ROCHESTER — Two families. Two sons. One bond.
This year’s 42nd-annual Puerto Rican Festival will have a special place in the heart of U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Javier Ortiz-Rivera’s family when he and fellow Latino soldiers who have died will be honored during the festival race that takes place on Aug. 6. Ortiz-Rivera ran in the inaugural race last year.
Orlando Ortiz, his brother and festival board president, recalls that race fondly. They started out at the same pace but then friendly competition kicked in as Ortiz-Rivera took off and finished ahead of Ortiz, he said with a laugh during an interview June 15.
But then, Ortiz-Rivera ran back to catch up with Ortiz and they crossed the finish line together. Their mother, Gloria Rivera, cries thinking back at the memory of the two of them running side by side.
"It was a beautiful moment," she said with tears in her eyes.
Ortiz-Rivera died last November in Afghanistan. He was 26. While his family struggles to move forward, the family of U.S. Army Pfc. Teodoro "Tito" Torres Jr. remembers the pain they continue to endure because of his death in Iraq five years ago. He was 29.
"I don’t believe time heals pain," said his sister, Melissa Torres. "The pain is never going to go away."
But this year, the family’s annual prayer service on the day he died had a different feel, a celebration of his life vs. mourning his loss, she said.
"It made for a much nicer day," she said. "And it (allowed) us to breathe."
Torres was happy to hear that the SSGT Javier Ortiz Memorial 5K Race & Fitness Walk would be dedicated to Latino servicemen and women who have died. As an intervention specialist at John James Audubon School No. 33, Torres also tries to educate her students about the job our soldiers are doing in the Middle East.
"Kids don’t realize we’re still at war," said Torres, who was planning to relocate to Florida last month. "Adults don’t realize it. These are American soldiers every day dying for our freedom here. People don’t think twice about that."
There could be no better cause than recognizing that sacrifice, noted Al Burgos, who is coordinating the race with Dan Antonetty. He explained that race organizers were looking to raise awareness for an important cause and increase participation in the race. When the tragedy hit the Ortiz family, organizers approached them about renaming the race, and the family approved, he added.
Proceeds from this year’s race will be donated to the Veterans Outreach Center.
"We are looking … to make this 5K race a great success and a new tradition in our community," Burgos said.
Military service is becoming a tradition in many Latino families. From 1992 to 2001, while the overall military strength dropped by 23 percent, the number of Hispanics who joined the ranks grew by 30 percent, according to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Both Ortiz-Rivera and Torres chose military careers to help better their lives. Ortiz-Rivera provided his own parents with the usual rebellious-type challenges during his teen years, his mother said, but felt the Marines could help him get on the right track to a good career. And his family believes that it did.
"He grew up in the Marines," Rivera added.
Torres wanted to go back to college and knew Army service would help pay for his education. Despite the sacrifice they made with their lives, both were happy with their choices, family members noted.
"He liked the idea of being a soldier," Torres said of her brother. "It was what he was destined to do and he knew it."
And the choice, although difficult for the families to accept, was supported for the sake of the two men. Torres’ mother wanted to join a protest group, but he persuaded her not to for his sake, his sister explained.
Rivera — wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the U.S. flag — suffered thinking of her young son being in the midst of war. Ortiz-Rivera was only 17 when he first enlisted.
"From the beginning, it was difficult," she said. "I cried for him for being so far from us and for being over there. But we always supported him even though we didn’t want him there."
Rivera said that she kept the faith that God would be with him, and she is sure God was — even at the end of his life. As he matured, Ortiz-Rivera also grew in his faith and kept his Bible and rosary with him at all times, his mother said.
"He had a lot of faith in the Lord," she said. "He felt that if something happened to him, he would be with the Lord in heaven."
Rivera said that she feels humbled and proud of all the dedications and honors that have been bestowed on her son since his death.
"He was the kind of person that got along with everyone," she said. "Everyone knew him."
Her brother graduated from Monroe Community College with a degree in history, which Torres said he knew like the back of his hand, then moved to Las Vegas. He had lived there barely a year when the Army sent him to Iraq. He was 21 years old.
Her parents were preparing for his homecoming party when two soldiers appeared in the family’s driveway to deliver the news of her brother’s death in May 2006, Torres explained. She and her mother had been at a local park and her mother said that she had a bad feeling about the day, Torres added.
When they got into their car to drive home, a blue jay landed on the hood and stared at both of them, she said. It’s an image she cannot shake from that day, Torres said tearfully.
While support from family and the community was there initially, Torres said that the family has subsequently faced challenges trying to find ways to honor her brother’s memory. She said that she was happy to hear about the festival race and is working with organizers for her family to play a role.
"Every time a soldier dies, though, we relive it," Torres added. "It just happens."
Ortiz said that when two Marines arrived at the family’s door with the news of his brother’s death, it was like a scene in a movie.
"It’s very difficult when you are the one (being given such news)," he added.
Ortiz said that he is the kind of person who sets his emotion aside to deal with what needs to be done, which is why he immediately flew to North Carolina to be with his sister-in-law and the couple’s three children. They had been married only a year but had been together for five, Rivera added.
Ortiz then went to Dover, Del., to receive his brother’s body.
"It was an experience I wish I had never gone through, but I’m glad I did," he said. "To this day, I remember everything."
Rivera said that she wishes she were able to offer condolences to other families who also experience this kind of loss but she is not yet there emotionally.
"The last few months have been difficult," Rivera added. "But the support and prayers and dedications have helped us in overcoming (the pain) a little day by day."
But she remembers soldiers and their families in her prayers. Torres said that her parents, Carmen and Teodoro Sr., also cannot face other military funerals, adding that she attended Oritz-Rivera’s wake on her family’s behalf.
She said that her parents visit her brother’s grave site at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery daily, noting that he was the only son in a family of six siblings.
"There are so many who also have lost their lives," Rivera noted. "It pains me to see the news when it happens to another family. It is very difficult. … It is like reliving (the tragedy) all over again."
But the support of the community and her church have helped keep the family going, she added. Rivera is especially proud of her younger son for all that he has done to keep the family going, she said.
"He took charge of everything," she remarked. "I could not handle it. We weren’t prepared or able. Only God knows."
Her daughter, Glory, also has been a Godsend, she said. Last month, Glory left for North Carolina to help her sister-in-law and the couples’ three children as they attempt to move forward and also keep Ortiz-Rivera’s memory alive for the children.
Glory also brought a moment of celebration for the family, as she recently graduated from SUNY Binghamton.
"Despite all that we have gone through, God has blessed our family with moments of happiness," Rivera said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To register for or obtain more information about the SSGT Javier Ortiz Memorial 5K Race & Fitness Walk, call 585-266-2680 or visit the Puerto Rican Festival website.