Lorraine Irizarry had a busy life in New York learning English and building a new life with her husband and two young children, but she didn’t hesitate to drop everything and return to her native Puerto Rico for a month in 1957 when her little brother Lin went through gastrointestinal surgery. A few years later, she returned again for a month when her sister Floripe got into a bad car crash. And three of her other younger brothers followed Lorraine to New York, living with her for years before they settled there with their own families. Indeed, as the eldest of a family of 11 children who grew up on a sugar cane farm, Lorraine was more like a second mother to her younger siblings and her life revolved around caring for them as her two actual children, Moraima and Gabriel Jr.
Coming to New York in 1954 was hard. She didn’t know the language and her husband Gabriel, a World War II veteran who’d served in occupied France, worked as a machine operator at a paper factory in New Jersey. The two were introduced by his sister in Puerto Rico. He was in uniform and she thought him handsome, if a little conceited, she’d later teasingly tell him. They moved to Manhattan to be near his family, though it took her from her own.
But, used to forging a social life on the farm she’d grown up on, Lorraine made the best of it. Their friends in New York formed a social club, Amigos Unidos, in a rented loft space near their home in Washington Heights. Lorraine was the club secretary and the group was gay: singing danza and bolero, dancing to Pito Puente’s emerging salsa, and playing bingo and lotto into the wee hours.
At home, she started sewing gloves and eventually graduated to dresses to help make ends meet while the kids were at school. She loved fashion and she’d sew her own clothing and clothing for her daughter, and later granddaughters, based off of the styles she found in magazines. Starting in 1971, though she had no retail experience, she began working at Lieberman’s children’s clothing store. By the time she retired when Lieberman’s closed in 1995, she’d risen to store manager. That same year her husband died and to fill the void, Lorraine began to volunteer at a local senior center.
The senior center’s social universe and her four grandchildren, four great grandchildren and myriad nephews and nieces filled Lorraine silver years where she remained the emotional heart of her large, far-flung family. Though she’d never attended college, she insisted that both her children attend private schools and college and no one was prouder when her grandson, Gabriel III, graduated from Columbia University. At holidays everyone still gathers around their matriarch and their rock.