wife served us baked chicken, mashed potatoes, a thick white sauce for the potatoes, garden-fresh green beans and homemade bread with jelly. And then the meal ended in dessert. This was the special of the specials! At home, we almost never finished our meals with something sweet. On a rare occasion, we would savor papaya or guava slices in syrup served with Island-made cheese, or the much-anticipated ripe plantains-in-syrup specialty that my father prepared. But this dessert really caught my attention. It appeared to be a translucent green matter that trembled a lot as we passed it around the table. I shot a quizzical glance over at my sister Anabel. She sent back an I-have-no-idea shake of her head. So, gathering some courage I dared to inquire. "Oh, that’s gelatin," the pastor’s wife answered with a smile. Whatever it was named, that unknown materia was very tasty. I ate it with great pleasure.

A Mennonite School Tucked in the Mountains

Our family continued attending the Mennonite church in La Plata, and my parents were baptized. Actually, they were re-baptized. Both had experienced that rite as infants in the Catholic church. Several months later, they decided to enroll me in the Academia Menonita Betania, the denominational school nestled among the mountains in the community of Pulguillas. The school, founded by Mennonite missionaries in the late 1940s, was about six or seven miles from my home.

A blue Chevrolet “truck bus” stopped by very early that August to pick me up for my first day of school. Innovative young North American workers had adapted a 1950’s truck for the specific purpose of transporting Betania students. With ingenuity, they had enclosed the bed part of a big flatbed truck with sides; attached an improvised metallic ladder at the rear; installed four benches, one on each side and two back-to-back down the middle, and put together a wooden roof to protect us from the wind, the rain, and the hot Caribbean sun. The seats were fashioned of unfinished wood and featured no cushion to soften the impact of the many potholes the vehicle encountered.

I soon learned, along with my schoolmates, that of all the adaptations made to the truck, the drop-down plumbing-pipe ladder was the most notorious. I could even say it was infamous. Any time the “bus” stopped to pick up or drop off anyone, that ladder had to move up or down. Now if you happened to have your hands on the metal tubes where the slide occurred, the resultant pinches left you screaming, even cursing the creator of that monster! The bruises or blisters would brand you for weeks, a trophy of having been one more victim of the villainous ladder. Yet despite the drama, I had to admire the ingenuity of these North American Mennonites.

The truck bus picked me up on its way to Aibonito, passed through town picking up more students, and headed out toward Pulguillas. The road went up and down in a continuous zigzag. Although the distance was not considerable, the many stops and dozens of curves made the trip seem eternally long. Finally, we passed a little bridge whose style indicated Spanish construction, and then just across from a coffee plantation, we began to climb, for about a hundred meters, a steep dirt road.

At the top of the incline, I saw a campus-like area with several modest-sized houses for staff and church workers. A small adjacent parking lot shared space with another Chevrolet truck-bus like ours, except it was green. Looking up from the parking lot, I noticed several large flat-roofed concrete buildings painted white and green at the top of the slope on an open hillside. I learned later that these were the classrooms for the middle grades. Right then, though, a tall blond teacher, carrying a leather briefcase, informed me amiably that my third-grade classroom was at the bottom of the hill in a similarly-built structure.

The principal gave a short orientation, and our teacher guided the third and fourth grade students to our shared classroom. As we walked toward our building, I noticed a gigantic swing set and lush guamá trees looming above me in the schoolyard. I never imagined at that time that these would be silent witnesses of my accumulated years at Betania as a student, teacher, and director. Patricia Brenneman, our teacher, introduced herself and gave us some instructions. She knew Spanish very well, and later I found out that the reason she did was because she had lived in Argentina for about seven years with her Mennonite missionary parents. This was her first year in Puerto Rico as a missionary teacher; this was my first year at Betania. That made us rookies together.

After-school Adventures

Many days after I returned home from school, I would head out to play with some of my friends at the Ulrich Foundation. This community was run as a private non-profit corporation closely associated with the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities. The Foundation developed projects related to agriculture, dairy, poultry, vegetable production and the like. Sometimes I walked there. Other times I took my rickety bike, which occasionally left me on foot. The ride took me uphill, around a hairpin curve, and then downhill into town.

At the edge of town, I took a right, rode through a gigantic gate, and saw an enormous white house on the left. The stately structure, built at the beginning of the twentieth century, was known in town as Villa Julita. The premises and “mansion” had been the summer home of the famous Serrallés family, who had acquired their wealth through Ron Don Q, one of the Island’s most famous rums. During my childhood years, though, the house was named Aibonito Hall, and served as a residence for the staff of the Ulrich Foundation. There, too, lived several of my North American comrades of adventure.

The grounds of the Ulrich Foundation provided a rich playing field for us. By far, our baseball games with a half-frayed ball and a cracked bat dominated the activities. But there was more, much more. We children filed into the mechanic's workshop to admire the achievements of the skilled employees working with the vehicles and machinery of the Foundation. We visited the little shop on the grounds to buy an ice cream cone, a lollipop, some bubblegum, or a soda for six cents. We played hide-and-seek in the polvorín area, where explosives had been stored during the nineteenth-century road construction of the Carretera Centralthrough the center of the Island. Sometimes we meandered through the plantings of vegetables and fruits. I will always remember the first time I tasted the luscious and juicy "American strawberries," named this way to distinguish them from the native berries growing everywhere on our Caribbean island.

Public School in Town

Ten classmates and I graduated from ninth grade at Betania in 1962, most of us belonging to the original third-grade group, though others had joined and left our class along the way. I had always hoped to attend the Barranquitas Baptist Academy, as some of my Mennonite friends had done after graduation. Disappointingly, the Academy closed its doors that very same year. Although not very enthusiastic about doing so, I decided to enroll in the public high school in Aibonito. This was my only alternative other than returning to the Colegio Católico Sagrado Corazón.

I imagined that the change from our small private religious school in the country to a large secular public institution in town would be significant. It was. Schoolmates looked upon us tenth-graders from Betania as "different." We did not dance. We did not drink alcohol. We did not smoke. We did not go to movies. Early on, we found ourselves trying to explain or defend values that we treasured and practiced in Betania.

On the other hand, we also discovered that these characteristics, while not understood by some, were admired and even practiced by others. Some of our teachers held a good deal of trust in us, even to the extent of leaving us alone during a test—because we were Mennonites. As for many of our schoolmates, we could tell by their actions toward us that we were respected.

For one reason or another, I never participated in the much-talked-about dances and celebrations of our student body during those years in the public high school. The senior prom, though, I decided, was going to be different. This was one activity I wanted to attend, and I made the effort. I learned to dance. I took "lessons" from friends who knew better than me how to "shake the skeleton" appropriately. I bought myself a navy-blue suit, a matching tie, and a pair of trendy shoes from La Aiboniteña, an exclusiveclothing store downtown. Even my friend Cuco took time to teach me how to make the knot in the tie. No clip-on ties for this one.

Though I had intuited it ahead of time, at the very last moment I ran into a major problem: my father. Papi was not at all impressed with my intrepid ingenuity. In fact, he strongly disapproved of any attendance. There were a couple of reasons, he pointed out. For one, he ranked my desired attendance as participation in a “worldly activity,” as he called it. For a second reason, he flatly disapproved of the idea that I was taking my special friend. I don’t think he was even aware how special she was: she was wearing my graduation ring, and I hers. My opinion on this subject? I think his disapproval rested on the fact that she was Catholic, and that was a big issue for him at that time. After the prom, admittedly, my classmates had a heyday chatting and gossiping. I, on the other hand, listened to their chatter, very quiet and extremely upset.

A Vibrant Community

Around the same time that we moved from the finquita into town, my family switched our church attendance to the Iglesia Menonita de Aibonito, which had just recently opened its doors. In the active environment of that congregation, I joined friends in the many unforgettable activities happening within our church. There were choir and special cantata presentations, Summer Bible schools, Christmas and Easter plays, week-long summer camps, local and Island-wide youth group get-togethers, and many other events.

Here in this setting, too, I learned compassion and developed leadership skills, thanks to the people and experiences that made this possible. Our congregation, in fact, made it a practice to conduct annual elections, not only to fill the different positions, but to encourage participation and leadership development. One year during my adolescence, I was nominated as a candidate to fill one of the two usher positions. How empowering it felt, especially when both my friend and I won the election! We were going to be the ushers for the upcoming year, and we anticipated this opportunity to officially serve the church.

The following Sunday we arrived very early, ready to welcome everyone and give them their bulletins. To our surprise and puzzlement, we found the gentleman who had been an usher for many years with the bulletins in hand, waiting at the door. My friend and I looked at each other. How were we going to tell this respected elder that we had won the election and were supposed to replace him? After some back and forth discussion, we decided the best approach would be to inform our pastor, Lawrence Greaser, about the situation, and let him handle what I considered to be delicate and difficult. His solution took me by surprise. “What do you think about having four ushers instead of two?” he calmly suggested. “That way we do not offend him.” Although at first I perceived this tactic as an escape from confrontation, I realized later it was a wise and compassionate approach. That year for the first time, four ushers served the congregation, and thus began a new tradition for the Iglesia Menonita de Aibonito.

Several years later at a transitional period of my life, John Driver, a missionary under the Mennonite Board of Missions, was serving as our pastor. Possible military recruitment faced me, and I wanted to declare myself a conscientious objector. Not knowing how to express that position, let alone fill out a form that was entirely in English, I approached Driver. Without hesitation, he came to the rescue, guided me through that process, and helped me fill out the papers. Sometime later I received the desired classification.

Also around this time, I was looking for a university where I could continue my studies. Driver recommended Hesston College, a denominational institution in Kansas, and even helped me fill out the English application. Many of my friends who had Stateside connections were leaving the Island to pursue higher education at Mennonite campuses. With completed form in hand, I felt I could also consider that possibility. My father, on the other hand, had another perspective. “The tuition at that college is ridiculously expensive,” he firmly stated, “and Kansas is too far from home.” As an alternative, and with my father’s blessing, I opted to attend the Presbyterian-run Interamerican University of Puerto Rico. Situated in San Germán on the southwestern side of the Island, the university offered all that I needed, and was just a couple of hours away by car.

Now, five decades later after having put aside that completed application for Hesston College, I hold the title of Professor Emeritus of Spanish from a sister institution in Indiana, Goshen College. I also find myself in absolute agreement with the lyrics of the well-known Panamanian singer and composer Rubén Blades: “La vida te da sorpresas. Sorpresas te da la vida.” Certainly, life does give you surprises. It is surprises that life gives you.

Translated and adapted from “Encrucijadas Inesperadas,” Growing Up Mennonite in Puerto Rico: Nuestras Memorias (Eds. Rafael Falcón and Tom Lehman, CreateSpace, 2017). The book is an English or Spanish collection of stories by writers growing up Mennonite on the Island during the 1940s through the 1970s.

About the Author

Rafael Falcón

Rafael Falcón is the author of numerous books, including Mi Gente: In Search of the Hispanic Soul (2008), 101 Spanish Riddles: Understanding Spanish Language and Culture Through Humor(2001) and Salsa: A Taste of Hispanic Culture (1998). With Tom Lehman he edited Growing Up Mennonite in Puerto Rico: Nuestras Memorias (2017) andMennonite Memories of Puerto Rico (2014). He was born in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, received his Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, and served as professor of Spanish at Goshen College from 1979-2012. His essays and stories have appeared in publications throughout the US and the Spanish-speaking world.