There is something to be said for the healing power of song, the primal comfort of melody, the tenor and tremble of a voice wanting to help paint the world. There is a light that pulses like an eternal heartbeat in the dens of the New Paltz Nursing and Rehabilitation Center on the corner of Jansen Road and Route 208: a voice so soulful and beautiful that it is ageless, timeless and immutable.
It is the voice of Romanita Cruz, born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico in 1922, who recently turned 99 years young on August 1. Dressed in all pink, her hair braided back, Cruz talks to Hudson Valley One about her life and her various loves that have taken her these many times around the Sun with a smile on her face.
With the translation assistance of Samantha Cerero, the bilingual recreation director at the Center, Cruz explains that she left Puerto Rico because there was “no work. I loved everything about Mayaguez,” she says. “I loved the people, the food, the beauty, the dancing and singing, but there was no work. My heart will always be in Puerto Rico.”
She suddenly breaks off into musical reverie, “Adiós Mi Viejo San Juan,” which speaks of the songwriter’s (Noel Estrada) pain in saying goodbye to Old San Juan when he has to go to a “strange nation.” She sings, “Adiós, adiós, mi diosa del mar, mi reina del palmar. Me voy, pero un día volveré, a buscar mi querer, a soñar otra vez, en mi Viejo San Juan. (Bye-bye my goddess of the sea, my queen of the palm grove. I’m going, but one day I will return, to look for my love, to dream again, in my Old San Juan.)”
Cruz was one of 13 children, eight sisters and five brothers. She recounts how her father passed away when he was only 45 and how hard it was on her mother. Despite her love of the island, Cruz set off to America in 1939 at age 17, to live with her sister who was living in the Bronx. “I take care of her young kids while she works, and then, in a few years, she helps to find me a job and I go to work,” says Cruz, who worked for Macy’s, in a factory, making suits and “sewing buttons on by hand.”
She says that she liked to work, but struggled at first with the new language. “I studied English when I was home, and that helped when I came to the US,” she recounts, “but then I had to speak it!” She and Cerero laugh and go back and forth in English and Spanish. Asked what made her stay, she says that she “got married here. I married old! 35!” She and her husband had one son, Luís, who she explains got a “good education and went to community college in the City.” She’s proud of having been able to raise him and help him with his education, adding that she “wanted to have more kids, but I could only have one.”
Besides her daily communion with God and singing, Cruz says that her favorite activity is swimming. “I love swimming. I teach my son how to swim. We go every Sunday after church to Orchard Beach as a family and we swim together.”
Asked what she enjoys about the States, Cruz cites the ability to work and “Christmas. I love Christmas,” she says. Despite being able to find the same ingredients to cook the cuisine she grew up with on the island, Cruz says, “It never tasted the same as home. My sister and I, we cook all the time, but it tastes different. At home we would pick the plantain off the tree. Everything was fresh and local. Now everything is in a grocery store.”
She says that she misses “everything” about Puerto Rico and her home on the western coast, Mayaguez. “There is dancing all the time there, and music. There is always music.” Then she continues to sing about the beauty and dreams and love and childhood that were all part of the landscape in Puerto Rico.
“She sings like a canary at 99 years of age,” says Cerero. “It’s amazing, and her laugh is infectious.”
Asked what has helped her to live such a long, healthy life, Cruz says that she “goes to bed early,” that she puts her “strength in God,” and that “When God tells me it’s my time, then I’ll go, but he hasn’t called me yet.”
Cerero explains that back in November of 2020, Cruz became very ill with COVID. “I would talk to her through the door,” she recalls. “She knew she was sick, but she didn’t know it was COVID, and she would tell me, ‘God is calling me,’ and I would say, ‘Not yet, Romanita, it’s not your time yet!’ And after she got better, she was so grateful and happy to be alive.”
“I sing because it makes me happy. It makes me feel good to remember all of the things that I have lived through and gone through and that I’m still here and able to sing and to dance.”
To be in the company of Cruz as she sings is to be transported to another time and another place and then find yourself at peace with where you are, because the Sun rose, and it will likely set, and no one has called you home just yet.