Julio Ricardo Varela

Feb 2011


Born in Puerto Rico to a Puerto Rican father and a Bronx Italian mother, Julio graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1990 with a degree in the History and Literature of Latin America. He started his career as a journalist for the Boston Globe, before moving on to Houghton Mifflin Company, where he edited textbooks for bilingual children. After 20 years in the publishing business, Julio is currently the Editorial Director for K-5 Reading for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Boston. A social media enthusiast, Julio also blogs about Latino issues and #LatinoLit at juliorvarela.com. His story "Power's Sunday Slam" was published in 100 Stories for Queensland, an anthology of short stories developed for the victims of the Queensland floods. "Prologue" and "Summer, 1986" are the first two installments of FRANKY BENÍTEZ: A Story of Love, Pain, and Hope from San Juan to Boston, which Julio is writing online and will publish completely this September.

Franky Benítez


Fall, 1996

Imagine Franky Benítez hiding on a subway platform in Boston and humming the song his father improvised twenty years ago outside a cinema in Santurce.

We love you, Franky.

Oh yes we do.

We love you, Franky.

We love you true.

When you're not with me,

We're blue.

Oh, Franky, we love you.

And as he hums, Franky Benítez enters a green trolley that cradles him back to his days of final comfort: August, 1976, the rear of a station wagon, sucking on a bottle of chocolate milk.

His abuelo drives. His mother smokes. A week had passed since the judge formally decreed his parents' divorce, and now here was Franky Benítez, his mother and his baby sister, three passengers checking into Eastern Airlines Flight 17 nonstop to El Bronx, Nueva York.

On the road to the airport, men shout, hawking fruits and fried meats. The traffic crawls. His mother lights up, smoke creaks out the window of the station wagon, flowing past the condominiums, past the beach and into the Caribbean. Once, she thinks, this island of Puerto Ricans and Americans, blacks, blondes and those in between, Cuban exiles and Dominicans, enchanted her with a home where kids played in pools and parents danced all night. But now? Seven years had passed, and her seven-year-old son, her prince, her Franky, still drank chocolate milk from a baby's bottle.

Right then Franky Benítez climbs over the back seat of the station wagon, careful not to kick his baby sister, who sleeps on a blanket and seat belts. As he sees his mother smoke away tears, he leans over and kisses her on the cheek.

"Mamita, when I get back to Puerto Rico, I want to help you paint the house, ok?"


Think of how the green trolley stops at Boylston Street, and how others jolt silent curses. Behind a line of B trains, and C trains and D trains, the trolley halts. Franky turns to see the dim Boylston station. It had changed very little since college—the still gray, the rusty green, the old Chinese woman sitting on the middle bench, clutching to shopping bags full of soda cans, teenagers smoking in back corners, vagrants lingering near the token booth. Maybe one hundred years ago, when this city was smaller and people were amazed that you could go from one end of Boston Common to the other in an electric car, maybe then the Boylston stop made sense. But now, who gets off at Boylston Street?

Franky Benítez had figured it all out, and when he calculated the numbers, he felt like a Rain Man: people who like routine, read the Globe for 50 years and buy the same cup of coffee from the same corner store in some part of Fields Corner or Jamaica Plain or Somerville. The same people take the same train every day for 520 days a year, give a holiday or two, 5,200 days a decade, 26,000 a half-century, 52,000 days a century. And as he waits, Franky figures, if 100 people took the same train for 46 years, they would be in that train 2,392,000 times.

The trolley moves. Relief? Escape? Security? It's only work, a place to drain his time.  Now imagine this scene: the trolley moves, the people cheer. The trolley accelerates, Franky begins to holler. He jumps to the front and begs the conductor to barrel-ass all the stops: Arlington, Copley Square, Hynes Convention Center, Kenmore Square, all the way to Cleveland Circle, where the trolley combusts and all the grief, the tedium, the anxiety vanishes and Franky Benítez is at peace again.


Summer, 1986

When he was seventeen, the summer before his freshman year, Franky Benítez would wake up at noon each day and head to the beach with a case of Medalla beers, two Whoppers, and onion rings. By sunset, Franky, his cousin Ismael, and their best friends Marito and Guille would return to Franky’s condo where he lived with his father, his stepmom, and his brothers and sisters. MTV would buzz in the living room as the boys drank more beers, and Franky's stepmom made them dinner. Around ten, after kissing his siblings good night, Franky and his boys would pass the Studio hair gel, spray themselves with Polo and get dressed for Neon's, a club that would blast New Wave for the children of light-skinned Puerto Rico. The attire was always typical San Juan Menudo: jeans, docksiders, no socks, open-collared shirts, Izod or OP or Playero, a necklace, a crucifix, a watch, some cash.

To Franky, Ismael, Marito, and Guille, Neon’s was theirs, and they owned it as if they were a bunch of preppie Rat Packers. They would walk in, order some Long Island Iced Teas, take their corner table and wait for the girls to head their way since they all knew that although Franky was the shy one, the Puerto Rican girls loved him. He had both his mother, her hazel eyes, her light brown hair, and his father, his coffee skin, his smile, his laugh. Franky was so different, the girls would say, and did you know he got into Harvard? Who didn’t know?

But, as Franky once told Ismael, San Juan girls wasted entire days preparing themselves. The short dresses, the makeup, the slicked-back hair. Life was not a Robert Palmer video. Of course, Franky would be polite to his San Juan girls, say hello to them with kisses on cheeks, ask them about their day, their college plans, and whether they were headed to the beach the next afternoon. And sometimes, when the night was slow and Franky drank his third Iced Tea, and they played "Bizarre Love Triangle," he would be the first one to dance with them.

American girls were different. You could pick out an American girl in Puerto Rico without even talking to them. American girls always wore jeans and blouses, and they always wanted to drink. They were simple: they listened and made him laugh. They knew his music, his favorite movies, and they wouldn’t care if he didn’t feel like going out some nights. On the island, unlike when he was back in the Bronx, the American girls Franky met would also be willing. Some nights, Franky and his boys got lucky. They would drink, dance, and head for the beach in jammed cars, wine and cigarettes in hands. And that was it. No commitments, no dates the next night, just some caresses and promises to write from college. On most other nights, after Neon's closed, they would head to the casino for ham-and-cheese sandwiches, a few bottles of beer and the chance to make a run against the dealer.

“I will show all you how this shit is done!”

That was Franky’s father one night during that summer of 1986 as he led the boys into the El San Juan Hotel and Casino. Franky believed right there: his father was a saint. Saint Francisco Antonio Benítez of Hope, patron saint of all dreamers.

The story goes that Francisco Antonio had just forty dollars in his wallet when he sat at the final seat of a crowded ten-dollar table in the far corner of the casino. In just four shoes, he had accumulated over four thousand dollars in winnings, prompting the pit boss to rate him for the rest of the night and offer him two VIP tickets to a boxing match that the El San Juan would host the next evening. Francisco Antonio thanked the pit boss for the offer and returned to the hotel’s restaurant, where he treated Franky's boys to a meal of freshly-caught lobsters from Fajardo, plaintain mofongo, rice, beans, yuca, and coconut flan. All this and bottles of a Chilean wine one of Franky’s boys had claimed was grown near the grave of Pablo Neruda.

And as he placed a stack of hundreds next to the check, Francisco Antonio stood up on his chair and yelled, “I can do it one more time!” So, he led the boys to the most expensive table in the casino, and seated alone this time, tripled his money in less than half an hour. By now, the pit boss had offered the hotel's penthouse suite, to which Francisco Antonio so graciously accepted.

“Now, gentlemen, in order to complete this marvelous night, I ask all of you to please join me at the bar,” Franky’s father said, cashing in his chips, the casino providing him with a check for nine thousand dollars.

And the moment Francisco Antonio approached the bar, he was welcomed with a rounding show of applause, to which Franky’s father responded, “Drinks for everyone! And put it on my bill!”

They drank until three in the morning. And when Francisco Antonio received the tab, he placed the check for nine thousand dollars on the bar and walked away.

Later, Franky and his father walked the beach and collapsed right near the shore. “I love you, son, I love you more than anything else in the world,” Franky’s father said. Then he began to sing his song, the song he had made up just for Franky that night in front of the cinema in Santurce, the first summer his son came back to Puerto Rico after moving to the Bronx with his ex-wife.

That summer in 1986, Franky Benítez saw his future. It would be just like his father in a casino. Nothing would stop it.