by Tim Gilmore, 8/8/2017
The Gift of Her Father’s Conversation
“My father loved to talk with his children,” Padrica says. “He gave us so much love and he gave us the great gift of his conversation.”
As she sits on her sofa in this grand neoclassical house, the kindness in Padrica’s eyes and mouth match her regal presence. Though she lived in Italy for 16 years singing opera, toured Europe with Alvin Ailey for the musical Carmen Jones, and appeared with Josephine Baker on the Italian tv show La Fiera dei Sogni, or Dream Fair, she’s too down-to-earth and gracious to be a diva.
Her father Pedro Mendez, Sr. restored this 16-room and seven-bedroom house in 1946. It was built in 1919 for Solomon Shad, who owned a West Bay Street liquor company, and Padrica’s friends are starting a crowdsourcing campaign to raise the money to restore it once again.
Pedro Mendez he was 35 years old when he opened his tailoring business in LaVilla in 1927. He’d started tailoring back home in Santiago, Cuba at age seven and became a master tailor at age 17. In Harlem, he ran a tailoring company and a Cuban club and restaurant.
“Americans,” he used to say, “eat to live, but Cubans live to eat.”
Then his wife died. He later told Padrica that a man’s wife should be five years older than him so she would know how to handle him, make him feel he was winning when really she was.
Padrica’s mother Jamie was more than 20 years younger than Pedro, but by the time he met her in the Masonic Temple—Padrica points in the general direction of the 19-teens’ building around the corner at 410 Broad Street—he was twice a widower. If he ever married a third time, he’d vowed to himself, “This wife will bury me, not the other way around.”
“What I want most in the world,” he used to tell Padrica and her two brothers, “is to give you my knowledge and experience. But what value would a man my age have if a child your age could have my experience? And what value would childhood have if you had my experience from the start?”
Space between White and Black
When Padrica was a little girl in the 1940s, the Cuban community in Jacksonville surrounded her and her family with love and a yet larger sense of family. Latin immigrants and their families attended St. Pius Catholic Church and ate at the same restaurants, so Cuban and Puerto Rican and Central American children played together on common ground.
She heard her father speaking Spanish in business and with friends, but though he’d hired Miss Bustamante to come to their house and teach the children Spanish, they never immersed themselves in it. Padrica would learn Italian better than she’d ever learned Spanish. Her mother spoke only English.
Jamie Crumley worked for the black newspaper The Advocate upstairs in the Masonic Temple Building. She came downstairs to ask Pedro Mendez to buy ad space for his tailoring business sometime in the mid-1930s. He did. They married in 1938.
Cuban men had a remarkable latitude between the bitter and often violent polarities of white and black in Jacksonville. Most Cuban men in Jacksonville had black wives, but some Cubans, besides those few who’d arrived married from Cuba, married white.
Those Cuban men with black wives could live only in segregated black communities, but Cuban men with white wives could live in white neighborhoods. So far, this news is hardly news. Mainstream white society considered any connection to blackness a taint. “Black” could even mean being an “octoroon,” or having one black great-grandparent. Though light-skinned or “fair” black people could “pass” as white, they faced the ethical and practical decision of whether or not to do so, to be treated more fairly and give their children greater opportunities, or to be “true” to, and not turn their backs on, the black race to which legal definitions pinned them. Since Cubans who migrated to the United States, despite rigid racial lines of prejudice back home, ranged from very “fair” to very dark and “talked funny,” they seemed more “foreigner” than “Negro.”
“White Americans,” Padrica says, “have so frequently preferred black foreigners to black people from their own country.”
But sometimes darker Cubans married white wives and lived in white communities, while “fairer” Cubans like Manuel Rivera, who owned Manuel’s Taproom on LaVilla’s most-hopping street, West Ashley, married darker women and stayed in the “black” community.
Padrica remembers many dinner parties at the Rivera home in Sugar Hill, the wealthy black district northwest of LaVilla, where physicians’ and attorneys’ and insurance moguls’ homes once stood along “the 8th Street Strip.” Though the University of Florida Health Jacksonville, formerly Shands Hospital, has replaced much of the line, the Rivera home, built in the late 1940s, where Sugar Hill extended into Durkeeville, stands still at the corner of West 8th and Eaverson Streets.
“We asked my daddy, we said, ‘Is Mr. Rivera a white man?’” Padrica and her siblings and friends didn’t know Manuel Rivera was Puerto Rican, and he certainly didn’t look black. So her father opened a whole new constellation in her childhood brain. “No,” he said, “He’s Chinese.”
Though Chinese immigrants did live in LaVilla, Padrica’s not sure why her father called Rivera “Chinese.”
Padrica always loved Pedro’s stories of New York. He introduced her to opera at an early age. He spoke to his children about philosophy and Spanish literature. She decided she wanted to sing opera when she first heard MaVynee Betsch, the “Beach Lady” of American Beach. MaVynee was descended from Abraham Lincoln Lewis, one of Jacksonville’s wealthiest black businessmen. She studied and sang opera, then donated her fortune for environmental causes.
Pedro Mendez told his daughter about hearing Enrico Caruso sing in New York in the 19-teens. He told her of Bert Williams, the Bahamian comedian in New York, so light-skinned he performed blackface in minstrel numbers like “The Phrenologist Coon.”
Though her father was dark, he “talked funny,” as he was told, and thus received tailoring commissions from whites. Padrica says her father had a “Castilian accent,” that her grandmother, her mother’s mother Estelle, told her never to say it, but her father came from Cuban aristocracy.
After an early life of adventure and turmoil, surviving false starts in New York, losing two wives, Pedro came to Jacksonville determined that this is where his life would take form and take place.
My Darling Daughter
She’s somewhat embarrassed about the state of disrepair into which the house has fallen, and I hope dearly that in this later chapter of her magical life, she will see her childhood house, this house in which she lives still, restored to its previous splendor.
Before she opens the tall wooden pocket doors to the parlor, she points to the difference between the radiant burnished brass doorknob on one side and the muddied and tarnished one on the other. The elegant wallpaper in this sitting room once was gorgeous.
Still, the mahogany wainscoting around and up the staircase climbs magisterial in the shadows. Filigreed wooden tracery runs the front rooms beneath the ceiling. A sitting niche recesses into a bay window.
Out front, tall Corinthian columns rise the full height of the house’s wide sweeping two stories of porches. Decades ago, a rooftop balustrade spanned the width of the house before its attic dormer.
Sometime in the 1960s, that outsider historian Virginia King, author of an incomprehensible 8,448 page book about Jacksonville, wandered this LaVilla sidewalk and snapped a blurred and crooked photo. The balustrade runs the roofline. Pedro Mendez’s fashionable old Chevy with tail fins is parked out front. The palms that now mask the Corinthian capitals from the road are only as tall as the front porch.
When Solomon Shad, grandfather of today’s well-known auto dealer Mike Shad, had this house built in 1909, he moved into the most diverse neighborhood in Jacksonville. Today, LaVilla is remembered as “historically” black, but it was also Cuban and Syrian and Lebanese and Chinese. Here, segregated black homesteads and businesses throve alongside brothels and liquor stores that white citizens didn’t want in their neighborhoods, even if they came to LaVilla for vice services they couldn’t own or frequent elsewhere.
In 1914, the Florida Department of Agriculture’s Division of Chemistry, which analyzed samples of agricultural products throughout the state, found Solomon Shad in violation of state alcohol laws. It listed “Dixie Gin,” “Dixie Whiskey” and “Dixie” moonshine, “corn” liquor, as “illegal” for insufficient labeling information.
At least Solomon Shad, a white man, built his home residence in the minority district from which most white businessmen would only extract profit. For a while anyway. When he died from a heart attack at 36 years old in 1923—“a true Christian,” according to his obituary—he lived at 430 Donald Street in Riverside.
Pedro Mendez died of double pneumonia in 1957, 11 years after he’d bought and restored the old Shad house. Padrica soon left for Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree, then earned a Fulbright Scholarship to study opera in Italy. She studied voice under Mariano Stabile at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome and at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena.
Padrica came back to Jacksonville in 1977 to take care of her dying mother. As the only daughter of three children, herself unmarried and without kids, Padrica felt an great sense of responsibility toward her mother. Her father was two decades older than her mother, and her mother was dying 20 years after her father.
LaVilla had fallen on hard times. Post-World War Two suburbanism, a falling tax base in the city, and years of racial frustration, increased poverty, and exceeding desperation had acted brutally on the district. The sense of community was gone, and though the City of Jacksonville was still 15 years shy of launching its greatest assault on LaVilla, Padrica knew she would hold onto her childhood house, her father and mother’s house.
She points to her father’s Victrola in the corner of the living room. “He loved his Cuban music,” she says, “and he taught me all the dances. He taught me the Samba, the Rumba, the Conga. My father knew how to love life wisely.”
Padrica opens a cigar box full of letters, unfurls papers typed in the mid-1950s when she’d first matriculated to Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona. Her father begins each letter, “My Darling Daughter.”
This gentleman and community leader who never smoked or drank, but who restored the grand home of a turn-of-the-century LaVilla liquor merchant, joked with his daughter that he’d enclosed five bucks “for you to buy liquors, and cigarettes with.” All these decades later, her father still makes her laugh. The only alcohol he imbibed was a little eggnog on Christmas Eve and liqueur icing on a cake.
We All Disappear
Padrica remembers Yay-Yay, who ran the Havana Night Club out north on Avenue B, and Charlie Craddock’s club The Two-Spot, at 45th and Moncrief.
“We heard people perform there, people like Count Basie, Dinah Washington,” she says. “We knew they were popular, but we didn’t know they were what they would be, historically. Just like how I traveled for six months in the 1970s with Alvin Ailey in Austria, Switzerland, Germany. He was better known in places like New York than he was in Vienna, so even as I got to know him, and knew he was so gifted, I didn’t know he’d become this historic figure.”
When Padrica came back to this house in 1977, LaVilla was a different place. So, of course, was Jacksonville.
The Cuban community in LaVilla had disbanded. Likewise, LaVilla’s Middle Easterners. So had most of the prominent black community, other than a few old people who’d stayed stubbornly on. The district had emptied out.
Then Jacksonville Mayor Ed Austin implemented his “River City Renaissance,” which included the demolition of nearly 50 square blocks of LaVilla, which had grown into a dense cultural district from its origins as a slave plantation. LaVilla’s destruction by “urban renewal” came just 20 years after its bisection by the butchery of Interstate-95 through the neighborhood.
“That was a hard time,” Padrica says, referring to the Austin years. “They wanted to take this house too.” But for “a dear gentleman,” she might have lost her childhood and lifelong house. “And I was not going to lay down and play dead,” she says.
“Now, Mr. Joel McEachin was such a gracious man. I have to say that. He didn’t know me from Adam’s housecat.”
When McEachin, head of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, advised her to get the house “designated,” she said she thought it already was. He explained that her home was historically “recognized,” but not “designated.” Taking his advice saved Padrica’s childhood and lifelong home while the City of Jacksonville demolished thousands of beautiful old houses across LaVilla.
“I’m nothing,” she says. “There are these billions of people on the planet earth, and all these LaVilla houses and histories got bulldozed. We all disappear. Unless I offer myself up to God and what he might do with me through art, I’m nothing in all these numbers.”
Geometries, Arsons and Angels
As her singing career soared, so too did Padrica’s attention to fashion. While singing in Rome and Toscano, in West Berlin and Vienna, she began to pay more attention to the things her father had taught her and her brothers about tailoring in their earliest days.
“I wanted,” she says, “to create fashion that honored the design of our bodies, our varied bodies as the Lord’s design.”
Padrica sees other designers’ clothing “made like that,” but wants hers “born like that.” She learned the different “contours, the varied pivots, the different musculature and posture” between white, black, and different Latin body types.
She says, “It’s rare that even skinny black women can cross their legs in outfits the same way white women can.” She points to my dreadlocked white friend, fellow artist, and colleague Jennifer Chase, who sits beside her on this old sofa, to say how “different geometries, the cut, the line” demand different sartorial needs from the front of a white woman to the back of a black woman.
Rather than design clothing to which each different woman should accommodate her particular physicality, Padrica loves to make designs to fit individual people she loves. She unfolds a handful of photos of designs she created in the 1970s, one-piece wraps, seamless, just as Jesus and St. Francis of Assisi wore, that shape themselves to Spanish, Italian, and African body types.
She still designs. She’s working with Jennifer Chase to create costumes for the musician and writer’s 2017 revival of Majigeen, her rock opera about Anta Majigeen Njaay, an African slave transported through Cuba to Northeast Florida, where she became Anna Kingsley, wife of slaveowner Zephaniah Kingsley, herself possessed of surprising antebellum power.
Every day, though her knees now often defy her, Padrica walks through the rooms of the house in which she grew up, the house to which she returned 20 years after her father’s death to care for her dying mother, the house she’s called home once again the 40 years since her mother’s death.
When she remembers her father, she laughs. “Can you imagine an older father, this gentleman, tickling his children so mercilessly? Oh, the way he joked with us! When he would kick us off the bed, we’d laugh and laugh!”
We stand before a portrait of her father taken in the late 1940s. This parlor has long been closed. A dim golden lamp and soft sofa glow back to us from the portrait.
One night in the early 1990s, Padrica returned home after a singing engagement in Daytona. These were Mayor Austin’s urban renewal years. Exhausted, she fell asleep in an armchair where we now sit across from each other on sofas. She woke to the sound of breaking glass.
“I looked up, hearing this glass, all this glass shattering, and all I saw was red. I thought the house was on fire.”
As she regained consciousness, a stranger pounded on the front door. She could hardly see him when she answered.
“Lady,” he said, “Get out of here! Your house is gonna catch fire and burn down!”
“I hardly saw him,” Padrica says, “but I’m sure this was the arsonist.”
Urban Jacksonville had suffered several arsons in recent years. As city government sought LaVilla houses, churches, synagogues, bars, restaurants, theatres, and nonprofit headquarters for permission for demolition, several fires caught in historic structures.
Certain snide city-core residents referred to Frank Nero, head of the Downtown Development Authority, and the 1992 rash of LaVilla arsons that followed his program of urban elimination and demolition, in historical pun, as “Nero’s Urban Renewal Plan.”
The fire that consumed the great two-story house next door jumped sparks at Padrica’s house. The fire next door began to catch on eaves and timbers of the western side of Padrica’s front porch and roofline.
From nearby, not a century ago, a fire caught its matrices from a LaVilla intersection north from here and burnt down the city of Jacksonville.
Padrica watched the fire department extinguish the conflagration that almost destroyed her childhood city and nearly took with it her childhood lifelong house.
“The fire blew out the windows. We replaced them. It blew holes in the stained glass at the head of the stairs between floors, and after all these years, I still can’t afford to repair them.”
But somehow the fire reminds her of when she lived in the “International House,” studying voice in Rome, where residents were expected to proffer representations of their homelands to the central group.
Padrica convinced them she was “third world,” and says most “third world” representatives were quite wealthy and knew how to manipulate their “third world” backgrounds.
The night that changed her, she experienced the Ethiopian presentation of a Coptic Mass. What Padrica next knew was a new understanding of the convergences of ancient stories.
She spoke to the priests of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria in Egypt, of which Ethiopia, central land of the former African empire, comprises a most important archdiocese.
She had a newly ancient, to her, Christianity, not European, the gospel of a North African Jesus Christ more akin to that martyred prophet of Palestine. The Biblical Queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem from Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims to hold the Ark of the Covenant, guarded armed at each corner at the Church of our Lady Mary of Zion in the city of Axum.
Still what most struck Padrica were the cadences she heard in Orthodox music of ancient Ethiopia that reminded her dearly, tearfully, of rhymes and end-lines from old “Negro spirituals.”
I sit transfixed. She sings before me in her childhood house a line, then another, of “Amazing Grace.” Then she demonstrates, closing her eyes, intoning low, how the end of each line gives way to “common metre” or “common measure.”
She’s long heard, but can’t quite believe it, though she’s tried it, that every old Negro spiritual can be played exclusively on the black keys of the piano.
When Padrica spoke to the musicians and priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox church in Rome in the 1970s, she told them she’d long heard such vocal cadences and chords, ending in upward intonations, as residuals of slave songs, of which she’d studied so many.
“What I’d heard as ascendance at the ends of sung lines, a note that reached up without other meaning, I now heard as Ethiopian vowels that rose the end of the same lines.”
Those traces she already knew were old, she began to understand were ancient. Alvin Ailey studied the connections, she says, but she suspects academic comparisons still wait in the wings. Strange components of early blues, of “Negro” spirituals,” linked directly to Ethiopian rite song, already making new music of old—2,000 years ago—connect new listeners, willing to understand, to the right sensitivities for what comes next.
Artists usually precede academics, though misplaced people attuned through the crossroads of old ways will always know how to point the way the way forward.
“Oh,” she says, unfolding handwritten sheet music. She asks me if I know of the Madonna di Loreto—not, she says, the famous painting by Caravaggio, but the statue of the Black Madonna. This libretto was written for Padrica herself and singing it at the pilgrimage site of the Basilica della Santa Casa was one of the most magical moments of her life.
Her father began each letter, “My Darling Daughter.” Her father “loved to talk with his children,” she says. Her father was dark. He “talked funny.” His Castilian accent, noble, nearly disappeared, became “extinct” in the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s, but Padrica Mendez has preserved her parents’ narrative, and hers, in this great house, her home.