'Titi' Myrtha: an unforgettable legacy
On October 12, Myrtha Castro, co-founder of Amparo de la Niñez, died at the age of 64. Her legacy lives in the memory of thousands of children and adults who were once in her classrooms.
If educating is an act of immortality (because what you learn is never forgotten), then Myrtha Castro hasn’t left. On the contrary: she has a lot of time left among us.
The Puerto Rican teacher, who embraced childhood education from Amparo de la Niñez (Children's Harbor) as a mission entrusted to her by God, died on October 12 of cardiac complications.
However, a 30-year legacy remains as a testimony of a life dedicated to nurturing values among North Philly children.
‘Titi' Myrtha - as she was known - was born in Luquillo, a small coastal town northeast of Puerto Rico, on December 16, 1952. There she spent her childhood, her teenage years and the first part of her adulthood.
A graduate of the University of Puerto Rico, Myrtha was initially an adult teacher. On the island, she taught Spanish to GED students who, forced by necessity, had dropped out of high school. She also taught at the Community College.
"Myrtha had her profession inside her heart. It was an experience, she loved what she did," recalls Felipe Castro -'Tío Felipe', as everyone calls him-, her husband.
There is no doubt about that: you just need to listen to the anecdote of the time when ‘Titi’ Myrtha helped a 60-year-old lady obtained her GED diploma to have a sense of her dedication and tenacity.
'Titi' Myrtha was one of those teachers who didn’t quit on their students, a teacher whose success was when her students overcame their own difficulties.
Her colleague, Dr. Lucila Páramo, a professor at Saint Joseph's University and the Philadelphia Community College, remembers her as a woman with an unwavering ethical sense.
“‘Titi' was a person who was clear about her principles and morals. She also had a human touch, she knew how to treat people, and that is important because she transmitted a lot of security that way," says Dr. Páramo.
Christian values and the vindication of the family as the main socializing institution were the beacon that gave direction to her pedagogical work.
One of her closest friends was Pastor Onix Iván Matos, from the Centro Cristiano La Roca church and director of Radio Salvación, who remembers her as an educator of several generations.
"Myrtha was a teacher for many years; a brave and persistent woman who brought many family values to the community," says Matos, pointing out the need to "keep alive the legacy she sowed."
Another friend of the family is Pastor José Miguel Roque, of the Primera Iglesia Cristiana Misionera, whose personal testimony accounts for the mark that Myrtha left on thousands of families.
Two of his children are musicians thanks to her time at Amparo de la Niñez, an organization that she and 'Tío' Felipe created in 1988 to provide artistic education - with Christian values - to thousands of children north of the city.
Michael Roque, who is already in his 40s, plays saxophone and piano; David, his younger brother, plays in a temple in Florida thanks to the eldest son of 'Titi' Myrtha and 'Tio' Felipe, Irving Castro, who taught him how to play bass.
Pastor Roque says he is "eternally grateful" to the Castro family for this, especially with Myrtha, who was "a woman very devoted to working with children. She dedicated herself to organizing workshops and events where young people had the opportunity to exalt their talents."
Measuring the legacy of a person who is no longer here is not an easy task; there are things that simply cannot be quantified and not all human beings manage to leave a public testimony of their passage on the face of the earth.
In the case of Myrtha, that testimony was massive on October 20 at the Primera Iglesia Cristiana Misionera of North Philadelphia, where more than 1,300 people gathered to see her for the last time and celebrate with her family a life dedicated to the mission of Christ.
Isabel Salva, co-founder of Radio Salvación and close friend of the Castro family, says Myrtha was an essential part of a process that involved many people, starting with her husband and family.
"Myrtha left a legacy of friendship, love, work and testimony of what it means to be a good Christian. That legacy remains in the hearts of all those who knew her," says Salvá.
If by legacy we understand that which lasts, - as if it were an indelible mark - then Myrtha was one of those Philadelphian Latinos who have done a lot for their community.
Since opening its doors in 1988, Amparo de la Niñez has served thousands of Latino and non-Latino children, Christians and non-Christians, offering theater, singing and field trips. The goal: to leave an education about what to do with spare time.
Reverend Luis Cortés, CEO of Esperanza, thanked God "for the time she was with us."
For him, the work of 'Titi' was a blessing for the community because, above all, Myrtha was a "traditional Puerto Rican mother who, just as she loved her children, corrected them when she needed to and imposed very high standards."
The reverend describes her as "a woman who protected all children as if they were her own."
That unlimited love for childhood was what made her and her husband assume the work of instilling values to thousands of children, as their own mission.
Not all human beings have the luck that 'Titi' Myrtha and 'Tio' Felipe had: finding the love of your life from the beginning is like winning the lottery on the first attempt.
The life and the legacy of 'Titi' cannot be understood without taking into account her companion. They were both 13 when they met.
The encounter took place in 1965, in the San Vicente neighborhood of Luquillo. It was the wedding of her cousin, where her parents attended as godparents to the newlyweds.
It was love at first sight - "puppy love", as he calls it. "We looked at each other and were captivated from then on," he recalls.
These were times in which instantaneity didn’t exist and distances were measured in "hours on foot"; a time in which sights set other signs and ways of saying things in memory.
There wasn’t anything else. Without a telephone or Internet, all they had left was a pencil and paper to cut the distance between El Yunque and Luquillo.
The epistolary love evolved and the infantile phrases gave step to more elaborated verses: "If God one day blinded all source of light, the universe would be blinded with those eyes that you have", Felipe used to write at the end of each letter.
Three years later, at 16, he asked her to “let him in her house.” "I quickly told her. The key phrase back then was 'do you want to be my girlfriend?’ That simple, you could not waste time," recalls this 65-year-old man who, after spending 42 years with Myrtha, is now faced with the need to learn to live without her.
Felipe liked 'Titi's seriousness. He liked the character of that woman. In 1975, at 23, they got married.
"She helped me to be a better man because, without arguing, she would let me cool down and then tell me: ‘Baby, it's not like that, you have to think before you speak,’” he says as he looks over the countless family photos hanging on the walls of the basement of their house.
The photos, those windows to the past, are present in every corner where Myrtha's life took place.
Dozens of albums are at the hand of anyone who wants to take a look.
The Castro’s were exactly that: an open book full of anecdotes in all sizes and colors.
That's what 'Tio' Felipe has left: a lot of memories in black and white, of the years in Puerto Rico; in sepia, from the first days in Philadelphia; in color, of the nineties and digital, those that nobody prints anymore.
A few polaroids show the young couple with their three children - Irving, Mergie and Nelving -, taking root in Philadelphia since they arrived in 1980. He came to improve his English and expand his professional horizon: from the Royal Insurance Company in Puerto Rico he then worked for 18 years in the Philadelphia Stock Exchange.
At the beginning, she dedicated herself to raising their children. The plan was to return to the island in five years. She studied a master's degree at La Salle, and had everything ready to return to the island in 1987, where a secure job with the Universidad Panamericana de Fajardo awaited her.
None of that happened. A personal experience between Myrtha and God changed her plans in March 1988. "It was then when the call to the ministry aroused," explains Felipe.
The spouses Isabel and Sarrail Salvá, founders of Radio Salvación (Christian radio station with 30 years on the air) had a lot to do with that process.
At the same time that Myrtha and Felipe were planning their return to the island, Pastor Sarrail proposed that they create a radio program that would carry God's message to children.
The Lord and the Castros ratified the idea of the pastor and the work began.
On May 21, 1988, "Una hora feliz con los soldaditos de Jesús" (A Happy Hour with the Little Soldiers of Jesus) went on air.
Isabel Salvá recalls that "the program was transforming other things, it was giving way to other activities." Between May and January '89, the waves of the 'Soldiers of Jesus' reached so many people, that more and more children wanted to be part of the team.
Amparo de la Niñez was born from the need to provide a space for those who wanted to participate.
"Myrtha always had the desire for the boys to grow fully," recalls Isabel, adding that the ministry of Myrtha and Felipe has faced big needs: "They rescued many children who are now very productive adults".
Amparo de la Niñez will soon complete three decades of service. Salvá describes 'Titi' Myrtha and 'Tio' Felipe as a perfect team that starred in "a story of love and sacrifice in the service of God."
That story continues with him, who knows that the best way to honor his wife's memory is to continue with the ministry.
"Myrtha was a quiet, calm and self-confident woman, [always] with the goal of reaching more children to make good men and women in our community and our city. That work is what encourages me to continue with her legacy."
One of the last messages that Myrtha read in her church spoke about the beauty of pain, that idea that every storm comes with its calm and every sadness comes a comfort. The consolation of those who knew her is precisely in her legacy: that of a woman who gave her all for the noblest of causes: educating children and adults.