Rachel/Raquel “Rusty” Villegas (January 16, 1933  – February 10, 2008)

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Courtesy of William Gerena-Rochet

There is an old but at times useful cliché that says “It takes a village to raise a child.” If that child grows to become one of our village’s elders – whose life was marked by a degree of dedication to the wellbeing and welfare of the village – and who upon passing away, we could add: “It takes a village to say farewell …” to that person. And so last week at Johnston Funeral home, family and members of the community of El Barrio/East Harlem said farewell to Raquel Villegas.

The following is from the funeral brochure for “Rachel/Raquel “Rusty” Villegas” (January 16, 1933 – February 10, 2008).

There are three things we definitely know about Rachel Villegas: her spirituality and faith; her love for her family; and her love for the community where she always lived, El Barrio.

Rachel Perez was born in Harlem Hospital and raised in East Harlem. Always a hard worker, she began her career at Sylvie’s, a women’s clothing store located on 105th and 3rd Avenue. With the advent of the War on Poverty, in 1963 Rachel entered a jobs-training program to obtain her GED. She then began to show her true talents in helping people and perfecting systems at Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital.

Rachel had the fortunate experience of working on the staff of newly-elected Congressman Charles Rangel, in 1970. This was the position where Rachel’s reputation for empathy and dedication for the people of this community grew by leaps and bounds.

After leaving the Congressman’s staff, she continued her career with the New York City Blood Bank and subsequently with the Board of Education as a paraprofessional working with special-needs children. Her last position was serving the needs of the senior citizens at the Casaba Senior Housing Project.

Regardless of the positions, Rachel’s love for the people of El Barrio governed her tireless efforts to see it become all that it could be educationally, economically and culturally. One of the driving principles that made Rachel exceptional was her respect and concern for everyone she encountered. She never refused to help anyone, or any cause, and everyone was met with her sense of humor and exceptional warmth, which made her a well-known “magnet” in El Barrio.

The following are excerpts or messages of farewell for Rachael.

From Bob Espier

“By way of Farewell”

Although I had known Rachel for years, it was only peripherally, as Casabe Founder Ernesto Martinez’ assistant in setting up the social & food services at Casabe; although her name would come across my desk more often than I could count.

Then, suddenly, she & Yolanda invited me to join the Casabe Board in the Summer of 2006, & I joined in September. This began a close & rewarding working friendship. I didn’t know much about Rachel’s formal education, but after observing the skill with which she scrutinized financial reports, I concluded (in the back of my mind) that she was a CPA or equivalent. However, she was not. It was just the natural skill for incisive analysis that Rachel brought to everything she did. Of course, the tendency was then to pay less attention to the reports, since Rachel could be counted on to do such a thorough job. Regardless of my extensive experience in community organizations & governance, I had never come across a board member with that keen an eye for financial reports. After that momentary lapse of responsibility, I realized that I owed it to myself & the organization to bring the same intensity to these reports.

When Rachel began to drop out because of her illness, we had a telephone chat & she wondered if she could continue to fully serve on the board. My response was, ‘come to meetings when you can but just make sure that you continue to pay close attention to the financial reports.’ That is where we left it with respect to Rachel’s role as a board member. She attended the December meeting, functioned perfectly well, & we were all encouraged. However, shortly after that, the hospitalizations became more frequent as her health deteriorated more rapidly — until we learned the sad news of her passing on Saturday, 9 February 2008.

Goodbye Rachel,
Bob Espier
Chairman of Casabe Board

From Gloria E. Quinones

“An unforgettable and regrettable lose for El Barrio”

Rachel Villegas is a model of courage and integrity, a sincere and loyal friend, a fierce defender of the Puerto Rican community. Not surprisingly, she is a founding member of Women of El Barrio/Mujeres de El Barrio, established to develop the leadership capabilities of Puerto Rican women. She was so much fun to work with, as a talented lover of arts and crafts; she would have us go to her home to work on the center pieces she had designed for our annual New Year’s Gala and Women’s History Month events. It was Rachel who kept a checklist of all the event details: invitations, the food, drinks, entertainment, set-up, reception, clean-up, etc. and we had better be sure it was covered! For the past two years Rachel volunteered one evening per week at the office of Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito to serve constituents with problem around housing, government benefits.

Rachel loved to make you laugh and she thoroughly enjoyed a good joke. Rachel Villegas is an unforgettable and irreplaceable loss to her family, her friends and to El Barrio.

Gloria E. Quinones is an East Harlem Activist

Rachel is survived by her sons, James Benjamin Gwynne and Juan Villegas, Jr. (Michelle); her grandchildren, Mariko Gwynne, Rachel Mary Gwynne, James Paul Gwynne, Benjamin Gwynne, Insiah Villegas and Akil Hicks; her great-grandson, Nasseer Ogbourne; her sister, Olga DeLeonardis (Bepo); her niece and nephews, JoMarie Pierson (Scott), Stephan Santini (Teresa) and John DeLeonardis, Jr. (Rosalie); and their children, as well as numerous cousins and friends. All were greatly influenced by her love and wisdom. All will miss her.

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1 Comment

  1. Dear Marina

    You create beautiful and quite tasteful portraits of people, I been recetly learning a lot about the Puerto Rico culture because I’m working with this amazing Puerto Rico/ Cuban singer.

    I was wondering if you would be interested in writing a little bit about her amazing story. Her name is Stebani Cruz a.k.a la Boricuba, I am sure you are gonna find a lot about here on the web. I let you the searching part so you create your own idea of her.

    Thank you, and keep up the good work.

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