Fuerza Laboral Executive Director Heiny Maldonado is one of the leading Spanish-speaking voices in Rhode Island’s labor movement, and a key player in the effort to build a more dynamic organizing culture in the Ocean State. To English speaking union members and supporters, Maldonado can be an enigmatic figure. At Fuerza Laboral, she focuses attention on the immigrant workers served by the organization, rather than her personal story, and when she speaks at length in public, it is in Spanish.

I wanted to know more about Maldonado’s background and knew it would be worth sharing with our readers, so I asked Autumn Quezada de Tavarez, associate professor of history and program coordinator for the Latin American and latino studies minor at Roger Williams University, to conduct an interview in Spanish with Maldonado, and she graciously agreed.

We will run the resulting interview in two parts in English and Spanish over the December and January issues of Common Ground. Part 1 focuses on Maldonado’s life and family in Columbia, and part 2 will cover her organizing work in Rhode Island.

Translation from Spanish by [Access Consulting Services] (http://accessconsultingservices.org/) and reviewed by the interviewee. --TEH

Autumn Quezada de Tavarez: Where are you from, why are you here?

Heiny Maldonado: I am from Colombia from a coastal city named Cartagena. I used go on vacation to the U.S. In those days, I never imagined or intended I would come here to stay.

Autumn: In what year?

Heiny: In different years. I used to come on vacation with my family. I came and went. I never imagined staying then. I finished college in Columbia majoring in Foreign Trade Administration. I also completed a minor in Rural and Urban Development. I won several government competitions to obtain a government job. Then I decided to come to the U.S. to explore with the intention of staying. I arrived in 1999. I lived in different cities in Florida like Boca Raton, Pompano Beach, Coral Gables. As I have family members in Florida, I did not feel any differences between Florida and my city of origin. I had some friends here in Rhode Island that invited me to come visit. I did not know this state even existed. I used to confuse it with Long Island. I got here and liked it. I liked the area, and since I come from a coastal city I liked the atmosphere. I also liked being in an historical city as opposed to the modern cities in Florida. It was then that I decided to stay here.

Autumn: Why?

Heiny: I had worked in my country as a coordinator in General Customs. I had won that job in a government competition. For that particular position, 5000 people applied. They first selected 500 people on a national level and then decided to hire 50 people in administrative positions for which I was selected. Finally they chose a total of 10 people. I worked in the Treasury Department and the General Customs Administration, as it was my area of expertise. In the international business field when you start climbing the ladder, if you do not have political connections the doors become narrow. Then my country decided to downsize and combined General Customs with the National Tax Administration. At that moment there was a massive layoff. Since I was young and new, I was laid off. That practice of laying off new personnel seemed unfair to me because I gave my best. I won that position based on merits, not because someone had given it to me. So then I wanted to explore other job options. Also, my country’s economy was in a recession.

Autumn: Why do people normally not want to leave their country?

Heiny: You never want to leave your country because that is your habitat. You have your people, your family. My parents invested in my studies; it hits me, wow — such a big investment. My father used to say to me and my siblings, “I am not going to leave you an inheritance. The best inheritance I can leave you is your education. You will not receive a dollar from me.” For us it is still a valuable comment, as education is one of the best things. As I was saying, with so much studying, my grades were excellent. I also went to Europe. I was in Spain, Germany and Poland. I thought, “I already went several times to the U.S., why not go to Europe and see what it’s like there.” I had the possibility of staying in Spain since I had friends there, but then I said, “Let me go back to the U.S.” I thought about it because it is closer and at any time I could go back to Colombia. Maybe geographical proximity is something you take in consideration when making these types of decisions. Then I decided to return with the intention to reside here. That was in May 27, 2001.

Autumn: How did you do that, what type of visa?

Heiny: I had a relationship with a person, and he requested for me to come as his fiancé. I was here for a short time and could not decide. Then I returned, and then I came back again. My brother was in Florida, and we got together. Then I started to work. Initially I worked in factories. I used to work in a temporary agency in Florida. A cousin of mine is the owner of a temp agency which offered positions in elderly care, restaurants and cleaning. One of the things that surprised me was how many people were looking for employment.

One of the things that impacted me was that even though there is a minimum wage, a lot of employers do not pay it because they know so many people need a job. I used to say “Wow, this is so unfair,” but people accept it. It is very different coming here on vacation compared to living here. You get to know the system and how things are done here.

I did not like life in Florida, so I decided to come to Rhode Island. I started to volunteer in an organization, the Workers United Committee. I volunteered for about two and a half years. More than anything, my desire was to learn how things were done and how they were developed because I did not want to feel abused. I liked it because their work was to defend the rights of the workers. It was a pleasure to work with them. I worked in a factory and that was like my moment to grow. It was not work, instead it was like connecting in a different environment because I knew that working in an factory was a temporary thing, a part of the the lives of many immigrants that choose to start here.

It was interesting for me because it gave me the opportunity to know more, understand more, get together with other people, to have a different vision, to understand how things happen, understand the laws, and what we have to do in specific situations. It was an enriching experience. I used to give 20 hours a week, every day from 9-1, even on weekends when they had meetings. I volunteered days and nights. I used to work a second shift in a place that is now closed. It was called Paramount Cards. It was a big company, I worked nights from 2-10. I was getting trained at the Workers United Committee, and I got connected. I participated in their membership meetings. I started to flourish as a community leader.

Autumn: Why do you do this kind of work? Normally women do not choose this, especially as a leader.

Heiny: Oh, I have a history. My father belonged to a strong union in Colombia named USO, the United Laborers Union. My father worked in one of the first companies in my country, a petroleum refinery called Ecopetrol, and my father was part of the union.

I have a very particular anecdote that my mom tells. She said that when I was little (we were 4 siblings, I am the third one), when I was 5 years old, I gathered all of my siblings at school because my parents gave us lunch money, and also some spending money so we could buy sodas or whatever we wanted. Then I realized that the money was not enough to buy the things I wanted to buy. Because of that, I gathered all of my siblings to talk to my father as he was the provider of the house income, to ask to my father to raise “la cosita” (the little thing, or allowance). That is what we used to call the money he gave us because it was not enough. Prices had increased, and we wanted to continue buying the things that we liked to buy. We sat down with Dad after he came from work and had dinner and told him, “We want to talk to you. We need you to raise la cosita because it is not enough.” Then my father said, “So this one turns out to be a union organizer—and one of my youngest!“ This anecdote along with many other family ones, shows that I always liked to be the voice of my siblings and family.

My family always maintained deep connections between cousins. My grandmother invited all of her grandkids to her house and we had lunch everyday. There were about 15 of us. That collective sense was always there — collaboration, helping each other. That is the best way we all have to improve things, when we all help each other instead of getting isolated.

Also, my father was a very respected person, he was a person that mobilized crowds. That stays within you. You grow up seeing that type of thing and attending meetings. When I was little, he used to take me to the meetings and you get influenced by those things, growing up with it in a natural way.

Also, another strong influence in my life is my mother. She is a torchbearer of social justice. She does not like injustice. Also my grandmother had a lot of influence on me; she was a very respected person in her field as a nurse, where she helped a lot of people.

Near where we used to lived there were three small fishing neighborhoods. These were very poor neighborhoods and in those days people used to fish with dynamite. Many people had accidents in which they lost their legs and fingers. Then my grandmother and we provided support to those people.

People loved my grandmother. People used to lovingly call us the “grandkids of the madam” because she was a leader and that is how she was seen, with respect. She also provided medicine to people. People used to take their sick kids to her home along with the list of medications they needed to buy but had no money. My grandmother had a basket full of medicine and she said to them to go to the basket and see if you find it or if there is something you can use. Those were medications that were not expired and people could use. All of that environment where you grow up has a strong influence because you learn to help. I like to help but I do not like to create dependency. I like that people are also doing what they need to do. People need to know how to do things for themselves.

In vulnerable communities there is a vicious cycle, and people end up with the same problem. What we like is for people to take action. We do not want them to come to us so we that can resolve their problems for them, but instead we want them to take action. They have to learn how to do it. What we do is make the connections. We like for people to speak their own language, to know what they are talking about, to understand situations deeply so people can choose the best option. We are like a channel for all this, but it is the people who have to act on it.

In our organization we always say that we are a vehicle. People have to learn how to drive this vehicle because what we offer is possibilities. I do not like it when people are victimized to believe that they are less than others. We all have value and we all have to be appreciated. The sense of equality is something that I always carry. We want people to rise to any occasion. That is the idea, that people get empowered and not that people feel lesser than others. If another person can do it, so can you. If you do not have the ability to do it, then you have to find the means to do it. It may take longer, but you can do it.

To be continued next month...