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Familia Fuentes: Una Madre de Coraje


Educator & Mother of Future South Jersey Leaders


Camden –  When Angel and Ricky Fuentes were in their early teens and attending middle school, their summers were spent waking up at 3 a.m. and accompanying their mother and Uncle Angel to work in the fields of Southern  New Jersey.

   In picking blueberries, apples and tomatoes in temperatures that often reached into the upper 90s and even “above 100 degrees,” recalled the now New Jersey State Assemblyman Angel Fuentes in an electronic exchange with El Hispano, “Our mother (had) encouraged us to work so that we could purchase school clothing and supplies.”  

   The history of the United States is dotted with political and business

dynasties that rest on the inspiration of patriarchs and matriarchs: the Adams family, Roosevelts, Kennedy and Bush families are among the most eminent.  But few could have projected a future political force emerging from the young laborers of New Jersey’s farm fields of the mid-1970s. Yet the improbable success story of the Fuentes family is similarly founded on the slender shoulders of Maria Caban Fuentes.  

   Although they would likely demur from the notion of considering themselves a dynasty, albeit local, the still emerging prominence of the brothers of the Fuentes family of Camden, NJ are a reflection of the indomitable spirit of their mother, Maria. As the matriarch of the Fuentes family, Maria’s encouragement and example fostered the development of a political acumen that would lead to public accolades, as well as election and legislative victories.

  In forgiving and walking away from an abusive husband, according to Assemblyman Fuentes, she instilled in her six children a sense of understanding and “fortitude.”  It’s a characteristic that has strengthened their capacity to maneuver through many a political obstacle, garnering for them the respect of opponents and colleagues alike.

   Although only reaching the second grade, noted Mr. Fuentes, it was her “strong spiritual values that helped shape her children’s lives.”

      “She raised us to help others in need or in trouble,” explained Assemblyman Fuentes.  

  Born on a little coffee, sugar and potato farm in Moca, Puerto Rico in May of 1940, the fourth of eleven, Maria Caban imbibed the work ethic and Catholic faith of her parents, Manuel and Leoncia Caban.  Her father would eventually become a Third Order member of the Franciscans, instructing those preparing for sacraments.

  Although she briefly contemplated becoming a nun, she followed her father’s example,  and with her friend Agripina, regularly visited other families for prayers.

     By the age of nineteen, Maria had met and married Pablo Fuentes. .After settling down in a home near Pablo’s parents, Pablo began earning extra income for an already growing family by travelling back and forth to New York and New Jersey,working at a variety of farm and factory jobs. The  four children born in Puerto Rico, included; Pablo, Angel, Rosa and Ceferino.

       At Pablo’s urging, the family sold their home in Puerto Rico in 1966 and moved to New York city. The Fuentes family remained in Brooklyn for the next seven years; years that saw the birth to two more children, Jeraldo and Melvin.

   Despite the dramatic changes from a life on the island of Puerto Rico, Maria was comforted by living in the same apartment building as her brothers Juan and Angel, both busy raising their own families.

    “Every Sunday she would take all of her children to St. Rita’s Catholic Church,” recalled Angel Fuentes, where he and his brother Pablo were altar boys.

    In addition, she could turn to the local Spanish radio station for her favorite folkloric music. Listening to performances by such legends as, Jesus Sanchez Erazo, known also as “Chuito el de Bayamon” or Ramito Lucide and her personal favorite Lucecita Benitez, were a reminder of her family and friends back in Moca, Puerto Rico.

    However, the period was also fraught with many travails, as her husband would disappear for days at a time, only returning to engage in what became a pattern physical abuse, even hitting her “in front of her children,” according to Mr. Fuentes.  The abuse was further exacerbated with Pablo arriving home one day with a daughter, Peggy,  the product of another relationship.

  In agreeing to take care of this additional child,  Maria did so with the faithful resignation that, “God has a plan.”

    Afraid to go to the police about her husband’s abuse, her brothers eventually found out and immediately helped her find a second floor apartment where she soon found support and a friend in the owner.

    By early 1973 the family had fled to Camden, NJ, where Maria’s brother Angel had again found her an apartment on Federal street. The city of Camden was a “happy” refuge that lasted, she recalled to her son,  “for a whole year.” As a single mother, she was eligible for government assistance and food stamps, and occasionally found work in factories to supplement that support; retiring at the age 65.

     Maria and Pablo were soon divorced, and since that time she has avoided any similar relationship. Instead, she focused all of her energy on raising her family..

   “She made sure we all had food at the table -even if it was just spaghetti and rice rice; and that her children were in school,” observed Assemblyman Fuentes. “It was something she didn’t have, but she made sure we had that education.”

    Today, four of her sons serve in a variety of official capacities in Southern New Jersey: Angel Fuentes, who served as the city of Camden’s Council President for nearly a decade, is today the Democratic State Assemblyman for Camden; brother Ricky who also worked in the farm fields of New Jersey with Angel, is a Councilman in Woodlynne, NJ; their brother Jeraldo is the Mayor of Woodlynne; and Melvin has been in law enforcement for the Camden County Police for more than 16 years.

     Among the legislation introduced by Assemblyman Angel Fuentes are bills requiring physicians or other medical professionals, victim counselors and mental health professionals who suspect someone is a victim of domestic violence, to report  it to local law enforcement.The bill also has sanctions for those who fail to report an act of domestic violence while having reasonable cause to believe that a person has been a victim of such violence.

 Another bill established a tuition abatement program that provides a waiver of all tuition costs to persons who are documented victims of domestic violence, who as a result of the violence become unable to complete college coursework for which tuition was paid.

   A third piece of legislation offered by Assemblyman Fuentes, the “NJ Security and Financial Empowerment Act,” grants victims of domestic violence an extra 20 days off from work, within the year following the incident.

    “When students come to school armed with the knowledge that their parents care and are engaged in their education and are there to help and support them, they are more open to instruction and achieve at higher levels,” says nationally recognized educator and founder of Camden, NJ’s Leap Academy, Gloria Bonilla Santiago..