Ana-Ofelia Rodriguez received a BA in French from City College in 1975, after which she earned her MA from the University of Seville. She then did a PhD in 19th century Spanish literature at Washington University, in which her analysis focused on the novel La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas y Ureña, known by his pseudonym "Clarín." For nearly two decades now, Rodriguez has worked at Broadway Housing Communities, helping families meet their housing and education needs.
"I'm second-generation Dominican. My mother's parents are immigrants from St. Martin and Guadalupe and my father's from Tortola. We had an obligation to ensure that the culture of our ancestors was maintained and respected. The vehicle was education. My grandparents immigrated to make a better life for my mother and her siblings. So did my father's mother. It was all about looking for a better future for their children and that is the quest of all immigrants. They came to San Pedro to the sugarcane industry. I then came to New York City to go to college.
"The work I've been doing for the last 18 years has been in supportive housing. My experience as a Dominican has helped me to give guidance to people who live in Washington Heights and West Harlem, to guide them through what they need to do for housing and education for their children. There are always roadblocks, but they have to keep trying and make it work, to keep moving forward, not to fall behind. There's no end to the work we are doing in the community. New people show up every day. Once you help a family understand how to navigate the public education system–by the time you help one family, ten other families are coming with children losing out because they are coming at a later stage in their lives and they have to now face the challenges of not speaking a foreign language and not knowing how to go about getting their lives stabilized.
"There are three groups I work with—there is a group of artists from the generation of the 1980s who I work closely with. My role is to open up new doors for them to exhibit their art and become part of the New York art scene. That's one thing I have been working on for past 16 years. I have found that the challenges I thought I would find with artists are not really there. People want to create work but need a place to show it. I was able to convince my employer to open up public spaces so art could flourish in our buildings. I was able to do so because I knew a lot of Dominican artists. So they have been my pillar. It has been a learning curve in both directions: they learn with me there are places they can go to and really focus on art, meet artists, meet venues. As I meet artists, the door doesn't only open for me but for them. Most of the artists believe I'm providing a service to them but actually they have enriched my life. For some of them, I have seen a growth in the last ten years that even they themselves wonder how they got where they are today, knowing people from other communities and being invited to showcase their art. One part of advocacy is advocating for the arts and artists from our community. The center of that is Dominican artists from New York. I want to work with Dominican artists that live here and don't have a chance to showcase in the Dominican Republic, because they have been forgotten by the Dominican Republic, but we have a vibrant community here and I am proud that there are institutions that opened up recently to try to address that. These institutions are not Dominican but they are really focusing on Latino art. It's giving to the community but receiving from the community, it's not a one-way gift. I give the artists space, introduce them, give them a chance to network, but they bring beauty into the buildings in which I work.
The other group is Dominican families and children. My focus is education—helping parents navigate through the educational system. Trying to convince them that the future of their children is in their hands, not necessarily the teachers' and the school system's. Parents cannot be absent. One thing we did in our agency is that we created an afterschool program without any money. Just bringing in children of the families living around our building. 99.9% of them are Dominican children. So we work with the parents to teach them how to become advocates for own children."
The third component of Rodriguez's work: "creating a very inviting space where people from different educational backgrounds can come together and have an earnest conversation about the state of their community. About what's happening in the community. The space has to be inviting and safe. That comes about in the spaces we call community galleries. We have two community galleries. There's always art in the galleries and always a conversation among groups in the gallery. The topic can be controversial, but it doesn't have to be. The idea is for people seeking what the future is holding for them to have a place where they can connect with other people.
"Art, education, culture. Through those three venues, you bring people together and create a healthy community. It has become a way of life. It has solidified. It was always in me but now is solidified. Art, education-- housing (how to keep housing) is part of education-- and culture. Those are three elements that can help a person or family really release themselves from all the burden that poverty brings with it."
Rodriguez elucidates the connection between her academic background and her work in the community with precision. "I studied a particular novelist from the period called realism. The underlying theme of the novel was social degradation, dehumanization. How a human being could degrade to its minimum element. What are the forces around him or her in the environment. Witnessing how the degradation happens. I saw that in New York. With the infamous drug trade and calamity that overtook the Dominican community in the 80s and early 1990s, particularly Washington Heights. I saw total social degradation. A society that was being built on the drug trade, and a very charged criminal atmosphere, where people in the neighborhood didn't want to go out. I'm from Brooklyn, not Washington Heights. Like many other Dominicans who have gone to school, including Ramona Hernandez and Anthony Stevens-Acedo, I came to Washington Heights and it was quite troubling to hear across the US about the devastation taking place in Washington Heights. Individually, everyone was asking, what can I do to help? I came and stayed like all the other people stayed. We were looking to stabilize our community. I was not an immigrant that came from the Dominican Republic. I was a Dominican immigrant reading horrible things about Dominicans every day in the newspaper and how could we help that? It tied in with my thesis, about the degradation of mankind. I knew people who grew up in very pristine homes with values and morals and they became degraded and succumbed to the most minimal aspect of a human being, because of the influence of drugs and the instant gratification that they could get with money coming from the drug trade. That was what my studies were all about, that this happens and it continues to happen. My work today is shaped by that. I will never allow that to happen before me. The degradation of man.
"Darwin's theory, in the 1860s was the ascension, the evolution of man. But the writers of late nineteenth century realism and naturalism saw the involution of man. The psychological descent to the minimum of a human being, becoming almost an animal, and that's what I saw with the drug trade. That's why I came to Washington Heights."
Rodriguez tells me about the challenges that she faces on a daily basis. "One challenge is working with families that are raising children and they are children themselves. Where their level of education is so low that they don't understand you when you tell them they have to be present in school. The educational system is not the parent of the child. They have to navigate this. How easy it is for some parents to throw their arms up. In that respect I find it difficult to work with some nonprofit organizations that work with children and use labels that are really offensive, that hold back the children they're trying to save—'at-risk youth,' 'youth on the road to nowhere,' 'youth without foundation.' When you tell a child he is at risk with no foundation and going nowhere, maybe I could write a beautiful proposal and convince somebody who feels guilty to give me money. But some children can become very complacent. 'Oh, I'm a youth at risk. I don't have a future, there's nothing for me, so why should I do anything? Somebody's going to put me in a program, give me a snack, let me play.' Each year they put out a proposal, but it never seems to help because the proposals keep being generated year after year. Because the child is convinced that he will never amount to anything. The terms have to be uplifted. 'A youth on his way to achieve the gift of a lifetime.' Something like that. If we continue to put down our youth-- and that happens daily because of the competition for the small amount of funding-- we are blasting our children off the face of the earth by telling them they're no good. I can save you by getting some rich person to give me money. So that's one of my challenges and my biggest frustration.
"You want to sustain a child in the journey upward but they keep reading about these proposals written about them, where they are portrayed as insignificant human beings that don't amount, and will never amount, to anything."
Finally, I ask how her perspective has changed since she began working at BHC, and what people not working as advocates can do to help. "My perspective is that you can't save the world. You have to take one challenge at a time. But you never give up on any of the challenges that are presented to you. You have to face it, you have to deal with it. You can't run away from the challenge. If you could help one family, one child, you are on the road to making our environment and our society move forward.
"There are a lot of very resilient people in our community. Not everyone has the inspiration to be an advocate but there are those who have means of helping the advocacy work. I believe that in our midst there are folks that could help sustain some of the organizations that exist that are going under. But we believe because of where we came from that government is responsible for everything, and it's not true. We are responsible for one another. Sometimes you cannot take a child to a museum or theater, but you could help make donations to the groups that could do that. You could volunteer and help out two hours a week in a school or a non-profit. These are our children and we should help them. We should be the ones helping them. We should become that village."