By DAVID GONZALEZ
New York Times (August 3, 2009)
Befitting a scrappy, independent political pioneer – in 1978 she was the first Puerto Rican woman elected to a state legislature in the United States – her funeral attracted the governor, the mayor, several members of Congress and countless local officials. She was lauded for many things: her tenacity; her willingness to cross party lines; her embrace of labor, housing and educational rights for the poor. She was eulogized as a loyal friend, a fierce competitor and a proud Puerto Rican.
Outside the Church of the Holy Agony, on Third Avenue at 101st Street, beyond the honor guard of construction workers that flanked her hearse, groups gathered by the housing projects to remember La Senadora, and the friends and relatives who got a hand up because of her.
“I don’t think we’ll ever see another one like her,” said Monin Paez, who said she always voted for Senator Méndez. “When she spoke, you had to listen. The politicians today don’t talk to us. They only come by when they want your vote.”
Senator Méndez died from cancer last week at age 84. Married into a politically savvy East Harlem family – and possessed of no small measure of education and determination herself – she found her resolve tested in the State Senate, friends said. But she threw herself into her work, giving as good as she got.
“Many of you have gone toe to toe with her in political battles,” her niece, Annette Vasquez, told the mourners. “But later you would walk away with her arm in arm in friendship and respect.”
Just don’t play games with her.
“When you played Risk with Olga, it was never a game,” she said. “It really was about world domination!”
Among the politicians attending were Representatives José E. Serrano, Nydia M. Velázquez and Charles B. Rangel; the former Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer; the city comptroller, William C. Thompson Jr.; and State Senator Pedro Espada Jr. Efraín González Jr., Mr. Espada’s predecessor, who recently pleaded guilty to using $200,000 in state funds for vacation homes and other personal expenses, was also there.
Some may have felt themselves in the crosshairs as Gerson Borrero, a fire-breathing columnist and political commentator, delivered his eulogy praising Senator Méndez.
“She worked hard behind the scenes while others pranced around like peacocks,” he said. “They still prance around like peacocks.”
Outside, there was a plainspoken pride among the construction workers who sweated for the duration of the Mass.
“Olga always did the right thing for El Barrio,” said one worker, Marty Torres. “She was about change. She was no punk.”
The plain setting for her funeral was fitting: not the marbled St. Patrick’s Cathedral – though she was well-connected enough to have had her service there – just the simple linoleum tile and plywood walls of Holy Agony, where she had been a loyal parishioner since the 1950s. Opened in 1953, it was built for the Puerto Ricans settling in El Barrio – old timers said it was the first local church where they celebrated in the main sanctuary, not hidden in some basement.
In the days before the funeral, friends recalled Senator Méndez, too, as visible and approachable. She asked about your children and treated you like family. She relished telling stories with a mischievous smile and a raspy voice. And she was fiercely Puerto Rican – not Latina, not Hispanic.
“She is the last of her kind,” said Gloria Quinones, a lawyer and activist often on the far left of the senator. “She represented reassurance that the community had a fighting voice and someone who loved them.”
Ms. Quinones remembers when she finished law school and Ms. Méndez asked her if she wanted to become a judge.
“To get me out of the way,” she said.
“But she always asked me how my boys were,” she added. “She was like that with everybody. At the same time she was always calling and asking me if I was going to run against her.”
Others noted that while she had sharp political instincts, they were further honed when she married into the Méndez family, whose patriarch, Antonio Méndez, was the first Puerto Rican district leader in Manhattan. Her mother-in-law, Isabel, was equally political.
“She pushed Olga,” said Carmen Villegas, a family friend. “She knew how to move the chairs like chess pieces. She worked in the senator’s office until she died. And she never called her Olga. She always called her La Senadora.”
The two women were just as devoted to Holy Agony, staying active and donating statues to the church over the years.
An urn with her ashes was set before the altar, flanked by the United States and Puerto Rican flags. Two state troopers stood smartly on either side. The Rev. Victor Elia did the final blessing, and people applauded as the urn was carried to the waiting hearse for burial in the Bronx.
Outside, under a glorious sun, a group of elderly women broke into song as the hearse prepared to leave. Wrapped in the Puerto Rican flag, they intoned Rafael Hernandez’s “Lamento Borincano,” the unofficial anthem of Puerto Rico. It is a song about hardship, hope and heartbreak.
It can never be sung without tears.