Carmen Perez Abreu was a seamstress, reluctant activist, and pioneer. She was born in April of 1931. Her given birthdate is the 13th, but the cost of registering a birth, financially and physically, meant that births were accumulated before registered. Her father, Florentino, made the lengthy trip every few kids. With 11 children accumulating documentation was easy. So, Carmen was given the 13th of April. This was the first, and last thing, she accepted without questions.
Carmen loved a few times, was widowed once, fled an abusive partner and her final marriage ended in divorce. She had one child in 1955, Carmen Delia. Her second pregnancy was complicated and ended her dream of additional children. She survived an abusive relationship only to become a young single mother. Instead of accepting this fate, she decided to illegally migrate to New York City, the first in her family to do so.
She arrived in NYC in the middle of winter, with a carry-on, kitten heels, and a handful dollars. Her memory always centered on her dad’s inability to support her as she embarked on this trip. He promised her cash and an outfit. But he failed her, the same way he failed her mother, Ramona. Florentino walked away from Ramona and their kids to start a new family. Carmen was a young girl when he brought his new wife around. She made it her mission to terrorize her stepmother and would regularly startle her donkey or spill whatever coffee the woman gathered. She departed to NYC without saying goodbye to her father.
The family that received her facilitated the passport she used to travel. As payment she became their maid and paid a boarding fee. She would sleep in the living room, eat scraps, and freeze her toes on her commute to the factory in Brooklyn. Those first few months she dropped 20 pounds. A colleague took pity on her and donated a bag of winter clothes to her. This colleague also helped her find a distant cousin who rescued her from her keepers.
This cousin paid off her debt and took her on her first trip to an American supermarket. He allowed her to pick whatever she wanted and gave her a couch to sleep on. She began putting on weight and sending money home. It would be 15 years before she could return to the Dominican Republic. The independence that NYC had given her suited her spirit. Once she learned to navigate the trains, nothing could stop her.
Once she became a legal resident she returned to her homeland, married, found work and provided for her daughter. She experienced the 70s in kitten heels and was able to bring her daughter to NYC. Her grandson Jose -- born in 1977 -- remained in the Dominican Republic. In 1980 her granddaughter Ramona was born. Rafael followed in 1987; Dionis in 1989.
She made a home at 91 Ft. Washington Avenue on 162 street until getting a senior apartment at Mitchel Houses. She lived here for 29 years enjoying her retirement surrounded by friends and family. Although retired she continued to hold jobs, or volunteer, always seeking to be of service. She was a foster mom, fed seniors at a nursing home, and worked at a local senior center. But it was in her role as grandmother that Carmen found most satisfaction. She would ride trains all day with the boys, always in the first car… so they could imagine they were conductors.
Her relationship with her granddaughter Ramona was different. At an early age they developed a friendship. In between sarcasm and jokes that only they understood, they spent countless hours building a bond. They could be with each other 24 hours, wake up the next day and still have something to share, even if that thing was silence. The last few years of her life, Ramona became Carmen’s primary care giver and roommate. Carmen had spent 89 years being a fixer, bold and independent. But through Ramona’s care she was allowed to relax and finally experience childlike carelessness.
Carmen spent her last years playing bingo or dominoes daily with her best friend Rosa, taking day trips to casinos, and being a reluctant activist. Her granddaughter taught her how the election process worked, how to campaign and door knock! How to organize public housing tenants. In 2018 Carmen was featured in the Seniors at Mitchel Houses calendar. In 2019 she appeared in the New York Times as part of a collection of stories that explored resilience among public housing residents amidst the COVID 19 crisis. Carmen embraced her celebrity enthusiastically and beamed anytime her granddaughter appeared in an interview or was recognized for the community work she led.
COVID changed things for Carmen. She no longer saw her friends daily. Like many she became restless, but she wore her masks and when reminded she washed her hands for the length of a song. In November of 2020 she tested positive for COVID 19 and survived it. After spending weeks in the hospital, she returned home eager to go get her nails done. Carmen loved a good manicure and a week before getting sick, Ramona had treated her to a mani/ pedi. That gel manicure, symbolic of their relationship. Carmen had seen her primary doctor that day. She loved seeing Dr. Guillen… he always made her feel like she was his only patient and could do no wrong. But during this appointment Ramona complained about her, saying that she wasn’t listening! That she was doing too much. That she needed to listen more and be more aware of her age! Dr. Guillen agreed…
Carmen was livid. She hated getting in trouble! Ramona surprised Carmen with a mani/ pedi in hopes that she would forget the betrayal. She didn’t completely forgive Ramona, but she loved that mani/ pedi. During the days that family was unable to visit because of COVID restrictions, the daily reports Ramona received regularly mentioned the mani/ pedi. Carmen made it a point to show off her nails during each round. When Carmen reentered the hospital, her nails were a frustration. Over three weeks Ramona slowly filed off that manicure. One nail at a time, she and Carmen shared moments of joy, like they always had…
A non-denominational memorial ceremony will be held in honor of Carmen in the spring of 2021.
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