When Wilfredo Ruiz puts his harmonica to his lips, the elderly Puerto Rican residents of St. Vincent de Paul nursing home gather around his wheelchair.
Sometimes some of them dance. They sway to distinctive rhythms of traditional plena, Aguinaldos and romantic boleros from the island. Others, reminded of the music of their childhoods, sing.
Music has always been a part of Ruiz’ life. During his childhood in Puerto Rico, whenever he heard the sound of an acoustic guitar, he ran to the music.
Ruiz acquired his first instrument, a 5-cent harmonica, in 1957, when he was 15. With no formal training, he taught himself how to play by imitating the songs he heard on his father’s radio until he got them right.
Today, he plays a Tremolo Sextet harmonica, an instrument that is six harmonicas in one, each tuned to a different key. The sophisticated instrument allows him to produce warm tones and includes a larger range than the dime-store harmonica he learned on.
Ruiz quickly turned his musical talents and love of performing into a profession. Young men would hire him to serenade their girlfriends. An avid singer, Ruiz would perform the songs of Pedro Flores, Rafael Hernandez and other Puerto Rican composers, playing his harmonica while a friend accompanied him on guitar.
“Arbolito, Arbolito” by ftelegra
With a hearty laugh, Ruiz, who has a rosy complexion reminiscent of Santa Claus, and a shock of white hair, recalls being chased one time by a pack of wild dogs as he and a friend serenaded his own girlfriend. Undeterred, they climbed on top of a car and continued playing. His girlfriend looked on in amusement as the dogs, agitated by the sound of the harmonica, began to howl.
Now, at 69, blind and a resident of the Longwood nursing home, Ruiz’s love of music is stronger than ever.
Almost 20 years ago, while on vacation in Puerto Rico, he was in a motorcycle accident. Doctors told Ruiz that he would never regain his eyesight. He has lived at St. Vincent de Paul since 1993.
Although he moved from Puerto Rico to New York in 1958 to be with his mother and siblings, Ruiz had never lived in the Bronx until his accident forced him to seek out a nursing facility. He chose St. Vincent de Paul because of the quality of care and its special mission to meet the needs of Latinos. The home is bi-lingual; the majority of residents are Puerto Rican.
Luis Flores, the director of therapeutic recreation at the residence, has known Ruiz for almost 20 years. He says “his blindness does not hinder him at all. He is able to do so much and share so much with other residents.”
Living at St. Vincent’s provides Ruiz with the musical outlet he craves. Each week, he performs in St. Vincent’s chapel, accompanying the choir during services on Friday and Saturday mornings.
Most days, Ruiz chooses to spend time in his room. He listens to the radio and whenever he hears a song, he tries to play it on his harmonica. A fan of world music, he can play anything if he hears it once. His repertoire, to which he recently added a Russian song, is wide.
Ruiz first discovered the Tremolo Sextet harmonica that he plays when he moved to New York. He saw it in a store window and was intrigued by its odd shape. It resembles a spinning water mill in the way that the six harmonicas are fastened together. Over the years, the Tremolo has enabled Ruiz to accommodate the different vocal ranges of singers and of the amateur performers who accompany him.
On Veteran’s Day, when staff members couldn’t locate the home’s CD of the national anthem, Ruiz volunteered to perform the “Star Spangled Banner.” He was confident he could play the song on his harmonica. According to Flores, he nailed it.
When Ruiz is not performing in the chapel, his favorite pastime is playing the romantic music he used to perform as a young man. His “playing provides a sense of nostalgia to residents because it takes them back to their roots,” said Flores. Even the most confused Alzheimer’s patients will break out in song when they hear Ruiz play a song like “En mi Viejo San Juan” or “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas.”
“There aren’t many musicians left who can play that style of music,” says Flores, who hires musicians to perform for the residents at St. Vincent. As the generation that grew up with the classic ballads and boleros slowly disappears, the romantic tunes of Puerto Rico are dying with them.
When Ruiz plays in his room, or in the hallway, however, visitors, staff, and residents sing and dance.