RIC Student Fueled by the Fuerza de Muchas Mujeres – the Strength of Many Women
“I come from a long line of resilient Puerto Rican women – the backbone of Africa; the backbone of Taínos, the African/Indian bloodline of poor Spanish women. According to the stories, my grandmother worked in a tuna fish canning factory for 25 years. Even with a leg amputation, she walks. Generation after generation, the women struggled,” said Monica Vallecarmenatty, a Rhode Island College student who is now working through struggles of her own.
It was 2010 and Vallecarmenatty was in her third year at RIC, studying to become a social worker, when the father of her children lost his job at a meat market. They had a three-year-old son and a newborn daughter. Without income, they were forced to move into a homeless shelter in East Providence.
“When I told my professors I had lost my home and wouldn’t be able to complete my classes, they were very supportive,” she said. “They told me to take an incomplete and come back in January and finish. They believed I’d come back.”
But by January 2011, Vallecarmenatty’s circumstances had not changed. Her partner, Juan, told her to go back to school anyway. “Go back, no matter what,” he said.
Looking back, she said she owes her tenacity to la fuerza de muchas mujeres – the strength of many women – in her ancestry.
She also said, “I couldn’t disappoint those people at RIC who had done so much for me, like Antoinette Gomes, director of RIC’s Unity Center; Andres Ramirez, professor of English as a Second Language; and Leslie Bogad, professor of educational studies. I’m also president of the Latin Students’ Organization at RIC. I felt I had a responsibility to them and to the college.”
While Juan watched the children, Vallecarmenatty returned to school, finishing her incomplete courses. By the end of the semester, she had made the dean’s list – much to her surprise – proving to herself that she could succeed in spite of the odds.
Now living in transitional housing funded by Crossroads Rhode Island, Vallecarmenatty will be working as an intern at the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless next semester. She would like to use her social work degree to counsel those in homeless shelters and help them realize their aspirations.
“We have to work on people’s strengths,” she said. “People are not destined to be homeless, even though the cycle of poverty seems to carry over from generation to generation. We can break the cycle.”
When her own mother arrived in America from Puerto Rico, she came with three children in tow: Vallecarmenatty’s brother, 14; Vallecarmenatty, 13; and her younger brother, 12. They had plane tickets to get to New York and $40 to catch a Greyhound bus to Rhode Island, she said.
From there, they lived in a homeless shelter in Cranston. “We moved into an apartment for three months, but we were back in the shelter for another year,” she said. “The second year we lived in the shelter, my mother earned her CNA license. She’s a CNA today.”
Unfortunately, Vallecarmenatty found herself in the same situation as her mother, but she hopes the cycle ends here.
She said she doesn’t know the key to preventing homelessness, but she does know that education is not always enough.
“In the world we live in today, anyone can lose their job – white-collar workers as well as blue-collar workers. Though education empowers us, there are no guarantees.”
Also the American educational system seems to set lower expectations for people of color who so desperately need a pathway out of poverty, she said.
“My story is only one of millions that people of color have. I’m fortunate to have made it to college. Some day my daughter will go to college, and she will do even better than I have. Each generation of women must do better than those who came before.”