Our families influence who we become—and like many women who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, the conflict between the politics of the era and what she saw in her own home shaped Jeanie Ribeiro’s life.
Ribeiro, 67, was born and raised in Onset, a village that calls itself “the gateway to Cape Cod,” about an hour outside of Boston. “It’s not far from where the Kennedys have their enclave. We used to say we were on the poor side of the bridge,” she laughs. “But we were only about two blocks from the beach. As a kid, I could go to the back bay all by myself and just hang out.”
Ribeiro and her siblings—two sisters and a brother—lived around lots of family. “We had aunts and uncles and cousins from my mother’s family all around us, and my father’s family lived only about 20 minutes away,” she says.
Ribeiro’s forebears emigrated from Cape Verde, an island nation off the northwest coast of Africa, in the early 1900s, when the islands suffered a severe drought and famine. The islands were colonized by the Portuguese, and were a pivotal location in the early slave trade. It was also a haven for Jews and others who were victims of the Portuguese-Spanish Inquisition. The population, with a mixture of European, Moorish, Arab and African backgrounds, developed its own unique Creole culture and language.
“When I was young, a lot of the kids I went to school with came from immigrant families,” says Ribeiro. “Everybody seemed to have grandparents, or even parents, who spoke a language other than English. … There were so many backgrounds in our own family. We were black and Portuguese. My grandpa was a citizen of Portugal. One of my grandmothers was English. I always used to ask, ‘What are we?’”
Ribeiro is described by everyone who knows her as fiercely independent.
“I always felt as if I were an only child, even from about the age of 2,” she says. “I really liked being on my own. My mom instilled in me a desire to be independent. She was in a traditional-role marriage with my dad. She had a beautiful voice, and people always said she was as pretty as Lena Horne. I don’t remember my dad ever being really kind to my mother. I remember when all she wanted was to get a job, and he absolutely forbade it.
“My dad was a hard-working man who was basically living the American dream. His mother had died when he was very young, and the only memory of her that he had was when they lowered him to kiss her in her coffin. Can you imagine? His primary focus was taking care of and protecting his family, but he was something of a playboy. In fact, I met a young woman who was actually a child of my dad.
“Dad got abusive toward my mom, and she threatened to leave him several times. I just know that she never had the chance to live the life she might have wanted. I learned that independence meant being happy by doing what you want to do.
“To this day, I always go everywhere alone. Of course I have friends, but they know not to put any demands on me. I never wanted to be tied down to anyone. I do things when I want to. Even when I had boyfriends, I never lived with them. I didn’t want anyone taking over my world the way my dad had with my mom.”
Ribeiro prides herself on being self-educated and a voracious reader. After she graduated from high school, she wanted a way out of the small town where she was raised. “There were maybe 2,000 people in the whole area, and there weren’t a lot of opportunities for women, especially women of color,” she said. “I had a friend who had a management job at the telephone company in Boston. When I went in for that interview, I knew they would give me the job. They needed younger people. I may have been the first woman of color they had hired.”
Ribeiro came to California in 1975. “I had a cousin in Los Angeles, and we roomed together for a while. I realized I didn’t want to live right in the city. I found a job in Santa Monica and a place where I could walk to work.”
Ribeiro later moved up to Big Bear Lake and loved it. “It was the air up there, especially after being in Los Angeles,” she said. “I’m totally an outdoor person. I skied, biked and hiked. In fact, it’s because the air was so clean that I stopped smoking!
“Fun to me means getting up early to walk, reading two or three books at a time, and going to cultural events, the museum, art exhibits. And when you go places alone, you meet interesting people. Conversations don’t happen easily when you’re already with someone else.
“I moved down to the desert because I’m starting to age, and I wanted to be closer to medical facilities. I love living my life here in my own way.”
Ribeiro realizes the women of her generation fought to avoid living their lives in the same roles as their parents. “Men are attracted to my independence—but then I can’t be what they mean by ‘wife,’” she says. “Between the propaganda (of feminism) in the 1960s, and my mom’s marriage, the message that came through to me was that unless you find the right fit, you don’t have to be married. I’ve been asked, ‘Are you a lesbian?’ since I’ve never married. I’m not, but my response is, ‘Sex is sex. If you love someone, what difference does it make?’
“I think I was born with a positive attitude. I’ve always been focused on what’s happening right now. People who glorify the past are boring. Sure, we have memories, but I’m always open to the next new thing coming down the road. Right now, I’m joyful, happy and healthy, and I’m free to do anything I want.”
Thanks to the lessons of her own family and of the changing cultural norms for women in her generation, Jeanie Ribiero lives her life to the fullest.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.