Antonia Gerena Rivera was 8 years old when the Ford Motor Co. produced the first Model T.
The Titanic would set sail on its maiden — and only — voyage 12 years after her May, 19, 1900, birth in the Loiza region of Puerto Rico to José Félix Gerena and Basilia Rivera.
Five days after her birth, the second modern Olympic Games opened in Paris.
Gerena Rivera, mother to eight children, died June 2 in Kendall at the age of 115 and 14 days. She was recognized by Guinness World Records and the Gerontology Research Group as the world’s fifth-oldest living person until her death, along with other remarkable stats:
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▪ She was Puerto Rico’s oldest woman ever. Only Emiliano Mercado Del Toro, who died in 2007 at 115 years and 156 days, outlived her.
▪ She was Florida’s oldest resident ever, beating Matthew Beard’s record of 114 years and 222 days set in 1985. Her family brought her to Florida from Puerto Rico about 30 years ago. She lived in Clewiston for a while with one of her late daughters, and then in Miami. Only two older American women outlive her — one in Michigan, one in New York.
“This is astonishing to us, we’re amazed,” said granddaughter Jennie Jimenez. So are the bean counters.
“There are more than seven billion people on this planet. Only four currently have documented proof of birth to support that they are 115 years old or older,” said Robert Young, director of the Gerontology Research Group’s Supercentenarian Research and Database Division.
Of course, the first question you ask of her granddaughter is, What was her secret to longevity?
Genes, naturally. She’s from a family of long-livers. Brother Francisco Genera Rivera, a World War I veteran, for instance, was born in 1898 and died at 105 in 2003. Another sister lived to 103, and her two surviving daughters, Carmen and Fe, are 90 and 89, respectively.
Genetics explains the uncontrollable. But would you also believe a daily shot of brandy?
“She was a hard-working woman and strong,” Jimenez said. “I like to say she died with her pants on. To tell you the truth, she had strong willpower. She drank brandy every day until she was 110.”
Until recently, before the pneumonia that sent her to the hospital, Gerena Rivera lived with her still feisty daughter Carmen — Jimenez’s mom.
“My mother was super-attached to her,” Jimenez said. “All her food had to be pureed because she didn’t have teeth, but she would ask for pork. ‘You don’t give me any meat!’ she’d say. But we did. It was [ground]. She didn’t know it.”
At 102, Gerena Rivera, whose ancestors trace to the Canary Islands, took a trip with Jimenez to her native Puerto Rico to see her ailing younger sister, Maria Gerena Rivera de Aviles, at a nursing home.
“My grandmother didn’t have arthritis or high blood pressure or cholesterol. She was amazed to see her sister in that condition. She would pat her on the hand and say, ‘Mas nueva que yo’ (She was younger than me). I took her to different towns in Puerto Rico. We went to the beach, and she would hang with me wherever I wanted to go,” Jimenez said.
The trip brought back many memories. “I would ask her something from the past and you’d think she had forgotten. She’d take a little bit of time, and when you least expected it, she’d answer your question and she would remember names.”
She especially loved to talk about World War I.
“That is how she met her husband,” Jimenez explained. “There used to be a military base in San Juan at that time, and the women would wear these long dresses and she would go and stroll around the Plaza, and the soldiers would be there and that is how they got to meet and comingle.”
After World War I, Gerena Rivera worked as a teacher in a rural schoolhouse in the Puerto Rican countryside. Students and teachers had to cross a river and walk through rugged terrain. “There weren’t these beautiful schools of today, especially not in the mountains in the country. That’s the kind of teacher she was in Puerto Rico.”
Gerena Rivera had her first child, daughter Isabelle, in November 1917, and she lived until April 2010, dying at 92 in Merritt Island. Jimenez is one of 27 surviving grandchildren, and she has lost count of how many great- and great-great-grandchildren are out there. “She left a lot of people over the map.”
And this vibrant woman — at 105, she could touch her toes and at 110 walk with assistance — left South Florida a delightful story, said Young, the gerontologist.
“One does not need to fit the stereotype of an elderly person confined to a wheelchair,” he said. “Her story could definitely serve as an inspiration to others.”
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