Ed Romero

Ed Romero’s father, Rafael (later known as Ralph), first came to the mainland United States around 1936, when he was 20 years old.  After working in Brooklyn for a few years, he served in the Army during World War II, and then returned to Puerto Rico.  He soon found that he couldn’t support his family very well on what he could earn there, so he returned to Brooklyn in 1943.  While he was looking for work there, he heard that jobs were available in the steel mills in Youngstown.  So he took the train to Youngstown and was hired at Sheet and Tube within days of his arrival. Except for one short period, he worked there 31 years, until he retired in 1974.  He was the first Puerto Rican to settle in Youngstown.

Ralph Romero  was married with four children at that time, but his wife was ill with tuberculosis, and she died in 1945.  Meanwhile, he had met Matilde on the boat as he was returning to New York after a trip home to Puerto Rico to visit his wife and children, who had remained on the island.  They became friends, and after his wife died, Ralph and Matilde married.  She came to Youngstown in 1947.

She found Youngstown very different from Brooklyn, where she had lived in a neighborhood full of other Puerto Ricans.  Here, the family lived in Campbell, in an apartment above the New York Restaurant on 10th Street, right across Wilson Avenue from the mill.  Ralph could walk to work.  Matilde (who went by the name Martha) quickly found herself with a ready-made family.  She gave birth to her first child, Nidia, in 1949, and she took care of the four children from Ralph’s previous marriages.  In 1950, Ed was born, completing the family.  He was the first Puerto Rican boy born in the Youngstown area.

Like many working-class neighborhoods in Youngstown, immigrants and migrants from many places lived side by side and interacted comfortably.   When Martha went back to work at the lunch counter of Geordan’s store a few years after Nidia and Ed were born, the children were cared for by a Greek grandmother who lived up the block.  They attended St. John the Baptist Church, and the church school, which was largely Polish.  At the same time, as more Puerto Ricans began to come to the area, most settled in Campbell and on the East Side, because they wanted to be near others who spoke their language and shared their culture.

In the early 50s, the family moved a few blocks away, to a house on 7th, still near Wilson Avenue.  By that time, Ralph had become involved in helping others make the move from Puerto Rico to Youngstown.  For a while, he helped the Youngstown Sheet and Tube company recruit and settle new workers from the island, and in the early 50s he worked for a couple of years for the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services, providing new arrivals with assistance in finding jobs and housing.  The Romero family also provided temporary housing for new arrivals.  Ed describes how his father had refinished the basement level of their house with a separate entrance and kitchenette, and a series of “uncles” stayed there when they first came to Youngstown.  Ed and his sister always looked forward to the “uncles” coming home from the mill.

Both Ralph and Martha spoke English well, which made their transition into American workplaces and neighborhoods relatively easy.  They had been taught English in school in Puerto Rico, during the period soon after the implementation of the Jones Act in 1917, which made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens.  Many of those who arrived in Youngstown did not speak English so well.  Even in the Romeros’ home, Spanish was the primary language – at least until it was time for Nidia and Ed to go to school.  When their teacher told the parents that the children needed to learn English, Ralph and Martha stopped speaking Spanish with the children.

In part because so many in the Puerto Rican community retained Spanish as their primary language, the local Catholic Diocese began to offer masses in Spanish in the late 50s.  A German priest, Father Richter, spoke Spanish and conducted the masses in the basement of St. Columba’s and at St. John the Baptist.  Ed remembers being an altar boy and helping to serve mass in English at one church, in Polish at St. John the Baptist, and in Spanish in the basement of the cathedral.

Around 1960, the Puerto Rican community, with the help of the Diocese, took over an old church on Himrod, between Lane and Fruit streets, and established St. Rose of Lima.  Father James Channel led the parish there.  The group later moved into the Coitsville High School building.  As the second generation of Puerto Ricans moved away from Campbell and the East side, many joined churches closer to their homes, and St. Rose became too small for the large space of the high school.  Today, the parish meets at St. Lucy’s, a primarily Italian church, though they still hold a weekly Spanish mass.  Over time, the community has expanded to include Latinos from Mexico and Central America as well as Puerto Rico.

That intermixing of Hispanics from different countries has not been easy.  In Youngstown as in other communities, divisions rooted in different histories and cultures sometimes keep people apart despite a (mostly) shared language.  As Ed explains, the local Mexican and Puerto Rican communities have different histories.  Mexicans settled in this area starting in the 1910s, so by the time the Puerto Ricans began to arrive, they had become fairly assimilated.  But they also had a different relationship with the U.S.  Although the national boundaries of U.S. encompass a large portion of the land that was once Mexico, Mexicans were required to go through a formal process to become citizens, even though most came to this area legally.  Meanwhile, the Puerto Ricans were citizens when they arrived, because of the Jones Act.  Other differences have also created problems, such as language.  While Hispanics share a common language, they speak with different dialects and use slightly different vocabulary.

We can get a sense of how their different histories shaped the interactions among different groups of Latinos in the local community by looking at the history of OCCHA, the Organizacion Civica y Cultural Hispana Americana.  The group was formed in 1972, largely to provide support to the continuing influx of Puerto Ricans, now moving to the area primarily from other American cities, but also to advocate for the rights of Hispanics in the civil rights era.  The group worked initially to assist Hispanics in employment and other equal opportunity issues, and they offered English as a Second Language classes, including classes to help children prepare for American schools that provided instruction almost exclusively in English.  Along with helping to form OCCHA, Ed worked for a similar group in the Cleveland area, the Spanish American Committee for a Better Community.

While Puerto Ricans didn’t face discrimination in their working-class neighborhoods, since, as Ed explains, most of the neighbors had similar backgrounds though in different parts of the world, they have faced some discrimination in the broader community.  Ed recalls his parents and his godfather, Pedro Colon, going to visit the mayor in 1953 to protest comments by a couple of city councilmen suggesting that the influx of Puerto Ricans was a threat to the community.  By that time, the Youngstown area had a few thousand Puerto Ricans.  The councilmen apologized.   Ralph Romero continued to be involved in local politics, helping to register Puerto Ricans to vote and arranging for local candidates to meet with members of the Puerto Rican community.  About 30 years later, the first Puerto Ricans began to run for local office, and others, including Ed and his brother-in-law Henry Guzman, served in government positions.  Ed was chief-of-staff for Youngstown Mayor Philip J. Richley, and Guzman, who was the first to run for a position on the local school board, ultimately served in Governor Ted Strickland’s cabinet. Ed remembers his father playing an active role in local politics, not by running for office but by helping those who were.

Over time, Hispanics from a number of different countries have become involved with OCCHA, in part, Ed suggests, because newer arrivals have needed continued assistance, while many in the Puerto Rican community have gone to college, moved to suburbs, and begun to assimilate.   As Ed explains, many in his generation have married people from other ethnic backgrounds, and while their children still think of themselves as Puerto Rican, they speak little Spanish.  Ed predicts that over time, the Puerto Ricans will be seen as no different from any other immigrant group.  They will have traversed the long path from arriving unprepared for the cold northern winters to becoming much like the Irish or Poles – just another ethnic group.

Download the full transcript of Ed Romero’s interview.

One Response to “Ed Romero”

  1. Adelaida Santana Pellicier says:

    My name is Adelaida Santana. I lived in Kent during the late 50’s through 1988. I have a vague memory that my parents knew your parents in the 60’s and 70’s.

    I am conducting interviews in Youngstown of Puerto Ricans who migrated from La Isla in the 1940’s and 50’s. I would welcome interviewing you. Please visit my facebook page for more information or contact me at 520-320-1008.

    I will be in your area May 5-11. Please contact me.

    Adelaida Santana

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