Wilnelia Rivera

Why is identifying as a Black Latino/Afro Latino important to you?

For me the most important part of my identity is the journey that I have been on since I was a 16 year old. The reason it started was because I felt there was an absence in my life of who I was and where I came from. I grew up in an Immigrant Dominican American household. The reason for that is my mom moved to Puerto Rico when the Trujillo dictatorship fell and lived there for almost 20 years. My sisters and I were all born there and grew up there and that helped her shape her identity in a different kind of way that I think other women of her generation, Dominican women of her era. My mom raised me with a simple yet stern philosophy: go to school, work and keep on moving, and don’t think twice about looking back. And even though I followed my mom’s word, I always questioned that. I knew that she was more than what she was saying. And also growing up with the anti-blackness within my own family, my sisters and I pushed back. Distinctively not from reading any books, we just knew that it wasn’t right. How could it be right when we look at ourselves in the mirror and looked the way we look?  Just because we were different shades of brown I resisted the fact that the family would define ourselves away from out actual roots So for me, going through that journey and my transition to college I purposely went through an academic and personal journey to understand where I came from, not really the Caribbean but really the complexity of it, the anti-blackness that I was raised. The anti-blackness that Dominicans are raised with is rooted in colonial laws that in many ways still exist today. They that continue to shape our culture and our choices, especially since we live in the United States. The mixture of all of that made me realize that adopting the label of black Latina was a powerful way of saying who I am and where I come from. This went against my own political consciousness, that understood that the word Latina or Latinx in it of itself was a political construction to count us in the US census in early 20th century America. Its evolution reflects the ongoing fragmentation that exists among Latinos in America today.

What has been the impact, both positive and negative of people not seeing you as a Black Latino/Afro Latino?

The most positive part of identifying this way is that it helps me understand the discomfort and the difference that I always felt amongst Latinos and sometimes the discomfort my identity can generate in the Black American community. Generally speaking, whether it’s Latinos from first generation like myself, or those that have been here for many generations like Chicanos, I felt that in identifying as a black Latina I finally found my space, where I felt  at home than in broader Latino circles. Growing up in Lawrence, MA, the majority of people were of Puerto Rican and/or Dominican descent and in some ways I took for granted that reality. I grew up in a cultural bubble and as I got older I realized that this world is a lot black and white than I imagined.

I was able to find a home for myself what I think was very different for traditional Puerto Ricans or traditional Mexicans. For me, that actually meant finding a home in black America is where I felt seen in all my complexities and all of my identities (first generation America, woman, and gay). There is something more accepting in the black community of all of my identity and that created a comfort that I align my political work. I think part of my own analysis and deep seated believe is that is that if black people in this country aren’t free, if indigenous people in this country aren’t free there is nowhere in hell someone like me can ever be free. It is a way of life and almost everything that I have done and have dedicated myself to be centered on blackness, liberation, and freeing ourselves from the politics of shame. I am a movement professional and build bridges who has delivered on countless of issues tied to Black America, and people of color overall, especially Latinos. Whether its criminal justice reform, helping elect dozens to political office in MA, or investing in the next generation of Black and Brown women in the US South.

Some may say it is a negative but to be honest with you Yvette, yo no lo veo como negativo. Uno es lo que es y no me siento obligada a tener costumbre o vestirme de una manera mas acceptable. I want to do it because I want to do it. Depending on what day of the week it is but for me it freed me from having this typical Latina where her hair is straight and looking a certain kind of way, Ten years ago or more than ten years ago, I decided to go natural with my hair. At the time it was a way of protest it was about being in this place and staying true to myself but really over the years I have realized that it was more of a form of resistance to show other Latinas that you can have your way and that your way is the way and that is cool but you need to understand that your way is not accepting of me and the issues of black people and the issue of people of color more broadly sometimes. For me, I use it as a badge of honor and don’t use it as a negative anymore and because of the way I have done it some people have been forced to pay attention. It is about me being myself and not feeling like I have to dress a certain way or talk a certain way for me to fit in with everybody else.

How do you Amplify/show up in a Latinx world that expects us all to look like J Lo and Marc Anthony?

In non-Latino and Latino spaces, I amplify my identity by modeling the complexity of who we are through my leadership style and areas of focus:  I am a change agent, not a preacher. A change agent refuses to become sheep and always looks for executable risks that allows for a new path, solution, or idea to emerge. America has been eroticizing us since the days of Carmen Miranda in Hollywood movies. I refuse to allow Latinos to be simplified into data metrics or preconceived notions of who we are and where we come from. We must all resist. Too often, I see us resists this in the spirit of getting along or worst because we think this is building power. But in the pursuit of our success, we have adopted a broad, heteronormative, and non-inclusive brush of who we are as a community.  This leaves too many of us behind. If we don’t promote our authenticity, who will?

How does this identity show up in your political work?

In terms of how it shows up in my work, it shows up everywhere in my work. Who I chose to work with and what I spend my time on, it literary comes back to this identity. I spent four years managing a statewide criminal justice reform coalition of black community based organizations, law enforcement, and civil rights organizations, who worked for over 20 years to get criminal justice reform done and I remember legislators at the time being very direct with us saying, if you don’t find a way to not make this just a black issue then you are never going to get this done and that was one of the most important things that I learned in my political journey. Guess what happened, once I took this advice. Two years later, the bill was on the Governor’s desk.

In retrospect the impact of that legislation is limited, yes you can seal your criminal record sooner, but removing the criminal history question from the application did not increase their employment. You know why?  You are still black, you still have lack the social capital that gets you through the door. Even though we adopted the most progressive reform on criminal justice reform here, it did not translate into the increased employment of formerly incarcerated black and brown men in this state. So, I share that story because it happened really young in my work and it has established everything I dedicated myself to. We must spend time on politics that impact what people need in their lives to thrive. So we need a culture change and a paradigm shift. It’s important that I show up as a woman of color that is not practicing the old playbook, but instead rewriting the rules of engagement in people, planning and politics. I Black issues are American issues, as Latinos we have a great deal to contribute to this being more broadly accepted. Basically, whether it is Rep. Ayanna Pressley or former Gov. Deval Patrick, or the bad ass Black and Brown women I work with like a Women with a Vison, a New Orleans based black radical feminist.  That is all I do. People may say that I like to be behind the scenes, it’s not that I want to be behind the scene is that I want to elevate the leadership of other black people, particularly black women whether they speak Spanish, English, or an indigenous language,, my commitment and vocation is to make sure that everything I do gets defined by that. Because ultimately I realize how my identities can become easily manipulated in the political and planning process I also understand I have acquired privilege: two degrees from a little Ivy League school , I am able bodied, and I pass the “paper bag” test . Hey acquired because they are material assets coffered via pedigree and natural selection, and the truth is, they shouldn’t be mine in that way. But I realize that I have them and how I use them is how I advance an agenda for black people and black women, thereby freeing Latinos and other communities of color. Period.

Message for BHM

If you want this Country and this Commonwealth to care about the Latino community we have to understand how Black history isn’t just intertwined with our future but our own.  For a lot of us, whether we are first, second, third or fourth generation Latinos, we are disconnected from the stories of struggle that would show how our stories are connected to Black history. It is important and incumbent upon each and everyone one of us to understand the history and crossroads of our shared narrative because too often we inherit the Horatio Alger immigrant story of how we arrived and attained social and economic mobility. But the rags to riches story is of his novels are less accessible today, even if as Latinos, we are doing nominally better. We must confront the struggle and the pain that comes with success and failure.  We carry that with us. In one way or the other we all carry it with us. It is not about what we can do for Black people but how we can construct our own narrative to really understand who we individually and as a collective in this country. We have avoided this for too long, leaving us too fragmented to address our collective concerns. It’s not enough to claim our heritage from music stages, fields, and courts.  We need to claim at the ballot box and in civic life. As Langston Hughes one said, I too, am American, and as such we are a vital element of this democratic experiment. To increase our collective power, organizing votes is not enough and participating in political life is not either, we need to organize money and talent. Until we figure this out, we will always lack the political power to live a better quality of life where we live, work, and play.

BIO:  “If we want a better future, we need to think and live beyond silos. We must participate in local planning and political processes that affect our everyday life and future (for all existing generations and those yet to be born). With action, comes change. With patience and strategy, change can occur at scale.” – Wilnelia Rivera, Founder of Rivera Consulting, Inc.

From leading statewide policy campaigns for the reform of the criminal record system to integrated voter engagement and transformative political candidate campaigns, Wilnelia Rivera, Founder of Rivera Consulting, Inc., leads a movement building firm that inspires and enables social change while operationalizing solutions for the 21st century. Her journey began in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where her childhood was defined by the duality of injustice and persistent hope – planting her lifetime commitment to social change.

This commitment took her first to the neighborhoods of Chicago and Detroit as a union organizer and then back home with Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts (N2N-MA). At N2N-MA, she took a deep dive in the grassroots and progressive political movement of the Commonwealth, where she represented over 18,000 members. Together they elected dozens of candidates to political office, recruited 8,000 new members, and ushered a new era of criminal justice reform with the Commonwealth CORI Coalition. During this time, she also deepened her professional experience, through strategic partnerships and learning journeys that brought her to Los Angeles, Oakland, New Mexico, Miami, and New York City (Brooklyn and Bronx), Mondragon, and Venezuela. The course of Wilnelia’s career shifted when she joined Governor Deval Patrick’s senior staff as the Director of External Affairs, ushering a profound phase of public service in state government. She then established a cross-sector early college consortium at Madison Park Vocational High School and now is the Founder and Principal of Rivera, Consulting, Inc –  a movement-building firm committed to a bold and fierce re-imagination of the social contract.

Her track record of success thrives at the intersection of cross-sector collaboration, engagement, and research. By focusing on the nexus of people, planning, and politics, she has come to understand that the most important economic and social issues from race, class, the environment, education, transportation to healthcare are all interconnected. Her professional career and academic work centers on social justice, collective prosperity, and sustainability, key ingredients in producing successful results for clients but most importantly, the community at large. She has created change from the street level the ivory tower in the political and public policy-making process.

Wilnelia holds a B.A. in International Relations, B.A. in Women’s Studies and an M.A. in Urban and Environmental Policy & Planning from Tufts University. She is the past recipient of the Mel King Fellowship at Massachusetts Institute for Technology’s Co­Lab, focusing on public policy research related to urban politics, economic democracy, community planning, and sustainable community economic development.