In celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, the FREC highlights the Puerto Rican roots and Detroit legacy of Carmen Nieves Ortiz Frohman.
Carmen Nieves Ortiz Frohman keeps the story of her family close. Organized in two neat binders with plastic sleeve protectors, Carmen is proud of the documents and photos that bring her family’s story to life.
Carmen shares the story of her family’s Puerto Rican heritage and how her Afro-Latino roots has shaped the woman she is today.
Before coming to mainland America, Carmen’s grandmother, Petra Ortiz Pacheco, worked at a gift shop in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “One day, some sailors came in and I don’t know what ended up happening, but she got an offer to be an au pair for a general in the Navy,” Carmen said.
“She came here on a ship in 1945 and stayed in Philadelphia for several years before meeting my grandfather, John Paige. Eventually, they decided to call Detroit their home.”
In order to carve out a better life for her family, Petra had to leave her two children, Victor and José, behind in Puerto Rico with her mother. Petra’s mother owned a restaurant called La Cocina where Carmen’s dad and uncle helped out.
“During the hot summers, when they weren’t working at the restaurant, they would swim all day, everyday and hang out at the family sugarcane plantation,” Carmen said. “Each month, Petra would send money home, until she was able to bring her sons to Detroit.”
Victor and José (Carmen’s father) landed in Detroit and things fell into place. Petra and John started their new life on North Martindale Street. To this day, the house on Martindale is still occupied and owned by their family.
“My father loved Detroit, but Uncle Victor didn’t,” Carmen said, “He ended up moving to New York because he felt the culture mirrored his old life in Puerto Rico.”
Victor went on to work at a clothing factory in New York City, but visited Puerto Rico annually. With memories of his old life mixed with the hopefulness of his future, José unexpectedly fell in love with a girl.
“He met my mother, Dorothy Patricia Jean Lee, at a party. At the time, my father still had a thick accent and didn’t speak a lot of English,” Carmen said.
“My mom was in the Spanish club at Highland Park High school and she was fluent. That’s how she was able to communicate with my dad. They hit it off right away.”
After they got married, José started working at Chrysler Detroit Diesel. Dorothy was a nurse and also worked at the Playboy Club in Detroit. She was one of the first black bunnies, Hugh Hefner hired at the time. Soon their family expanded. They had three children: José Antonio, Esperanza Del-Rio and Carmen Nieves.
Family Life And Culture
“Growing up, my dad and mom would teach us words and phrases in Spanish,” Carmen said. “I can read it, understand it and speak it a little, but I regret not becoming fluent. One day, I’m going to download a language app and learn. I know it won’t take me that long.”
Carmen remembers her dad as a great chef. He would make festive dishes from his country that consisted of rice and all types of beans. “He loved plantains and bananas,” she said. “He always made something different for dinner for us to try.”
While reflecting on her grandmother’s words, Carmen laughs while going through pictures neatly aligned in a large black binder.
“My grandmother said you can always tell if someone is Puerto Rican because we talk a little bit faster than most and come in many shades.”
“In school, I was never treated different. People would look at my name, but no one said anything to me,” Carmen said. “I always knew who I was and I was proud.”
“There wasn’t a difference of, ‘oh you’re black and Puerto Rican.’ I was just me,” she said.” Me and my siblings were raised to never forget where we came from and who we are. That’s how me and my husband raise our kids. We embrace our culture.”
Carmen and her sister Esperanza, planned to take a trip to Puerto Rico, but Hurricane Irma happened. Luckily, the family that’s still lives there survived.
Before gently tucking away her family’s history in two black binders, Carmen paused thoughtfully.
“It’s really important for me to celebrate my culture because its something that can be passed down from generation to generation. I’m proud and grateful that I can share these stories and memories with my children,” she said. “In the end, that’s all you have left.”
Kyla’s family and friends describe her as a walking Encyclopedia when it comes to everything pop culture, beauty, fitness and fashion. Kyla knew she wanted to be a writer when she began writing short stories and poems for her family. A true Michigander at heart, Kyla graduated from Wayne State University with a degree in journalism and attended Specs Howard School of Media Arts. Along the way, she has interviewed everyone from, Idris Elba, Kerry Washington, Jack Kevorkian, Robert Kennedy Jr., Joel Osteen, Russell Simmons and Wiz Khalifa. After a stint working at a psychic shop and producing shows for an all talk radio station on iHeartRadio, Kyla landed at The Detroit News, working as an editorial assistant and reporter. She worked at PBS Detroit, as a social media manager before joining the Urban Content Studios team. When she is not writing, Kyla likes to spend time with family, shop and compete in fitness bikini competitions.