The Elixir: Secrets of a Long Life – Don José

BY Eileen Z. Fuentes (@theSPEACHgal)

Photography by Briana E. Heard (@beheardphoto)

The Elixir - Secrets of a Long Life - Don Jose

The other day as I was sitting at work, I received a call from one of the members of my wellness group. She was in the emergency room and wanted me to stop by and see her. As I was trying to convince the security guard to allow me into the restricted area to see my friend, an older gentleman marched right past me and walked over to her. When I was finally allowed in, she introduced me to him and I was shocked to find out he was her 91-year-old father! He looked more like her older brother.

The more we talked, the more I knew he had to be the next subject for our longevity series. As we were driving over a week later, his daughter casually says, “Wait until you meet his kids.” I asked why she referred to her brothers and sister as kids and she responded, “Well, his youngest son is only ten years-old.” She laughed loudly as I just stood there with my mouth wide open. This was going to be better than I had anticipated!

Don José was born in January 1921 in San Francisco de Macorís in the Dominican Republic on a large farm with his mother and two older sisters. His father had many other children but they were from other women and so did not reside in the home. His greatest joy came from his time on the large estate, mostly in the workers quarters. As the only male and youngest child in the home, his mother and the farm hands equally spoiled him. He credits them both for his upbringing.

As a natural foods fanatic, I was excited when he explained to me what he ate as a child. He vividly remembers how he would position himself underneath the cow, and drink directly from their teats. On the farm, all kinds of foods were abundant: plantains, yucca, sweet potatoes, tropical fruits, herbs, eggs, and homemade cheese. His mother used to hang the meat outside to preserve it and then they would use lard (semisolid animal fat) and Spanish olive oil that his father was able to purchase for cooking. Rather than soaking rice in water, he described how his mother used fresh milk to soften the grain. He proudly proclaimed that his food was all locally grown and not any of that “powdered stuff” we use now.

Don José is one of the wisest men I’ve ever met which is why I was shocked when he told me his formal studies ended in the second grade. He spent most of his childhood working on the farm where they grew up until he came to New York in 1963. When I asked him what he thought of this country, he said, “I think it’s marvelous!” He briefly worked in a company that manufactured cabinets then moved on to a chocolate factory where he rose to the ranks of supervisor and stayed there until he retired. He now lives in a apartment with his wife and 3 youngest children, 2 boys’ ages 10, and 15 and a daughter who is 21.

While Don José has never smoked, he says he did and does drink occasionally. He goes for walks one hour daily (without the assistance of a cane) and goes to sleep by 9pm on most nights. In his bathroom, he has a pet turtle, which ironically is the symbol of longevity. Although I saw no visible signs of any disease, he told me that he has been ill twice in his life. The first was when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s for which he refused all medication since he was told it would tamper with his memory. Instead he developed his own self-care regimen. He halted his 5 cups-a-day coffee habit and improved the involuntary tremors with a series of squeezing and lifting exercises using a heavy cast iron spoon. In 2009, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He had chemotherapy but also used home remedies including a concoction of cactus fruit, molasses and aloe vera. He expressed his immense gratitude to God and describes himself as a man of intense faith, but not religion.

When I asked him what he believes is the secret to a long life, he responded in one word, “nutrition”. Then he paused and elaborated a little further, “It’s not what I am eating now but rather what I was fed when I was young. When you get to my age it almost doesn’t matter what you eat but rather what you ate that counts.”

After our lengthy discussion, I understood how this great-grandfather, grandfather and father of 9 children (ranging from ages 10 to 60 years old) remains in good health mentally, spiritually and physically.

“The oldest trees often bear the sweetest fruit” ~ German Proverb

Check out:

The Elixir: Secrets of a Long Life – Hilda Garcia

The Elixir: Secrets of a Long Life – Pilar De Jesus Gonzalez

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