Family heavily impacted by hurricanes reunites with love, laughter and great respect for Puerto Rico 

Published 8:05 am Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Of the sea and the sun

JUNCTION CITY — At a community newspaper, when someone calls with a story idea, it can end up being anything from a lead on a theft case to a large vegetable someone has grown. After leaving the Uptons’ home in Junction City Tuesday, I was glad I made the trek down U.S. 127 to wander into another family’s life; and there was no theft or pumpkin to report on. 

Lita Brown called, asking if we wanted to get a photo-op of her family raising the Puerto Rican flag in their front yard. Her mother is originally from the island. They had surprised her with family who came into town over the weekend and were sending them off. 

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Nelida Colón Upton has lived in Junction for 61 years, previously running Lida’s Beauty Shop from her home on Evans Heights for more than 41 years. 

Born in Utuado, Puerto Rico on June 17, 1928, Nelida lived through the worst hurricane recorded in history of the North Atlantic basin. The Okeechobee hurricane, also known as the San Felipe Segundo hurricane, was one of the deadliest storms ever. 

“When she was 3 months old, that was when the first one went through and tore everything up. They hung her from the ceiling in the basement to keep water from getting to her,” says Leonard Upton, her husband. “Of course she don’t remember that.” Nelida explains they hung her in a hammock from the rafters to ride out the storm while the rest of the family stood in water up to their chests. 

Nelida’s brother, Wilfredo Colón, sits by on the couch shaking his head. He is in town from Florida, just having gone through Hurricane Irma in Orlando. 

A photo of Nelida and Leonard Upton when they were dating while Leonard was in the service.

“I’m a Korean War veteran,” Wilfredo says with a thick, smooth accent. “Because this guy here, he only serve in the United States.” Wilfredo motions over to Leonard, and the family chuckles. 

“Yeah, but look what I got here 64 years ago,” Leonard says, motioning to his wife. Nelida’s smile grows wide and more laughter fills the room. 

Leonard says he retired from Corning, and even though he and Nelida would go look at other houses to move into, they wanted to stay here. 

“This is a dead-end street, and the people here — they are all good and they keep their houses neat. He said something about building a new home, I said don’t talk to me about building a new home — I’ve been there too long and I’m not moving nowhere,” Nelida says. Her accent is also very thick and enticing to the ear. 

Nelita Brown gets the Puerto Rican flag ready to be raised.

“This is the house I was born and raised in,” daughter Lita says. She says she had a hard time explaining to her kids when she brought them here this is the same house she grew up in. “They kept saying, ‘But where were you before?’ and I had to tell them, no, this was my childhood room…” 

Lita sits on the couch beside her aunt Antonia Colón Torresola, who lives in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico and went through the past two hurricanes alone in her home. 

“We didn’t hear from her for days and we were worried,” Nelida says about the last storm, although she knew her sister would be prepared. “We live in that kind of climate, so we know what to do. But no one thought it would be this bad…”

Antonia was prepared for Irma as well as Maria. She purchased her food, water and gas and got her home ready. She lives on a hill in her subdivision so the water didn’t reach her, but it’s still without electricity or running water, as much of the island is. 

Antonia’s daughter Griseida and husband Carlos Garcia — also at the Junction home — lived through Harvey in Houston. They lucked out with no damages, but had two families living with them who didn’t fare so well. 


Lita says before she went into high school, there was the Kentucky State Hospital where Northpoint is now. When Cuba was going through its crisis in the ’60s, the doctors were coming there to get relicensed in the U.S. They’d bring their families, and they spoke no English, but they knew there was a lady who spoke Spanish in Junction City. So they’d have all the Cubans over to help them learn English and talk to them, cook with them. 

“I’ve had a very interesting life here,” Nelida says. “We’ve done well. I can’t complain.” 

Nelida came from a family of 12, and each of them had a chore to do every Saturday morning to help their mother, and they all had jobs growing up. Her father owned a grocery store right in front of their house in Utuado. 

She says all her siblings and their offspring grew up to be someone. The family points to the chemical engineer, Carlos, in the kitchen cooking dinner. They have a plastic surgeon, many other engineers, a computer specialist, doctors, a nurse … Not a one of them ended up a bum, Lita says.  

“We have a Harvard Business grad right here,” Lita says, motioning to Wil, Wilfredo’s son, also in from Orlando. 

Nelida met Leonard while he was in the service, on a blind date. “I met a southern gentleman,” she says slowly, the words dripping off her tongue like a song. 

Leonard recounts his military service, where he went and how he got to meet Nelida. He was sent to Long Island, New York even though he had no clue where it was. 

“You were a little hillbilly,” Nelida says. They’ve had a very good life together, including the ups and the downs, Nelida says — they both say sticking together through the rough times is what makes a marriage. And how they travel together. 

“I love to travel. That’s the best way you learn about places and people. I was so surprised when I came to Kentucky and people didn’t know where Puerto Rico was, and we studied American history since we were so young.” 

They pledged the allegiance to the American flag, they had prayer … 

“All of our classes were in English,” Wilifredo says. His son, Wil, says that didn’t change until he got in school. 

“By the time I went to school, the classes were in Spanish but we studied English, so we know the language very well ..” Wil says. 

Nelida explains how bad grammar bothers her. “I may have a thick accent, but … Why do people say they ‘was’ here? You were! Were. You were here, not was!” 

From left, Lita Brown, Griseida Garcia, Antonia Colón Torresola, Wilfredo Colón and Carlos Garcia (just out of frame) sing the national anthem of Puerto Rico as the flag is raised at Nelida and Leonard Upton’s home in Junction City.

The family convenes in the front yard to raise the flag. As the group gets the flag ready and gathers around the pole, they play “La Borinqueña,” the national anthem of Puerto Rico. With hands on chests, they softly sing the lyrics as the flag was raised, patting each other, smiling lovingly, nodding heads to one another in appreciation of the two flags. 

“Es Borinquen la hija, la hija del mar y el sol, Del mar y el sol, Del mar y el sol, Del mar y el sol, Del mar y el sol,” they sing. Translated, the lyrics are:

Borinquen is the daughter, 

the daughter of the sea and the sun. 

Of the sea and the sun, 

Of the sea and the sun, 

Of the sea and the sun, 

Of the sea and the sun.

Puerto Rico used to be called a U.S. Territory, Nelida says, but not anymore. Now it’s a commonwealth, she says. Previously very active in the Boyle Homemakers group years ago, Nelida says its organizer asked her to speak to the group about where she comes from — but what would she talk about? Nelida said she asked. 

“She told me to speak from my heart, so I did. I told them how we elect our own governor, cannot vote for the United States’ president, but we have a representative in Washington who brings the problems of the island to them. We are a commonwealth of the United States. I had a school teacher who told me she didn’t know that. I was shocked. I’m always surprised how much we know about the U.S. and how much people here don’t know about us. But they tell me all the time, ‘You have such a beautiful accent.’ I just say, ‘Why, thank you,’ and keep on walking.” 


The Uptons say there are two great organizations bringing in money for Puerto Rico during its time of need. The First Lady of Puerto Rico has a fund where 100 percent of the donations go to those in need on the island: The family says also, is doing good work. 

Nelida Colón Upton, sitting in front, waits for the Puerto Rican flag to be raised by her family. They are, from left, husband Leonard Upton, nephew Wil Colón, daughter Lita Brown, niece Griseida Garcia, sister Antonia Colón Torresola and brother Wilfredo Colón.