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DIANE MAKAR MURPHY Bittersweet memories of immigration



Published: Tue, September 4, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Nida Rentas was a 7-year-old country girl living in the mountains of Puerto Rico when her family took her to the sooty streets of Campbell to live.

Her story will be featured in "Far From Home: Stories from Immigrant Children to the Mahoning Valley," a children's exhibit opening Sunday at the Arms Museum, as part of a free Founder's Day event.

Both Nida and her husband came to the Valley as children, leaving different environments in Puerto Rico -- Joni from the city, and Nida from the central mountain range.

"I was born in Coamo," said Nida, a Spanish teacher at The Rayen School. "I didn't think of us as poor though we used to bathe in the creek. I had enough food. My mom made our clothes. We didn't have as much as the haves, of course -- with five children, we would wear our shoes out quickly, so we carried them to school, and after washing our feet in the creek, put them on for class -- but as far as I knew, I was rich."

But post-World War II times were hard. Nida's father, Perfecto Ortiz, left for New York to pick fruit. He took a six-month position to pick strawberries near Buffalo. "We missed him terribly each time he went," Nida said.

Steelmaking job: About to fly home after one stint, Ortiz met another Puerto Rican at his Philadelphia layover who said Youngstown had good steel jobs. That night, a policeman found Ortiz and his new friend in the Youngstown bus station and called up a college professor to act as interpreter. The next morning, Ortiz and his friend were hired by Youngstown Sheet & amp; Tube, "with no English and no skills, and their suitcases by their sides" and went to work in the clothes they had on. He sent for his family in 1952.

"Imagine, you have five people to send airfare at over $200 a ticket," Joni marveled. "While he's working here, he sends a check home and a check to his mom who he also supports and then saves at least $1,000. And he's making $50 a week."

To Nida, Puerto Rico was paradise, and she missed it. "I dreamed of it," she said. But she immediately loved the four seasons. The food, however, was so different she regurgitated her first school lunch, choosing to eat lunch at home thereafter.

It was in Campbell that Nida learned of segregation, when a black Puerto Rican friend was not permitted to sit with her family in the movie theater.

Tried migrant work: Joni's move to the mainland came in 1951. His father, Guainabe Rentas, was a produce wholesaler who also made moonshine rum before the government cracked down. "A guy told my father he could make lots of money in the fields," Joni said. With his most lucrative business gone, Guainabe took the risk and left for New Jersey.

He discovered migrant work was "not for him," and when two Puerto Ricans mentioned good work in Lorain, Ohio, Guainabe took the money in his pocket and bought bus fare for them all.

He put in applications at two mills and was hired to work later that week. Upon hearing Youngstown mills put people to work on the spot, he went there. Youngstown Sheet & amp; Tube made it possible for Guainabe to send for Joni, his sister and mother in six months. When his letter arrived telling them to come, Mrs. Rentas began selling off their furniture.

Relatives left behind: "I was happy," Joni said, "but I recall my grandfather picking me up -- he was 6 foot plus with huge farmer hands -- and saying, 'The saddest day of my life will be the day you leave,' and he had tears in his eyes."

Leaving family behind was difficult, and the transition to a new English-speaking school was, too. Both the Rentases were put back two years, later skipping grades as their English improved.

Another person featured in Mahoning Valley Historical Society's exhibit will be Edna Pincham, whose trip to Youngstown as an 18-year-old black Southerner is recounted in Thursday's column.

murphy@vindy.com




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