Rosa Serrano’s story is truly a profile in courage. Married at just 13 years old, she left her native Puerto Rico for The Bronx with two daughters in tow. Carmen was five and Iris was just two.
84-year old Serrano was admitted to Mt. Sinai in late March, suffering from symptoms of COVID-19. She passed away two weeks later, on April 10th. But she wasn’t alone. Her daughter, Carmen Ruiz, who has lung cancer and was hit hard by the virus, was in the next bed.
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“She fought it, and we thought she was going to make it,” another daughter, Iris Tirado said. “She started to get better the next day. But she was only concerned about my sister. She was afraid she was going to die because of the cancer, but thank God, she survived and she’s home now. My mom was watching over her.”
Serrano’s life in New York was never easy. “Her husband (Tirado’s father) beat her,” Tirado said. One day, she fought back. “She took off her big heels and hit him. Then she left him for good.”
At that point, she was the mother of four children and, according to Tirado, the family had nowhere to go. “I have this vague memory of sleeping in St. Mary’s Park, “she said. “then our aunt took us in.”
Serrano found an apartment on 145th Street. She remarried and had six more children. When that marriage ended, she supported her family working as a seamstress in factories. She took on extra jobs, sewing and ironing, to make sure all of her kids had a roof over their heads and a good education.
“She put us all through Catholic school at St. Pius,” Tirado said, “and we all went to college. She’d save her money to buy us each a pair of Tom McCann shoes every year. The school was good. They would cut off some of the tuition to help us. And my mom would volunteer in the lunchroom. All her kids her and grandkids went there.”
Family was everything to Serrano, and she passed that love on to all of her children.
“We would have birthday parties and we wouldn’t need anyone else,” said Tirado. “The family filled it up.”
When Tirado lost her 14-year old son, David, or DJ, a hemophiliac, to AIDS, her mom was her strength. “She loved him so much,” she said. “It was like she took on the illness herself.”
When Serrano needed help, her daughter, Olga Rodriguez, gave up her job to take care of her mom.
“She was with my mother 24/7,” Tirado said. “She sacrificed her whole life for her. Now she’s taking care of us.” Olga and their youngest brother, who lived with them, would also become ill with Coronavirus. They were able to isolate at home.
Tirado said her mother loved bingo and going to casinos. “We would make trips every month,” she said, “and we all had to go with her even though we didn’t like to gamble.” She especially loved her yearly vacations with her family. “Every year we went to Miami, the whole family, 30 of us with babies and grandkids, then we’d go to Orlando to go to Disneyworld. It was chaotic.”
Tirado said, while she will always remember the love her mother gave them all, what she will remember most is her strength. “My mom was such a good strong mother that raised strong daughters and sons,” she said. “My mom was a strong, strong woman,” she said. “To go through all she had to go through as a victim of domestic violence, living in the streets, she still brought us all up to be the best people we can. She taught us to be independent, and oh, my God, was she strict. If it wasn’t for my mother, we don’t know exactly what would have happened to us.”
She inspired Tirado into a life of public service, and her work as an activist against domestic violence. “She instilled in us all an independence.” Now, separately, they mourn the woman who gave them their own strength.
“We haven’t been able to be together, not like we need to be together,” she said. So, they text, and call and Face Time. “I knew my mom was older,” she said. “I just never thought she would pass away without my holding her hand.”