I was born in Naranjito, Puerto Rico, a great little town in the center of the island. When I was 11-years old, we moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut and when I graduated from high school in 1962, I joined the Marine Corps. I was sent to Guantanamo Bay during the Cuban Missile Crisis and from there to Okinawa, Japan.
While I was in Japan, I volunteered to go to Vietnam. Back in 1964 no one knew what Vietnam was all about, so we said, “Yeah, we’ll go.” I suffered a head injury- sniper shot me in the head in 1965 and was sent from Vietnam to Japan, then to California, and finally to Massachusetts for rehabilitation. I was in the hospital for about three months and my mother decided to move to Boston. I guess she wanted to be near me. We moved to Boston’s South End in 1965 and we’ve been there ever since. The South End is where the first Puerto Ricans settled in Boston. My mother and I opened one of the first Puerto Rican restaurants in Boston, called, “Rincon Borinqueño.”
Ivan Gonzalez, Chico Muñoz, Alfredo de Jesus and I organized a couple of baseball leagues. One day, Chico Munoz was in Mandela Park and he was picked up by the police. He was thrown into a wagon and taken to the station. Ivan Gonzalez, who was a union president in Puerto Rico, went down to the station. He was upset and said he was going to burn down the city. So they locked him up and charged him with anarchism. We went to court and of course the case was thrown out. But we decided we needed to get more involved in the community. We wanted to show the City of Boston who we were.
In 1967, we wrote proposals and founded the first Puerto Rican organization in Boston, called the “Association Promoting Constitutional Rights for Spanish-Speakers.” We also helped build the first health clinic in the South End. We created the Puerto Rican Festival and the first one was held in 1967 in the “Parque de los Bones” (where a lot of people used to go to drink). There were just a couple of thousand people at the Festival then, but it was fabulous!
In 1972, there was a riot. For 11 days, a “war” ensued in Boston. I’ll never forget when Mayor Kevin White called me and said, “Tony, they’re burning down my city.” So we gathered people together in the South End and worked with city officials which was not always easy. We were able to come together and demand respect from the police and other government agencies. Back then people didn’t even know that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens.
Eventually I went to work for Mayor White as Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Health and Hospitals. While I was there, we hired about 800 Puerto Ricans to work for the City with the help of the “Association Promoting Constitutional Rights for Spanish-Speakers.”
People didn’t know that Puerto Rican men and women were soldiers who fought for this country. Boston was the first city in the nation to dedicate a memorial to Puerto Rican veterans. It’s located in the South End and I am so proud of this achievement.
I love Boston. It is a great city.
If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change anything. I will continue to be active. I just signed a contract for another 100 years!