Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Nebraska Farm Girl in Puerto Rico, 1940

Even the drive from the hotel in San Juan to a home in Arecibo intrigued Virginia. The ride in a car with two other teachers cost her $1.00, but she had to send her trunk and another bag by express, so she was expecting a bill for that, too. The road, lined with trees on both sides, wound through the hills and valleys. Along the way, she saw “people walking everywhere, some carrying things on their head, some pushing a wheelbarrow filled with avocados, payayas, etc. some leading a skinny old horse loaded down with green bananas.” She saw dilapidated looking “houses built up on stilts, pineapple and sugar cane fields—double yokes of oxen pulling walking plows.”1 Nothing looked like Nebraska.

The home where she stayed was spacious and comfortable, however. She wrote to her parents: “What a lucky girl am I! I came over to Arecibo yesterday morning and am now comfortably settled in a nice Puerto Rican home,” the home of Juan and Carmen Garcia who owned a store in town. Others in the home included the Garcia’s two teenage daughters Rina and Zorita; their niece, also named Virginia, a home demonstration agent who worked with 4-H clubs; and a married couple, also Puerto Rican.2

Besides our Virginia, the “Americanos” in the house included Alexander “Al” Sullivan, an English teacher from Worcester, Massachusetts who was entering his second year of teaching on the island.3 The Garcias were expecting two additional teachers and a social worker to arrive soon to add to the number of boarders. “And if that isn’t enough,” Virginia writes, “I might mention the colored servants,” four of them. The house was large enough that it didn’t seem crowded.4

The piazza in front of the house particularly fascinated Virginia. It teemed with “little ragged dark-skinned urchins running everywhere playing in the narrow dirty streets – beggars and street venders going up and down in front of open shacks crying out in Spanish. Some of them barefooted with big straw hats and some of the urchins absolutely naked. Then again you see Puerto Rican men and women very well dressed carrying their umbrellas, going shopping, etc.”5 It was a mixed bag.

Virginia Troutman in Puerto Rico, 1940.
She described her first breakfast with the Garcias: “Puerto Rican cheese and crackers and a big soup bowl full of oatmeal, but you would never recognize it as oatmeal.” She took time to find out how it was made: “They take oats, soak them, pound them up and run them through a sieve until they get a starchy juice. Then they add sugar and milk and cook it. It tastes like custard with an oatmeal flavor.” She liked it better than oatmeal at home. To top it off she was served “a tall glass of iced peach juice and a cup of hot chocolate.”6 Not bad at all.

On Sunday, she attended high mass with the Garcia women and Al Sullivan. Afterward, they went to the casino. Back at the house, guests filtered in and out all afternoon, and two of the anticipated boarders arrived. Later in the evening they went dancing where drinks were served. “Imagine me getting away with a Cuba Libre / Coca Cola and rum. And then ready for school. Oh me! Oh my!” she wrote in a daily diary.7 She wouldn’t dare put that in a letter to her parents.

She met Mr. Andras, her superintendent who assured her that if she got homesick for American food, she could come to his house and bake her favorite pie. Andras explained that there were two schools, Jefferson and Roosevelt, but they didn’t know for sure which would be her assignment.8

The day before Virginia was to start teaching in Arecibo, she didn’t know what school, what grade, what subjects, nor even the time of day school started. She felt apprehensive. Sullivan tried to reassure her that there wasn’t much to do the first week and “as much as you see fit to do thereafter.”9

The next day, she faced her students. “Imagin[e] . . . my feeling of helplessness,” she writes, “being led into a room with eighty black eyes peering at you and being told, ‘This is your room.’ No paper, no pencils, no books, no chalk and pupils whose knowledge of English is limited . . . to a few nouns. Well one must start someplace. . . .” Later she went to the store and purchased notebooks, ink pens, and a clock. After supper, she worked on her class roster. “My heart goes out to the poor little creatures . . .,” she writes, “and I’m afraid I’m falling for a little fellow who is very striking in black and white, Victor by name.”10

The next day went a little more smoothly. She had one boy in the class, Raymond Cliville, who had lived in New York and spoke English well. At 3:30, Sullivan stopped by and they walked to the Garcia home together. Her books arrived that evening and she began making plans to teach English vocabulary building. She was teaching the slower learners and they were rowdy. Other teachers told her there wasn’t much she could do with them. That was discouraging, but Virginia was determined.11 Even visiting Sullivan’s classroom was discouraging. It was much nicer than hers, and he seemed to be taking everything in stride.12 On Friday, she lost her self-control with the children. She didn’t tell exactly what happened, but she was hoping nothing came of it, and she was she very glad it was Friday.13

That evening, Gallega, a new friend, invited her on a planned weekend trip to El Yungue, a popular mountain recreation area. “It should be an experience,” she writes. “100 sandwiches, 72 bottles of Coca Cola, and 9 quarts of rum which all adds up to ??”14 That should be a great stress reliever.

On Saturday, after laundry and ironing, the group left for the mountain in two cars. She rode in Felix’s car with the other Virginia, Marian, and Sullivan. In the second car, with Gallega driving, rode Julio, Paco, Thelma, Willie, and Margot. They arrived after dark and hauled their gear using flashlights along a path and across a river. They spread out a blanket and shared their food and drinks. At a restaurant nearby, they enjoyed more drinking and dancing. Exhausted and a little tipsy, they finally went to their cabins, one for the men and one for the women, and slept.15

On Sunday, they swam and socialized in much the same way.16 On Monday, they piled into their cars and drove back down the mountain. They stopped at Luguillo Beach, where Virginia swam in the ocean for the first time in her life.17 All in all, it was a rowdy and refreshing weekend for a Nebraska farm girl in Puerto Rico.

Post Card depicting El Yungue (from booklet)
Virginia's note on back of post card.

1 Virginia Troutman, Arecibo, Puerto Rico, to Mrs. Clint Troutman, letter, 24 August 1940; relates news from her adventures in Puerto Rico, her new home, people she met, and teaching responsibilities; Troutman Letters, CD compiled by Leo W. Nelsen, Jr., copy privately held by Z. T. Noble, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE] Anderson, Indiana.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Virginia Troutman, Record, diary, 25 August 1940; contains daily entries from 10 August 1940 through December 1940; original privately held by L. W. Nelsen [ADDRESS FOR PRIVAE USE], St. Louis, Missouri; scanned copy sent to the author.
8 Virginia Troutman, Arecibo, P. R., to Mrs. Clint Troutman, letter, 24 August 1940.
9 Ibid.
10 Virginia Troutman, Record, 26 Aug. 1940.
11 Ibid., 28 Aug. 1940.
12 Ibid., 29 Aug. 1940.
13 Ibid., 30 Aug. 1940.
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid., 31 Aug. 1940.
16 Ibid. 1 Sep. 1940.
17 Ibid., 2 Sep. 1940

© 2017, Z. T. Noble

Friday, June 2, 2017

Virginia in Puerto Rico: On the Boat and In the City

On Thursday, 15 August 1940, my dad’s sister, Virginia Troutman, age 24, “bid Miss Liberty ‘Goodbye’ promptly at 5:00 o’clock,” two hours later than scheduled,1 from the deck of the ship SS Borinquen,2 a passenger liner built in the United States in 1931.3 The names on the passenger manifest were mostly Puerto Rican, with the exception of eleven, including Virginia, whose address in San Juan was “Department of Education.”4 Apparently, Puerto Rico’s Department of Education had been recruiting teachers from the United States. But that was not the only factor for Virginia. A former teacher from Winside High School named Ashford lived there with his wife and children and taught in one of the schools.5 He had likely encouraged her to come.

That boat ride was rough. She wrote to her parents that she and her fellow passengers “enjoyed their supper immensely,” but “only a few good sailors held on to theirs.”6 She was not a good sailor. “From then until about two I thought I’d die,” she adds. “Then I went up on the deck hung my head over the rail and let the wind and the rain beat down upon ‘poor sick me.’” She had apparently gotten a recent perm for her hair, for she adds parenthetically, “(You should have seen the new permanent the next day.)”7

After her stomach was sufficiently emptied, she collapsed into a deck chair. Then help came. “The night steward found me . . .” she writes,  “and made me comfortable with pillows, blankets, and ice cold lemonade.” Shortly, other sick passengers began to filter to the deck. She wasn’t able to eat the next day, but by Saturday and Sunday, she was adjusting to the motion of the ship, and food was looking appetizing again.8

On Saturday during a life-saving drill, Virginia learned the difference between first- and  second-class travelers. The former enjoyed access to a “swimming pool, sports deck, tea room, ball room and what not.” As second-class passengers, she and the other teachers were crowded into the back of the ship with no amenities. That was disappointing to learn.9

The ship docked in “the quaint old city”10 of San Juan, Puerto Rico on Sunday, August 19.11 Virginia expressed relief to have solid ground under her feet again, although she still felt the rolling of the ship. She drew a wavy line to illustrate.12

Virginia's first letter home from the Palace Hotel, San Juan, P.R.
The teachers were soon ensconced into rooms in the Palace Hotel where Virginia roomed with Idamay Demmors, age 23, a teacher from Boonton, New Jersey, whom she found to be “very nice.”13 Their room was “huge [with] two large beds, clothes closet, desk an [sic] bath. . . , large balcony windows and no screens. . . . And of course we have huge mosquito nets over our beds.”14 This was a far cry from the farmhouse room she shared with Neville in Nebraska where many families still had outdoor toilets.

The best news was her teaching assignment in the city of Arecibo, population about 13,000, which was a “choice assignment.” She felt relieved to learn that she would not be the only American teacher there. Idamay’s assignment was good, too, but in the mountains.15 Virginia felt a little apprehensive about being the only teacher who didn’t have a four year college degree, but her five years experience must have given her the confidence she needed. 

Envelope of letter to Neville, 22 Aug. 1940, 3 cent stamp.
She and the other teachers spent the first week in San Juan seeing the sites. She notes that American soldiers and sailors stationed there “can be seen most any place and any time of the day.” She adds, “A homesick kid from N.C. took us through the old fort of San Cristobal yesterday.”16 The teachers would leave for their teaching assignments on Friday.

Virginia’s adventures were just beginning.


Besides Virginia and Idamay, the other Anglo-American teachers bound for Puerto Rico traveling on the SS Bourinquen from the U. S. included the following17:

Martin Dubner
New York
New York
Robert Friend
New York
Joseph Kavetsky
New York
New York
Helen Louise Murphy
Martha Rowinkel
Margaret Roeb
Mary Cornelia Roberts
St. Louis
Martha M. Robinson
Fall River
Eugene W. Robinson
Dorothy Marie Soully
New Haven
Helen Vrabel
New Jersey
Katherine Sarah Yeagle
Kansas City

Virginia noted that several Puerto Rican teachers from the States were included in their number on the Borinquen,18 but their names are difficult to distinguish from other Puerto Rican passengers since their addresses do not include the designation “Department of Education.”

1 Virginia Troutman, San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Clint Troutman, letter, 20 August 1940, relates news of her travels to Puerto Rico, the voyage, her living conditions and placement for teaching; Family Letters, CD compiled by Leo Nelsen, Jr.; copy privately held, by Noble [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE] Anderson, Indiana.
2 “Puerto Rico, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1901-1962,” citing Virginia Troutman; digital image ( : accessed 27 May 2017).
3 “Borinquen (1931),” Wikipedia ( : accessed 30 May 2017).
4 “Puerto Rico, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1901-1962,” citing Virginia Troutman, 15-19 August 1940; digital image ( : accessed 27 May 2017).
5 Virginia Troutman, San Juan, P. R. to Neville Troutman, letter, 22 August 1940, sends birthday greetings, a gift and several postcards, and tells about meeting with Ashford and his family; Family Letters, CD compiled by Leo Nelsen, Jr.; copy privately held, by Noble [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE] Anderson, Indiana. She never mentions a second name for Ashford.
6 Virginia Troutman, San Juan, P. R., to Clint Troutman, letter, 20 August 1940.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
11 “Puerto Rico, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1901-1962,” citing Virginia Troutman, 15-19 Aug. 1940, p. 11.
12 Virginia Troutman, San Juan, P. R., to Clint Troutman, letter, 20 August 1940.
13 Ibid. Also, “Puerto Rico, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1901-1962,” citing Idamay Demmors, 15-19 Aug. 1940, p. 9.
14 Virginia Troutman, San Juan, P. R., to Clint Troutman, letter, 20 August 1940.
15 Ibid.
16 Virginia Troutman, San Juan, P. R. to Neville Troutman, letter, 22 August 1940.
17 “Puerto Rico, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1901-1962,” citing names and page numbers noted chart, 15-19 Aug. 1940.
18 Virginia Troutman, San Juan, P. R., to Clint Troutman, letter, 20 August 1940.