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The Riveras

The Rivera Familyby Peter Schmidtke / photograph by Peter Di Antoni

From the living room of their two-story home on Holton Street where they have lived for 21 years, Luis and Ada Rivera recount the turn of events that led them to claim their own part of the American Dream. Ada knows that her father made sacrifices. She speaks admirably of Jorge coming to Milwaukee years ago at the young age of 16 after his older sister made the journey to Wisconsin from southern Puerto Rico. He sweated in a greenhouse, a job Ada knows he hated, and he worked two and three jobs at a time so that he could open a grocery store on Center and Buffum. “He came to work and make money for his parents,” says Ada, now a nurse at Bell Therapy. “He ended up staying in Milwaukee and writing letters back to Puerto Rico to the girl he said he would always marry — my mom.” Now 58-year-old Jorge is retired and spends time traveling back and forth between homes in Milwaukee and Puerto Rico. And no doubt he is proud of Ada and her husband Luis, an operating engineer, and their four children, Luis Jr., Maria, Adalis, and Jorge. Ada and her three brothers and sister were born and raised in Milwaukee. Ada herself spent most of her childhood in the 2200 block of Holton, moving to the west side as a teenager when her father bought a house close to the brewery after securing a job in the canning department. A nurse since graduating from Alverno College in 1988, Ada works full-time at Bell Therapy and does a couple of shifts a month at St. Michael’s Hospital. She met Luis while he was in the hospital having surgery for a motorcycle accident he had back in Puerto Rico. Ada wasn’t a nurse yet, but a cousin of Luis’ who went to Alverno College with Ada invited her to visit him. After he got out, Luis invited her to a dance. Luis, who operates heavy equipment for Edgerton Contractors in Oak Creek, was born in Puerto Rico and arrived in Milwaukee just over twenty years ago. He refused to come at first, even though his younger siblings were living here with a cousin. “They used to call me and ask for me to come over, but I didn’t think I would like it,” Luis says. Although Luis praises the beauty of the mountains and the tropical forests that surrounded his Puerto Rican village, it wasn’t long before a motorcycle accident and more frequent calls from his seven brothers and sisters in Milwaukee caused him at age 22 to purchase a one-way airline ticket to Wisconsin. But unlike Ada, who grew up in Milwaukee, Luis didn’t know English. A “word here and there” was the extent of Luis’s English. “The English that I know, I learned from classes through work and at MATC,” Luis says. “And through radio and this,” he says with a laugh, gesturing to the television sitting in front of the family room. Although she spoke only Spanish until she went to elementary school, Ada has found herself over the years called into service as an impromptu translator. A family at St. Michael’s who adopted a boy from South America required translation, and Ada was there to help. In her current role at Bell Therapy, Ada is a bilingual nurse, where she has translated for patients in the emergency room. “It has a lot to do with the parents,” Ada says regarding their children’s different abilities with the language. “Luis did a lot of talking in Spanish to Luis and Maria, but when he needed to pick up the English, he did a lot of talking in English to them.” As a result, the younger children, Adalis and especially Jorge, learned more English at home. “For me, I always wanted them to be bilingual and to be able to speak English and Spanish,” Ada explains. “I always felt that if you’re Puerto Rican, you should at least be able to speak the language.” All four of their children went to La Escuela Fratney, or Fratney School. Their oldest child, Luis Jr., 19, is now in Puerto Rico volunteering for Youth With a Mission, an international, interdenominational ministry. The next in line is Maria, 17, who is herself taking Spanish at Riverside and will be attending UWM next year to major in kinesiology. Adalis, 11, goes to the Lincoln Middle School for the Arts and went to Colorado last summer for archaeology camp. Jorge, 7, attends Fratney School and took fourth place in a recent talent show for a harmonica performance. Ada and Luis speak admirably of their children’s accomplishments. It was her own father, she says, who pushed her to apply to Alverno. “He’s the one who basically took me by the hand and registered me there.” She claims that many Puerto Rican fathers would not have done so, given that the traditional role of the woman in Puerto Rico is that of housewife. “I think what made him change his mind about that was coming at such a young age and seeing the things you needed to make it here,” she says. Three years ago her father and her mother, Brigida, were able to build a house in Puerto Rico. That, she says, was always a dream of his. “That’s what I’m planning to do,” says Luis with a chuckle, after returning with an icy Coca Cola for their guest. “When I get old.” Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 5 – May 2003
The Rivera Family

Luis and Ada Rivera with their children.