Story and Photo by Lee Gutowski
It’s the Vernal Equinox of 2021, and befitting the beginning of Spring, all beings are cycling into the season of renewal and beginnings – some think of it as rebirth. There is a sense of anticipation, tempered with trepidation, as all manner of living things come out of slumber, out of darkness, and for humans, out of the 2020 Pandemic. Whew! And on, to new ways of living.
Jen Cintrón and I chatted (on the Vernal Equinox, as it turns out) about her time living in Riverwest and her decision to move back to her childhood hometown, where her parents and two grandmothers still live — Aibonito, Puerto Rico. For Jen, this Spring is about preparing to fledge the nest after 17 years here in Milwaukee, many of them in Riverwest. She’ll head to Puerto Rico at the end of May and be a resident of Aibonito for the first time as an adult.
“Aibonito is a small town in the mountains. It’s called the Town of Flowers, or Pueblo de las Flores,” Cintrón smiles. “There’s a flower festival there every summer, and the place is filled with garden nurseries.” Her mother’s retirement plan is to start a nursery and grow flowers. “My mom called me and asked what I’ve got lined up for the summer. She said, ‘If you want to work, I’ve got work for you,’ and after lots of deliberation, I’ve decided to go help her with her new business growing flowers.”
“By the time I was 17, I was fed up with the expectations that were put on me about how I needed to be performing my femininity, and what being a young woman meant … I was so sick of it, I left as soon as I could,” Jen says. She graduated high school and came to the U.S. to attend Knox College in Galesburg, Illiinois.
Her closest relative in the States was an aunt – her mother’s sister – who lived four hours from Galesburg in a suburb north of Chicago. “I don’t think my mom would have allowed me to come up here if not for that.”
She started studying music and creative writing at Knox College, but “I didn’t have the discipline for it,” Jen reflects. “And I had sort of an imposter syndrome going on because English is my second language, and I was studying writing in English and I felt like nothing that I ever did was going to be good enough or up to par … Anyway, between the anxiety of going to school and dealing with culture shock, I ended up having my first major depressive episode.” Jen dropped out of Knox … but that led her to Milwaukee.
“Milwaukee has become my home. And I ended up here by coincidence. When I dropped out of college, I went to live with my aunt in northern Illinois, because I didn’t want to go back home defeated,” Jen chuckles. She met her (now ex-) husband via Match.com when it was first starting to be a thing. He was a student at UWM, and it was at his suggestion that she check out Milwaukee and UWM since she wanted to go back to college anyway.
Science, then music
Jen was about to start school at UWM when she was involved in a car accident. Her injuries included a broken leg. “When I asked the doctors to explain to me better what was going on, I didn’t understand. I never again wanted to be in the dark about my health or the health of those I care about. That’s when I decided to go to med school, like my parents wanted me to.”
She majored in biomedical science at UWM and earned her bachelor’s degree. She then took the MCAT (medical school admissions test) and did well with a score of 38.
“But once again I had to write an essay for the admissions process, and I just kept stalling and stalling and stalling which was my issue with my creative writing … I pretty much waited until the last minute before I put in my medical school application, and that was basically self-sabotage.”
Though she didn’t make it into medical school, she does work in the health and wellness realm – but on the spiritual side. Jen does good business now as an astrologist and psychic, under the name Jericho Rose Oracle (where you can find her on Facebook). Her tagline is, “Scientist by training, intuitive by birth.”
She was inspired in large part by her maternal grandmother (“She eased my transition into this plane. I had allergies to everything, including breastmilk”). Her grandmother, who was a “curandera” – a healer who uses folk remedies – treated her sickly infant grandchild by administering medicinal herbal teas she made herself and other traditional treatments.
Music is what made her stay
When Jen’s six-year marriage ended in 2010, she was yearning to sing again and play guitar. She wrote her first song at 16 and has played guitar since she was 8. “But I’ve been singing since I was born. My mom says when I cried, it was like having an opera singer in the house, it was like (sings a loud, vibrato-laden note) ‘Waaaaaaah!’”
Around then, she started getting back into music. “Because before that I was all about science. I hadn’t sung or played guitar regularly for like 6 years. I missed it. I’d started going to the open mic at Bremen Café in like 2008. And that’s where I met Phil Schwinn and Gareth Lippe, who were 2 of the original members of 4th Street Elevator … They invited me to jam with them at Phil’s house where they practiced and asked me whether I knew how to sing Bésame Mucho. I said well of course, I know how to sing Bésame Mucho, I grew up in a Spanish-speaking country!”
Playing with Schwinn and Lippe, she learned a ton about music and gained confidence in her ability to improvise with melodies and sing jazz.
With Cintrón on vocals, 4th Street Elevator played their brand of “hot jazz/swing” for about 10 years, from farmers markets to clubs like Caroline’s and even the Pfister Hotel. Jen still sings, writes music, and accompanies herself on guitar, but of course in 2020, public appearances went away.
Still, she is hopeful about her future in music. “I really want to explore the music thing at home (in Puerto Rico). We’re a very musical people. I think I could get something going there.”
From her home in Riverwest to her home in Puerto Rico
“It’s been an emotional time, with a lot of crying,” Jen explains. “Because I do love Milwaukee. I’ve stayed for 17 years, you know? I never thought I would stay here this long because of how cold it is in the winter,” she laughs. “But I’ve met a lot of great, great people.”
“The pandemic has been really hard on all our mental health. With the isolation, the lack of live music, the vibrancy of the city having gone underground, not seeing people for like weeks and months on end … It made me realize that when the world feels like it’s falling apart, I want to be close to my family.”
hat said, going back to Puerto Rico as an adult, she thinks she’ll be better able to stand up for herself as a woman. “Things are changing now. There’s actually talk in the media about what a huge problem there is with violence against women (and the) huge problems with discrimination against LGBTQ folks and … there are protests going on. None of that was happening when I left, 21 years ago.”
Jen will never stop doing music, never stop doing her tarot business. But now is the time to go home. “I just want to go back to the mountain.
Where it’s quiet, and I have family, and I can help grow flowers.”