Over 200 locals from Llanos barrio (neighborhood) were there when José Abelardo, known as Pepo, was surprised on his 90 birthday celebration. His seven children and eleven grandchildren arranged the ‘gran fiesta’ in Aibonito, their homeland.
The event was held on their big patio of the Hacienda, where Don Pepo had lived for more than six decades. Accommodating several table and chairs, a big lechón asao (roasted pig) with arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) were served, and all kind of succulent homemade desserts that were prepared by different guests.
Don Pepo’s granddaughter invited me to the festivity that brought me back to my childhood. While children were running around, panting dogs and purring cats were following them, mingling with the people, as part of the family. A joyful uproar of laughs and typical conversations blended with the lively music of a group of musicians. Improvising bombas, (a folklore narrated song), many people joined in, spontaneously expressing verses that followed a theme, and swirling our bodies, several cuatros, güiros, and maracas, among many another instrument, orchestrated the music.
The great fiesta lasted until the early hours of the morning. After most of the guests had left, Don Pepo invited us to sit with him in the Terraza of their big house. Thousands of twinkling stars covered the sky that graciously descended while the soft chords of a guitar and the soothing notes of a coquí (tiny tree frog) created a background melody.
“Don Pepo, why do people call you the illustrious jibarito?” I asked him, catching a glint of pride in his dark and old eyes.
“I lived with my folks in a barrio not too far from here. My father was a farmer, teaching me all that stuff you learn in college when you study agriculture. He knew the secrets of mother nature, religiously following the moon phases to make sure the crops would fully grow.”
“Instead of getting a car on my 18 birthdays, I got a yegua (female horse), taking me the potra (female horse) to places where our antecedents, the Taínos believed its energy was sacred. When I was ten years old, señorita Peña, a well-spoken and young teacher, taught me one of the most important lessons of my life, “self-acceptance.” She inspired me in many ways to feel proud of my origin. I was living a sheltered life in my small world in Aibonito, learning through my Viejo (father) to worship our nature.”
“When the destructive hurricane known as San Felipe hit the island in 1928, with the recession, most crops were destroyed. I was very young, remembering my folk express his lament with anguish. Therefore, I dropped out of school, deciding to help my dad on the farm. As I always remembered señorita Peña, I was very proud of my labor and origin. Then, when I began to travel in my yegua to Old San Juan, hoping to sell my father’s crops, a group of young men that I approached started to make fun of the way I talked, calling me with sarcasm a “jíbaro.” That was the first time I felt ashamed of who I was.”
“Back home, I shared with my dad how my day went. He quietly listened to me, focusing his big, dark eyes on mine, and after inhaling the tabasco from his pipe, he said, “Mira mijo (look son), let me give you advise, more than words or looks, elegance is a feeling you project. It has nothing to do with the clothes you wear or the way you talk. When you know who you are with pride, you carry that feeling with grace. So instead of paying attention to how others perceive you, focus on who you truly are, and others will respond to that.”
“Those words stuck with me for years. From that moment on, instead of feeling shame, I followed my Viejo’s advice, carrying myself with elegance. I made a choice to work at his farm, instead of going to college. However, one day I asked señorita Peña for suggestions on how I could improve my speech. She suggested a few online courses and even helped me to register at a local high school to get my diploma. I was determined to get educated, so in no time, I got a degree in Agriculture.”
“The Puertorican jíbaros,” don Pepo continued his dialogue, “emerged in the 16th century with the blending of the Pre-Columbian Taíno and Spanish European cultures. They were country folks from the mountains who were farmers and laborers. During the Spanish colonization, they worked the field and plantations of the hacendados (Spanish landowners). Even though they were not slaves, like the ones imported from Africa, they were impoverished and uneducated.
However, they expressed their artistic gifts through their voices in music and painting. Just like the Indian Taínos, they were highly creative and fabulous artisans. They created many of our percussion instruments. The cuatro, a guitar developed by them, became the national instrument of Puerto Rico and were globally known.”
“Don Pepo, do you think jibaritos still exist?” I asked him, perceiving in his nostalgic eyes the answer.
“Within the last generations, especially the new millennium, we have lost many of our customs. However, instead of disappearing, they have evolved into a more refined Boricua (Indian word for Puerto Rican).”
“As I began to educate myself, I realized being a jíbaro is an honor because of our Taíno heritage. By proudly carrying myself with grace and elegance, everybody started calling me “Pepo, the illustrious jibarito, as I have taught my family to feel proud of who they are.