Ramonita Rivera Saez was 26 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.

Brothers, Andy (pictured) and Jose were 8 and 7 years old when they migrated to New York City. The family was part of a migration that brought close to half a million Puerto Ricans to New York
City between 1940 and 1960.


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

Young woman sewing on a Singer sewing machine. Black and white photo.
Ramonita Saez sitting on a rooftop with her hand on her cheek.

Ramonita found work in a garment factory on East Broadway and she worked there for over 30 years.

The Garment Industry

She would go early in the morning and get back five, or six o’clock at night. That must have been rough as a seamstress.

Andy Velez

She would march when they had parades. She would be the first one there with her girls.

Andy Velez

Ramonita was proud of her union, Local 23, and safeguarded the Honorary Life Membership Card she received upon retirement.

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

Jose Velez

Becoming New Yorkers

Jose points to his eight-year-old self (in suit and tie) in his PS 42 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.

The brothers befriended an Italian boy named Eddie Salerno, who told them about an empty apartment at 103. Eddie also introduced the brothers to his boy scout troop on Hester Street. Both boys became very involved, and Andy later became a Boy Scout Leader.

Shortly after the family moved into 103, Jose learned the superintendent position was open. Even though he was only fifteen, the property manager hired him, with Ramonita’s signature.

“A dime is a dime, you know what I mean?” – Jose Velez

Jose 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.

Jose and Andy graduated high school in June of 1968. Jose remained the super of 103 Orchard Street. Just days after graduation, Andy received this draft notice.

“I graduated June 18th, and by July 17th I was gone.”  -Andy Velez

Andy entered the Air Force and served for six years. Puerto Ricans have a long and important history in the United States Military. 18,000  fought in World War One, 58,000 in World War Two, 61,000  in the Korean War, and Andy was one of the 48,000 Puerto Ricans who served in Vietnam.

After basic training, Andy came back to marry Jennie Perez, his high school sweetheart. After the marriage, Andy returned to his post and Jennie moved in with Ramonita.

One morning, while waiting in line for breakfast, Andy heard his name called. It turned out to be a childhood friend from Orchard Street. Here he is posing in front of the Saigon War Memorial with Freddie Vangus, a friend from his Hester Street Boy Scout troop.

After we married, I lived with her for over a year … A lot of the recipes I learned to do them by her.

Jennie Vargas

Keeping Tradition

Ramonita worked long hours, but also developed culinary skills that earned her status as 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.

Three people, one man and two women, sitting in a living room looking away from the camera.

In the early 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 they maintained a long distance relationship while she finished college.

Pan American plane docked at JFK Airport on a sunny day.

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 in 1976, and Migdalia moved into 103 Orchard Street, where they shared the super’s apartment.

Migdalia and Jose both became involved with Solidaridad Humana, a grass-roots, community-based, comprehensive bilingual education program based in an abandoned public elementary school on Norfolk Street. Migdalia taught English and Jose worked in maintenance. 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

After they had children, Jose and his wife Migdalia moved back to Puerto Rico. Andy and his family returned to the neighborhood, and Andy took over the role of building super. In this picture, Andrea, Andy and Jennie’s second child, meets her new 103 neighbors.

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 Mangal

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

Ramonita was extremely proud of her grandchildren and their accomplishments. She lived to see them all become “professionales”. Today her grandchildren and great grandchildren live throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.