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“This is the last car you will ever get from me, Francisco,” Don Octavio Benítez said as he handed his son a silvery set of keys to a 1969 Alfa Romeo Spider. “You crash this one, and you might as well leave this house and move back to the mountains. Happy birthday, son.”
Francisco Antonio Benítez took the keys from his father, whistled, and sprinted towards the Spider’s red sheen. The outside felt like silk and when he opened the driver’s door, the leather greeted him as if he were a Puerto Rican noble. No one in Francisco Antonio’s family would disagree. Francisco Antonio was the prince of the Benítez family, the youngest of four, who could barely remember the family’s cramped house in Caguas, where he was forced to share a room with his older brother and go to the bathroom outside with the goats and roosters.
That all changed when Don Octavio Benítez moved the family from Caguas in 1957 to the brand new subdivision of Diamante, just 15 miles from the capital city of San Juan. It was one of the first true suburban experiments on the island, where you can buy plots and cement houses equipped with all the modern amenities you would find on the mainland. Don Octavio, with cash in hand, bought three plots on the same day the subdivision opened for business and within a week he assigned a crew of Dominican and Haitian workers to build a one-floor, four-bedroom home with a rainbow-tiled swimming pool and a covered garage for at least three cars. He made sure to add the newest Sears air conditioners to each bedroom and an RCA color television, the largest he could find on the island, in the living room. To 10-year-old Francisco Antonio, this home in Diamante was truly a palace.
The early years were filled with swimming pool parties, baseball games, basketball tournaments, and trips to Miami Beach. While Francisco Antonio rode his bike around Diamante for hours, Don Octavio celebrated the Cuban Revolution by buying more real estate around San Juan and Río Piedras.
“The money is leaving Havana, Francisco. And it is coming here. I’m telling you, the Americans will take over this place now. Just you see,” Don Octavio would tell his son. Even with his seventh grade education, Don Octavio knew that cash ruled the island. If you had it, you can lift yourself from misery. Don Octavio now had the cash, and the transactions he made after Fidel ruined Cuba guaranteed an exquisite life for the Benítez family.
So when Francisco Antonio turned sixteen years old in 1965, Don Octavio gave his son a lime green Volkswagen Notchback. Within months, his son crashed it into a highway divider, after spending hours drinking rum and pineapple shots in Old San Juan. Francisco Antonio left from the accident unharmed and walked the six miles back to Diamante alone. He told his father the truth.
“It is only a car, son. The best news is that you are not hurt. Now let me make a few calls to the police so we can forget about this incident,” Don Octavio said as he hugged Francisco Antonio.
In 1966, Francisco Antonio received a pitch black Chevy Chevelle for his birthday. Around the Christmas holiday and after drinking a bottle of scotch with his former schoolmates from Caguas, he steered into a roasted chicken stand on the way back to San Juan. The car was smothered with adobo, garlic, and cooked chickens. The front side was also crushed. Francisco Antonio hurt his neck slightly, but he still managed to crawl out of the car, help the chicken stand owner with the damage, and stumble back home to Diamante. This time, Don Octavio was in New York on business, so Francisco Antonio made a long-distance call. He told Don Octavio that he would also need to pay for repairs to the chicken stand as well as replenish the stand with food.
“It’s just money, Francisco Antonio. I am glad that you are safe. We will talk later. Let me make a call or two now and we can forget this,” Don Octavio said that day.
One more accident occurred in 1967, on the very same day Francisco Antonio received a new metallic blue Ford Galaxie. He was leaving a beach barbecue in Piñones with a six-pack of Schaefer beer for the ride back home. He ran through a red light and was clipped by a public bus carrying house maids who were heading home to the shacks of Loiza from the Ocean Park neighborhood. No one was hurt on the public bus, so Francisco Antonio left the car on the road, hopped into the public bus with the maids and the driver, three unopened cars of Schaefer remaining. He sang songs with the maids on the way to Loiza and talked about Roberto Clemente and Juan Marichal with the driver on the way back to Diamante. This time, his father was reading a newspaper when Francisco Antonio told his what had happened, while his mother, Doña Luisa, was preparing pork chops and rice.
“At least you are safe,” Don Octavio said.
Later that week, Francisco Antonio went to go see The Graduate with subtitles in Spanish. In the film, Dustin Hoffman’s character zoomed around the screen in a Spider. Francisco Antonio was turning twenty-one the next year. He went home to that night from the cinema with only one idea in mind.
“I want a new car, Papi. I just saw it in a movie,” he told Don Octavio.
Don Octavio, who didn’t even have a car until he was thirty years old, agreed without questioning his son. Within months, he had arranged for the first Alfa Romeo Spider to be imported into the island.
“Happy twenty-first Birthday, son.”
Anything for the Prince of Puerto Rico.