For a full year, 10-year-old Joni Rentas was without his father in Puerto Rico. The elder Rentas had gone north to find work in the steel mills.
Then one day, in 1951, the letter his mother had been waiting for arrived. Postmarked Youngstown, Ohio, it read, in part, "Sell everything and come now."
"I don't remember mom happier ever," Rentas, a retired Youngstown firefighter, recalled recently from his Campbell residence.
Rentas' story is one of several to be featured in a new Mahoning Valley Historical Society (MVHS) exhibit for children at the Arms Museum. "Far From Home: Stories from Immigrant Children to the Mahoning Valley" opens 1 to 5 p.m. Sept. 9, as part of the free Second Annual Founder's Day Open House.
Kid-friendly: The exhibit will feature kid-friendly displays such as hands-on exhibits and eye-level photos. An immigrant child is defined as one who came to the Valley as a child. Featured are interviews from Puerto Ricans who migrated to Ohio, a woman from the American South and immigrants from other countries.
"We hope it will encourage children to look beyond their own worlds," said Elizabeth Nohra, MVHS assistant director. "We want them to ask, 'Who is Youngstown?' and 'What is Youngstown?' And, if they haven't thought about it, maybe encourage them to love our Valley's rich diversity."
According to Nohra, the Historical Society has never done a full-blown children's exhibit before. "Adults will enjoy it, but all the copy will be understandable to children 6 and up. And we will have hands on things for those under 5 as well," she said. "There will be books, a multicultural puzzle, and a guided tour."
Hands-on: Confined to a small, but interesting space, the exhibit will take children through an immigrant experience from packing their prized possessions for the trip, to arriving at Ellis Island, then on to their first homes (sometimes a boarding house) and jobs (usually in the mills).
"We have a boarding house bed," said Kathy Richter, an intern from YSU's Historic Preservation Department who is assisting with the exhibit. "It's uncomfortable and ugly." But well used, according to Rentas who recalled his father's boardinghouse experience in the 1950s.
"They paid for the bed, but since they worked in shifts, the boardinghouse owner rented the same bed to more than one person," Rentas said.
Nohra and Kathy pored over records from the International Institute, a local agency that promotes cultural diversity and preserves many immigration records.
"I found alien registration records with names, birth dates, the ships they arrived on, saw photos of people, and newspaper clips," said Richter.
Interviews: From there, the two tried to locate people for interviews. Eventually, they had deposed people of Hispanic, Lebanese, African-American, Hungarian, German and Italian heritages and hoped to continue until the exhibit opens.
"The challenge is to include as many cultures as possible. But when you look at the Mahoning Valley you'd need a building to house such an exhibit," Nohra lamented. With just 10 percent of MVHS's collection on display at the Arms Museum, space constraints are a frequent complaint. "But children won't think of what you didn't include," Nohra said.
Instead, they will get to experience a little of what children experienced in the past. The journey from Europe, Puerto Rico, even the Southern United States was an unforgettable one for many child migrants to the Valley.
Joni Rentas and his wife, Nida, share their complete story in Tuesday's column, while Edna Pincham recounts a long train trip north, accompanied by Jim Crow laws.