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

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