Interview with Sabina Matos

Sabina Matos

Rhode Island Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos ‘01 was born in the Dominican Republic, where she first learned about politics when her father was mayor of her hometown.  

At the age of 20, she moved to New York City with her parents and sister. Three days after her arrival, she started work in a factory in Queens. Her family then moved to Providence, where she attended Rhode Island College and graduated with a B.A. in communication, with a concentration in public relations. 

She was elected to the Providence City Council in 2010 and rose through the ranks of the body’s leadership. In 2015 she was elected president pro tempore and in 2019 city council president, the first Latina in the city’s history to hold either position. 

On May 2, exactly 27 years after her first day as an employee in a Queens factory, she was sworn in as the 70th lieutenant governor of Rhode Island in a public ceremony at the State House. She was chosen by Gov. Dan McKee and confirmed by the Senate from a pool of 80 applicants who wanted to fill the role McKee vacated when former Gov. Gina Raimondo became President Biden’s secretary of commerce. 

In the following interview, Matos talks about how she got into politics, her feelings about making history for Latinas in Rhode Island and her advice to others following in her footsteps.    

What drove you to get involved in politics?  

I never intended to go into politics; I was just active in my neighborhood. I was part of the neighborhood association and joined the board of the local community development corporation. I was active in my community with the Rhode Island Latino Civic Fund and the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee, but I never thought of being an elected official myself. They were doing a lot of work endorsing candidates, and I used to volunteer helping some of them. I was eventually approached by two council members, who asked me to run for office in my neighborhood. Originally, I told them no. They told me to just think about it. At the time, I was in transition, so I thought it would be a good thing to do. If I won, I could help my community, and if I didn’t, I gained the experience. I ran in 2006 for the first time and lost by about 100 votes. I ran a second time in 2010 and became the councilwoman for Providence’s Ward 15.

In some interviews, you have mentioned the American Dream. What does that term mean to you? 

I think that the American Dream means different things to different people. For me, just to be able to be part of, belong to and have a place in this society to which I can contribute is my American Dream. It is also to be able to come here and learn the language. If you ask my parents, probably their American Dream is that my sister and I get our college degrees in this country. I am happy to be a part of the process of creating a more perfect union. That’s my American Dream – to contribute and to be a part of this process.  

You’ve made history as the first Latina to serve as lieutenant governor. What does that level of representation in state government mean to you?  

It’s an honor to have this opportunity to serve the state of Rhode Island in this capacity and to be the first Afro-Latina to have this position. At the same time, I am very aware of what that means, the level of attention that is being paid to it. It translates into a level of responsibility, because if I don’t do a good job, it’s going to reflect on the rest of the community. Being the first, I must make sure that I do the best possible job and don’t let down all of those people who now feel so happy and proud that I’ve been elevated to this position. That’s the sense of responsibility that comes with it.  This position has a huge impact. For example, the inauguration was not about Sabina, the person, but what this appointment represents for women, for Black women, for Latinas and Afro-Latinas, for the little girls and boys, the Black and brown kids in public schools. That event was about them because representation matters to them and to their future.  

You were still very new to this country when you came to Rhode Island. What advice would you give to other immigrants arriving here, some of whom may even have a degree from their home countries? How can they find access to opportunities in this state? 

When I came here, I didn’t have a degree and didn’t know the language. Being able to connect with the Rhode Island Latino Civic Fund and Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee and do my internship when I was a student at RIC on a local Hispanic radio station, helped me get to know more individuals within the community. One thing that I would advise others to do is try to connect with groups that are already here, like the Latina Leadership Institute, which helped me learn a lot about what was going on in the community. Network and connect with those types of groups, participate in their meetings, get to know people around Rhode Island. I think that will help you find your place here as a newcomer.  

I want to find more ways to help – especially for those who come to this country in a similar situation as my own – people who don’t speak the language or those who have already gotten a degree from the countries that they are from. I’d like to help connect them to groups or resources that can help them earn college credit or validate their degrees. There’s a great organization, the Welcome Back Center, that helps those individuals.   

Let’s talk about your time at Rhode Island College. What kinds of opportunities did higher education open for you? 

Getting a degree from Rhode Island College meant a lot. First, it fulfilled my parents’ dream and it opened a lot of doors for me — opportunities that wouldn’t have been there without a college degree. As a minority and immigrant in politics, you must overcome many challenges. There are more expectations for a candidate who does not look like the mainstream. In my case, having a college degree helped earn the trust of those who were hesitant about having me represent them.