Ramonita Rivera Saez was 25 when she came to the United States with her two sons. While the majority of Puerto Ricans settled in East Harlem, the Bronx, or northwest Brooklyn, she joined a growing community of Puerto Ricans in the Lower East Side.


An unidentified Puerto Rican mother boards a plane in this massive migration from Puerto Rico during the 50s-60s. These newcomers moved into the recently-vacated apartments of Eastern European Jews and Italians, and also into their recently-vacated chairs behind sewing machines.

Ramonita found work in a garment factory; entering an industry that would employ her for the rest of her life.

The Garment Industry

Ramonita was proud of her union, Local 23, and was given an Honorary Life Membership Card when she retired.

My mother worked a lot. Believe me, a lot.

Jose Velez

Becoming American

Jose points to his eight-year-old self (in suit and tie) in his PS42 class photo. English was the only language spoken at NYC schools, and Jose credits his bilingualism to the city’s first Spanish television channels, broadcast out of New Jersey.

Jose befriended an Italian boy named Eddie Salerno, who told him about an empty apartment at 103. The two of them joined the Boy Scouts.

Shortly after the family moved into 103, Jose learned the landlord was looking for a super. Even though he was only sixteen, he got his mother to sign for him and he was hired right away.

He also did odd jobs for local businesses; fixing broken windows and making deliveries. He remembered turning on the lights for a synagogue on Saturdays, for which he’d get a dime. “Hey,” he told one interviewer. “A dime is a dime, you know what I mean?”

I’ll be real frank here, I was like an immigrant trying to make a dollar.

Jose Velez

Keeping Tradition

Ramonita worked long hours, but everyone who knew her said she was an amazing cook. She’d soak beans in the morning before she left for work, and Jose and his brother would turn them on when they got out of school. But on the weekends she would prepare lavish meals for friends, family, anyone who came to the apartment.

In the mid-1970s, Jose met Migdalia Mangal (center). Though she lived in Puerto Rico, Jose was very interested. It was relatively inexpensive to fly to Puerto Rico from NY on Pan Am, and he returned several times.

After Jose met Migdalia, he went home to his mother and played a Spanish love ballad by Camilo Sesto, saying, “Mommy, I’m getting married, with this one I get married.” They did indeed get married, and Migdalia moved into 103 Orchard Street, where they shared the super’s apartment.

While Migdalia studied education at Fordham University, Jose worked as a maintenance man at Soladaridad Humana, a grass-roots, community-based, comprehensive bilingual education program based in an abandoned public elementary school on Norfolk Street. Solidaridad served adult Latino residents, a group that the center’s founders considered ill-served by the public education system. By 1980, Solidaridad had taught English to 4,500 Lower East Siders.

There was always music in our house.

Jose Velez

Once they had children, he and his wife Migdalia moved back to Puerto Rico to raise them. When Ramonita became ill in 2011, Jose and Migdalia brought her back to Puerto Rico.

I remember Ramonita as a great woman, a great worker. I get sad because she was a great human. A loving mother. Her children were the light of her eyes.

Migdalia Velez

Even up to the days before her death, she would listen to music and dance in the living room.