By Eloisa Ruano Gonzalez
At a time in history when it was “unpopular” to be Puerto Rican, Frieda Montalvo proudly displayed and defended her heritage.
She organized social clubs for Boricuas who had migrated to New York City. She collected shoes and clothes for Puerto Rican children who couldn’t afford them for school. Montalvo, who later moved to Orlando, also fought for parents’ rights in the work force, voicing concerns during union meetings.
After decades honoring her heritage and her people, Montalvo died Thursday at Hunters Creek Nursing and Rehab Center from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. She was 96.
“She tried so vainly in her life to make others see and understand Puerto Ricans. She was trying to keep the focus on the real people, not the stereotypes,” said her son Angel Louis Montalvo, 70, of Orlando. Puerto Ricans often were rejected by the rest of Americans, despite the island being a U.S. commonwealth, he said.
“It’s no different than what’s happening now to Chicanos in Texas. It’s the same story, the same prejudice,” he said.
Despite the turmoil, Montalvo helped organize the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York, a celebration that has continued to draw millions of spectators and celebrities since the 1950s. Other cities — including Orlando — have adopted similar festivities.
Montalvo, who was born in Lajas, a city in the southwest end of the island, had come from an upper-middle-class family that ran a lucrative grocery store. Her father was among the first people on the island to own an automobile.
When political instability and poverty hit the island, Montalvo — one of 12 siblings — decided to leave for New York. It was the early 1930s, and she was in search of new opportunities, her son said. She found a job in the garment district as a seamstress and raised enough money to send for her family.
She quickly made friends and helped organize popular social clubs, including the Needles of Gold, a group for seamstresses. Through her clubs, she became politically active and met important leaders. Her involvement in the community helped her land a job with the city, her son said. She worked her way up in City Hall, holding different positions.
She also attended night school at a college. Even after retirement, she continued to take art classes.
“She was a driven person. Education was important for her at time when most women didn’t [attend school],” said her daughter-in-law Julia Montalvo, 65.
She was well-known among politicians, including former New York Mayor John V. Lindsay, her son said. She even served as “night mayor,” or a press aide, when the mayor decided to keep City Hall open 24 hours a day, he said.
“She made sure the Hispanic community and Puerto Rican community were recognized,” her daughter-in-law said.