The Boyish Warrior
I wanted to learn how to be responsible in telling another person’s story and not betray their humanity. Every month I interview, write about, and photograph people to empathize with their life in the hope of understanding what makes them unique.
Words by Gabriela Hernandez-Santiago, a New York based photographer, writer, and public health advocate.
Jaime’s Story: Korea
Después de un buen tiempo allí
en un barco me montaron
y para acá me mandaron
más gordo que lo que fui…
At six feet tall, Jaime Rodriguez stands at the door. He stands not in a commanding manner typically thought for a decorated veteran, but with an air of boyishness wonder. Jaime, or Rodriguez as his wife adoringly called him, still holds with him the enthusiasm for life and innocence he carried with him to Korea in 1951. When asked if he experienced the fear associated with going to war, he answers “No! I was excited!” echoing a time when the prospect of adventure and pension could lure young men into an inherited war.
“It was fine.” Jaime simply states of his two-year tour in Korea including a life and death situation while in the trenches. Unaware of the password to identify the opposition (“Brown sugar” he says in hushed tone) he was approached by his Sergeant Clark. “Rodriguez! You could have killed me!” The matter was resolved with a trip to the base in the front seat of the Sergeants’ Jeep. Jaime beams with honor as he recounts his VIP status.
Jaime’s return after his tour was not met with fanfare, after all, the Korean War still raged. In lieu of a ticker tape parade, his wallet was stolen somewhere along the 5,650 mile stretch between South Korea and San Francisco. The possibility of returning home seemed bleak until one of his infantrymen offered to drive those who needed a lift to their hometown. After weeks of traveling across the Pacific, by plane to New Jersey – excluding a layover in Oakland to fix a broken engine - and an additional three days and three nights on yet another boat, Jaime was returning home to Coamo.
This was his first trip outside of the small Caribbean island of Puerto Rico.
Jaime’s Story: Puerto Rico
Upon his return, Jaime looked forward to the pension he would soon receive. There was no question as to how the money would be spent. “It was like cardboard”, he humorously described the state of his childhood home ornamented by buckets collecting rainwater. He paints the scene of young Puerto Rican men filing into an official government building; eager for their reward, yet trained to maintain a stoic façade. “Do not ask stupid questions!” they were ordered. Jaime could not contain himself. The promise of a leak-free roof was in sight so he inquired into the pension. “I told you not to ask stupid questions!” The image of a new roof quickly dematerialized when he left the room. “Oh my God. I wanted to cry.” motioning toward his throat as he remembers the choking sensation brought by defeat.
In deus ex machina fashion, a woman appeared asking what was wrong. “Go back to the room”. Jaime did not question her resolve. He slipped in unnoticed to continue the assembly. A few weeks later, Jaime received a letter from his mother. By this time he had already made his way to New York as one of many who were part of the Puerto Rican diaspora of the 1950s. A photo of their newly renovated home was also enclosed. Even through the aged sepia, one can see a vision of magenta and turquoise surrounded by jade green palm trees. His mother would receive $500 a month in pension.
At every detour, Jaime is met with luck. He undoubtedly credits his mother’s prayers. A skeptic would flinch in disagreement, but the amount of good fortune received throughout his life cannot be overlooked.
He tells the story of when his mother took him to Iglesia San Blas de Illescas located in the center plaza of Coamo. The preparation consisted of many bathing trips to the river until he appeared decente, and putting on his Sunday best: a plaid shirt and plaid shorts. He went to church with his mother completely covered in squares. As they were leaving, he lost her in the crowd. "Mama! Mama!" he shouted, only to find her holding the hand of another cubically dressed boy. When she realized her mistake, she let go of his hand to collect her real son. Jaime wonders to this day if the boy is still wandering lost or has turned to stone waiting for his mother, similar to el perro de piedra*.
Jaime’s Story: En Nueva York
Jaime continues to lives in the South Bronx where he moved almost 60 years ago. In that time he married the love of his life (breaking the hearts of many admirers while doing so), raised three girls, and is a presence in his grandchildren’s lives. As gentrification is seeping into the discourse of Bronxites, Jaime’s stories, collection of written work and photographs makes time stand still. His experience is not so much a textbook case of “aging in place”, but aging with a strong familial foundation, faith, and a sense of levity in even the most serious of situations.
…De lo lindo había gozado
antes de llegar aquí
Pero aquí fue que aprendí
Que si amas serás amado.
Aquí ame y fui feliz
Aquí fui y soy amado.
- Jaime Rodriguez, Mi Regreso de Korea, 2001