Bill Sarno CTLatinoNews.com
A good way to get a sense of what Aida Carrero and the senior citizens program she directs at the Casa Boricua de Meriden means to many of Meriden’s elderly Latinos is to visit the center around 1 p.m. on a week day.
This is when about three dozen of “our seniors,” as Carrero refers to them, pack up and begin to head home after a morning of games, reminiscing, some spirited conversation, a bit of salsa footwork and a warm lunch. One after another, the women, many born and raised in Puerto Rico, approach Aida to kiss her cheek and, in Spanish, to express their thanks and intent to return the next day. The men, less numerous than the women but just as Hispanic, salute the indefatigable site director with a tip of the cap or a wave and a cheery hasta manana as they too head out.
What draws these people, some in their 70s and 80s, to a tight space in 110-year-old converted minister’s residence on Colony Street may be ungraspable for those who equate senior centers with the city’s multipurpose operation on West Main Street where there are lots of recreational opportunities, aerobics, breakfast and lunch and even a bilingual social service worker on staff.
But what Meriden’s Latino’s residents, especially those whose family members have attended the Casa Boriua center, fully grasp and greatly appreciate is what Aida (she pronounces her name like the title of the Verdi opera), often working alone with limited space and resources, has achieved. “The people love her,” said Councilman Miguel Castro, adding, “Everyone in in town knows Aida.”
“Aida is the face of what social services and nonprofits should be,” said Castro who has worked with Carrero, among other things, through the council’s human services committee. “She is the right fit for what she does,” he said.
Meriden’s collective gracias to Aida Carrero was recently communicated through a special presentation at the Puerto Rican festival in Hubbard Park, a surprise for a woman who Castro said is “the most humble and modest person” he has ever known.
Recalling that moment, Carrero said, “When I heard them ask Aida Carrero to come to the stage I thought it was for someone else with that name.”
However, as the Puerto Rico-born mother and grandmother soon learned, she was being honored for her contributions to the city’s elderly, as well as the work she and her husband Genaro have done with local young people.
The recognition included a plaque and numerous laudatory proclamations from U.S. Senators Christopher Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty, the state Legislature and the City Council.
The city’s senior center may offer more amenities and services, but the older Boricuas may have a hard time adapting to the food and find this site less accepting of their language and culture. “There is no connection, engagement there,” said state Rep. Hilda Santiago, whose mother has attended the center for a half dozen years. “The seniors feel alive and useful at Casa Boricua,” Santiago said,
Moreover, Carrero fosters a comfortable, family atmosphere. “Here you are home and no one tells you to speak English,” says the bilingual site director. While the group is comprised primarily of Puerto Ricans and some Mexicans, in recent years there has been a sprinkling of people from other Latino countries and even someone from Spain, Carrero reports.
To see Carrero in action is to see a woman in nearly perpetual motion. “She is constantly jumping up to get something for the seniors from the storage room or kitchen or to answer questions,” said Martha Colaresi, program director at the Casa Boricua, which plays host to the program.
The general consensus is that Carrero could use more space for her program, but within the limits of the first floor layout, Carrero, aided by volunteers and a boost from her family, manages to make the senior lives easier and a bit richer from 10 a.m. to about 1 p.m.
This includes directing the seniors to community resources and helping them fill out forms, showing them how to use a computer, and making sure they have a nutritious warm meal.
In addition, Santiago said, “Aida is always there to remind them of Puerto Rico.” This includes celebrating Three Kings Day and other holidays in the way many recall from their younger days. At Christmas, Easter and on Mother’s Day, Carrero has gifts for their seniors and on birthdays she stages a party which she calls a parranda.
The seniors enjoy the music from their Hispanic homelands, and the music from a Puerto Rican station frequently fills the room. At least once a year, several local men will bring guitars and other instruments, with their music encouraging singing.
Most of all the seniors like to reminisce about their younger days in Puerto Rico or in Mexico. Sometimes the men discuss a sport, especially wrestling, Carrero said. The discourse can be spirited and a bit loud or subdued enough that the sound of dominoes clacking on the table will mix with the music playing in the background. “It can get noisy, but in a nice way, Colaresi said.
Being at the Casa Boricua, the seniors have easy access to various social service programs, such as case management that the Hispanic community agency provides upstairs.
LifeBridge Community Services, a nonprofit organization based in Bridgeport, provides the funding for the site director, some volunteer stipends and manages the federally subsidized nutrition program. A food service prepares the meal and delivers it to the center.
LifeBridge tries to accommodate the tastes of the Hispanic seniors, Carrero said, although that was easier years ago when the center had its own stove and prepared Puerto Rican dishes.
Carrero, who describes herself as “strong-headed,” has learned patience and even how to tolerate someone who might be a bit troublesome. “This too shall pass,” she says, echoing what a priest told her.
While Aida loves the people under her wing, Colaresi observes, she also is willing to apply some tough love. “She is not shy to tell people to behave themselves,” the program director said.
Over the past 36 years, Carrero has got to know many of the city’s Hispanic families. Some of the seniors represent a second generation at the center, with their parent having previously attended.
“I know all their stories,” the site director said, and the toughest part of her job, said Carrero, her eyes filling with emotion, is when one passes away. She h as never missed one of their funerals, she said.
In the late 1970s, the Catholic Archdiocese ran the senior center at a church on Liberty Street. It was at this location that a bit of Latino kismet transpired.
Carrero took her mother to the center occasionally and one day the director suggested that she work part time there. Aida hesitated to say yes because she had to take care of her two young children, Naomi and Gennaro Jr.
The site director said Carrero could bring the children with her and thus opened a door to a family involvement that spans three decades.
Aida’s two children grew up at the center and now have given her five “grand babies,” the eldest in his 20s, for whom she always has time, she said. It helps that the youngest spend time at the center during the summer.
Through the years, the Carrero family has been very generous and have provided the center with many resources, Colaresi said.
Gennaro Carrero Sr., is retired and joins his wife of 44 years at the center regularly, presiding over the domino games. He and Aida also have devoted many years to serving as youth advisors at St. Rose of Lima Church. “We used to go to a lot of retreats,” she said.
Support also comes from Gennaro Jr., who is chairman of the Casa Boricua board, as well as from a sister, Polly Morales, a volunteer at the center.
Aida and Polly are the youngest of ten siblings, who along with their mother and grandmother, in 1956 followed their father, who came earlier from Puerto Rico to Meriden to find employment.
Aida made a return trip to the island in 1970. However, this visit was cut short and she does not intend to return, with a biting explanation. “The mosquitos were waiting for me at the airport,” she said.
Both of Aida’s children attend Wilcox Tech in Meriden and Genero Jr. has a college degree in industrial technology.
Aida said she always wanted to get a college degree herself, “but then the kids came, I got this job and liked it,” she said. “It is a good rewarding life,” she said. “There is a lot of love in this place.”
As for retirement, Aida said, this is not something about which she gives much thought. And this is a good news for Meriden, because, according to Castro, “she is irreplaceable.”