By Yansi Murga
Raquel Vidal is a community volunteer who directs a Queens church pantry that helps hundreds of local residents. The retired communications and advertising executive shared some highlights about aunts.
Vidal, who has a seemingly endless amount of nieces, nephews, and great and great-grand nieces and nephews, says she would rate herself “as a wonderful aunt.” She was born in Puerto Rico and was one of eight siblings, six from her mother and father’s marriage and two from her father’s previous marriage. Her family eventually moved to New York City, where she grew up and lives today. Vidal credits the aunting she practices today to her mother who, despite living far from her own nieces and nephews, “was present in their lives and shared in many of their joys and sorrows.” She would always write, call, and/or send gifts to them on special occasions all the way from the United States to the Dominican Republic, where the majority of her family remained.
Sharing her mother’s oral history
As her mother was the only one of her siblings to migrate to the United States, Vidal grew up far away from her family in the Dominican Republic. The extent of the memories and interactions that she has with them is through oral history presented to her by her mother. Supplementing these oral histories are the trips she had a chance to take to the Dominican Republic as a teen and adult, as well as her mother’s little grey memory box with treasured family photographs. At the NYC dinner table, her mother would perform what was the ceremony of recounting the memorable stories behind every photo, a tradition continued by Vidal and her sister Sara after their mother’s passing.
Becoming an aunt
Since becoming an aunt herself, Vidal does as her mother did with her. She shares foundational family history with her nieces and nephews. The Vidal sisters never married or had children of their own. So, they were always the aunts who were available for everyone. Sara, she says, was “the keeper of the flame of oral history.” Unlike her, Auntie Sara could spend hours on the phone telling family stories to her nieces and nephews, something Vidal misses dearly since her sister’s passing. Still, Vidal— or Auntie Raquel— often assumes this role because she believes that family history holds value in the lives of her nieces and nephews today.
Black Puerto Rican heritage
So what pieces of family history did they pass on? Well, as much as they could. Vidal and her sister told their nieces and nephews about their grandfather who was born in 1901 in Puerto Rico and was the eldest of three brothers. About his mother, their great grandmother, who was born in 1868, not long after the emancipation of enslaved Black people in the United States. She was a very motivated woman and worked hard cleaning the homes of wealthy people in order to give her son the opportunity to go to college. Which is exactly what he did. He was a college graduate— a feat that was unheard of at the time for a Black Puerto Rican like him. He was the only one in his family who went beyond a high school education, later became a professor, and even attended seminary school to become a minister and missionary.
They also told their nieces and nephews about their maternal grandmother who was one of six children born and raised in the Dominican Republic during the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. About the brother who was killed in the military when he was in his early twenties and the deep trauma it caused her. About how later she left home at the age of 18 to become a Seventh-day Adventist— also unheard of at the time for a young, unmarried woman with a strict Catholic upbringing. About how, at the age of 26, she met the man that would soon become her husband, and much later would become their grandfather. “Every step of the line has a story all its own”, Vidal says. “Every branch of the family tree has so much to say and, unless you tell [oral history], people will be deprived of something that could be foundational in their lives.” Oral history, she believes, is educational; “it allows them to form a foundation in their own lives out of something that existed before.”
Intentional memory creation
Equally as important in her aunting practices is the act of intentional memory creation—something that can become what she calls “a sibling rivalry of sorts, but of service.” She explains that “doing something with Auntie Raquel, whether it is sharing a holiday meal, going on a school break vacation, or doing something for [my niece or nephew] has an aura all its own. I have the opportunity to out-do and out-serve my siblings.”
‘Camp Auntie Raquel’
She recounts, for example, that when her nephews were younger, their mother would put them in day camps over the summer. One year, they were asked what summer camp did he want to attend and her nephew Daniel said he wanted to go to ‘Camp Auntie Raquel.’ “They still talk about that today!” she says. “None of my siblings can claim that beautiful piece of Daniel’s history. It becomes part of your individual connection.” She concludes, “there’s room for this sibling rivalry when everyone is working together to create wholesome nephews and nieces.”
Teaching about Nelson Mandela
Raquel remembers when she and her sister Sara took their 5-year-old nephew Andrew to a Nelson Mandela rally. To this day, her nephew remembers a Jamaican, Reggae song that was playing out of a car when they were leaving the event: “Stand Up, Stand Up, Stand Up for Your Rights! Stand up, Stand Up, Don’t Give Up the Fight.” This, she says, “is in his memory because we intentionally went there so it could be in his memory, so he could learn who Nelson Mandela was. That this is important and being a part of it is important.” These kinds of intentional memories—the kind that will last a lifetime, both theirs and hers— are the kind that she treasures and strives to instill in as many nieces and nephews as she can.
All in all, Vidal says that of primary importance in her role as an aunt is demonstrating love and individuality and “creating the belief and conviction in each of [her nieces and nephews] that they are special in their own specific way.” Lastly, she says “Vidal aunts are special aunts because we love, we care, we show up. We are what we do, so we are always doing something!”—and it is pretty clear that Auntie Raquel loves what she does.