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Native of Spain lives long life of work, food and family

SAN ANTONIO — Until his death this week at 101, Jose "Pepe" Pujol began each day with a thick slice of toasted Cuban bread, slathered with cream cheese and jam, then moving on to whatever pastries his wife had for him: eclairs, danishes, Italian almond biscuits. He washed it down with a syrupy glass of cafe con leche, a shot of espresso with a heroic dose of milk and sugar.

Mr. Pujol, a refugee from Spain to Cuba, then Cuba to America, where he worked two or three jobs seven days a week until his wife forced him to retire at age 85, was healthy until a few weeks before he died Wednesday (Sept. 15, 2010). He took a vitamin and one pill a day for his blood pressure, which was a little low. He walked unassisted until he had lived for a century.

"People always ask, 'What does your father eat? What's his secret?' " said his son Carlos Pujol, who is 50 and lived across the street from his father and mother, Rafaela, who is 89.

"Believe me, you don't want his diet," the son said.

Meals were salami, prosciutto, cheese, olives, roasted meat and potatoes, always slathered in a sauce, marinara or cream, because Mr. Pujol needed something for his bread to sop. He ended the day as he began it, sweetly, with cakes.

"He ate what he wanted when he wanted," Carlos Pujol said.

His son attributes his father's vigor to good genes and the life he lived as a young boy in a village in Catalonia, drinking fresh goat's milk every day, working outdoors, eating nothing processed with chemicals. Mr. Pujol's father was a Shakespearean actor, a barber, newspaper editor and mayor, so go the stories Mr. Pujol told his son. Stories were Mr. Pujol's language and those of his childhood were his favorites to tell. He adored his grandparents, who spoiled him. If he didn't like what his mother served for dinner, Mr. Pujol sneaked out of the house at night and dashed through a field to his grandmother's house, where she fed him his favorite dishes.

Mr. Pujol told his son that Spain, battling with tribes for control of Morocco, rounded up young boys to make them work in munitions plants, their little hands perfect for polishing shell casings, and to cross mine fields, as they were too light to set off the detonators. Mr. Pujol was taken, but his family used its influence to get him back. Still, his father worried for his son and took him on a boat to Cuba. The voyage was supposed to take two weeks, but lasted three months because of two hurricanes. Smallpox broke out and three passengers died.

Mr. Pujol never went on a boat again.

His father soon sent for Mr. Pujol's mother and two sisters. Mr. Pujol grew to be a handsome man, 6 feet tall, slender.

"Like Errol Flynn," his son Carlos said.

Gregarious with a keen eye for business, Mr. Pujol did many things — lumber yard owner, coffee distributor. He married, had a son, divorced. He married Rafaela, who said women turned to butter when they danced with Mr. Pujol. They had two sons. They escaped Cuba during the Communist revolution and landed in Miami with nothing but each other and a few small bags.

Mr. Pujol, who spoke Catalan and Spanish, knew no English but began working whatever jobs he could find. He went to New York, trying to find a man who once promised him a job. He couldn't find that man, but ended up working as a chef at a convent in Long Island. He had never cooked before, but he learned. He slept on a cot and sent his paycheck to his wife and sons in Miami, who joined him three years later.

Mr. Pujol never did only one job and never called in sick. He was a doorman, a janitor, dishwasher, handyman. As an apartment superintendent, he saved anything he found on the curb — discarded furniture, clothes — and, with his sons, salvaged them to give to other refugees.

Mr. Pujol became an American citizen in 1975, something of which he was very proud, and throughout his life he sent money to Cuban families on their way to America. Some paid him back. Others didn't. Mr. Pujol never said a word about money owed to him, unless that person asked for more without paying the first debt. He didn't believe in revenge, but he didn't forget slights and he never let a man wrong him twice.

"A man is his word," Mr. Pujol always said. He did business with a handshake. "A man who dishonors his name not only insults himself, he insults his ancestors."

In the little time he didn't work, Mr. Pujol rarely stopped moving. He walked several miles every morning and loved shoveling snow, out there in his thin windbreaker, the bracing cold making him feel alive. He missed the snow when Rafaela made him move to Florida — first Miami, but after many of their friends and relatives passed away and they were alone, they moved to San Antonio, building a house near their son. Mr. Pujol liked this small town. It reminded him of Catalonia, the way people lived and treated each other. The mayor came to Mr. Pujol's house on his 100th birthday to give him a proclamation from the city.

In the days before his death, Mr. Pujol was uncharacteristically tired and didn't want to eat. His wife and son could hear him talking in his sleep to his parents and grandparents, gesturing with his hands, singing to them in Catalan.

Mass will be said for Mr. Pujol at 11:45 a.m. Wednesday at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in San Antonio.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6229.

Native of Spain lives long life of work, food and family 09/17/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 18, 2010 10:23am]
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