Against Rosa's Odds

On the Road With a Welfare Warrior

Wide awake on three hours of sleep, Rosa sends her teen-agers off to school, boards a bus headed south, and watches Brooklyn streak away. She wears layers against the air-conditioning, but they are no insulation from anxiousness. She taps her thin fingers on the side of the seat and shivers.

On monitors jutting from the ceiling, a tape of a recent West Wing episode plays. President Bartlett denounces a Republican proposal to spend welfare money on promoting marriage for the poor—art imitating politics in the 107th Congress. The busload of real-life New York City welfare recipients cheers.

But Rosa can't get into it. "I gotta practice," she mutters, smoothing out a sheet of paper on her lap. With her lean, lanky limbs, gelled hair, and glossed lips, she could pass from not much of a distance for an adolescent. As jittery as a teen facing the SATs, she was up until 2 a.m. writing this speech. The prospect of making her public-speaking debut at a rally in the streets of Washington, D.C., had her tossing and turning and out of bed at five.

Having dropped out of high school, divorced an abuser, and raised three children on her own, Rosario Rodriguez well qualifies to speak on behalf of welfare recipients nationwide. There are some 1.5 million adults on welfare across the country, and about 55 percent never finished high school. Nearly all adults on welfare are women, most of them single mothers. Over half of them have, like Rosa, suffered domestic violence.

Moreover, Rosa has come up in the nation's harshest welfare system, the one that Rudolph Giuliani bragged purged recipient rolls by half. It is a model for George Bush and congressional conservatives in shaping federal welfare reform this year. They are seeking unprecedented increases in the amount of labor required to get assistance, and strict limits on school and job training. The Senate's slim Democratic majority is the last hope for those wanting to maintain the 1996 welfare law's already stringent rules, with perhaps more flexibility for education and child care. The Senate debate is set to begin mid-June, so Rosa and a few hundred of New York's poor headed to D.C. on May 21 to plead their case.

She may be a natural spokesperson, but Rosa has rarely felt qualified for anything. "From my marriage to losing jobs to being on welfare, I thought I was a failure," she says. The rally looms many hours away, but she can already envision disaster, her voice or her guts giving out. After all, defeat has snapped at her heels most of her 39 years.

Painfully shy, the young Rosa preferred solitaire to socializing. But Angel Jesus Rodriguez noticed her anyway. She got pregnant and with one semester to go dropped out of Brooklyn's John Jay High School in 1982 to get married and have a son named for his father. Soon after, Melissa and Andrew arrived, and Rosa's dream of having a family was complete.

But not long after they wed, her husband got angry and shook her, hard. "He said he was sorry, he would never do it again," she says. Rosa's mother, a devout Catholic from Puerto Rico who married at age 12, told her daughter that men would be men. "She said, 'Just keep quiet. Don't get him angry. Just do what you're supposed to do as a wife.' " Rosa convinced herself, "Everything's going to work out. He loves me." Then, she says, "he did it again."

Rosa bore the slaps and bruises as discreetly as she could, or, as son Angel, now 19, says, "She just used to take it." He recalls witnessing the abuse, like the time his father shoved her down a flight of stairs in their Brooklyn building. "He would get drunk and take it out on her," he says.

She became a fearful sentinel over the taste of the pork, rice and beans, the housekeeping, the noise at home. She dropped her few friendships and took her kids along on errands as human alibis against her husband's jealous interrogations. She avoided church. "When you're in an abusive relationship, you feel like everyone's against you," says Rosa. "Or you feel you did something wrong, that you deserved it."

In an unusually candid interview, obtained with Rosa's consent, Rodriguez denies that he shook her after their wedding or pushed her down the stairs. But he says, "Yes, I used to drink a lot. Come home drunk, and sometimes not too drunk. I used to argue with her a lot. Everybody curses at each other." He denies that he forbade Rosa's socializing: "She would choose to go out, get in at four o'clock in the morning." He admits,"Yeah, I was jealous." Asked several times whether he had ever struck Rosa, he says, "I might have, but as far as I can recall, no. One time, I believe so." At one point he chuckles, "I'm liking this so far. They're making me look very violent. It's very interesting."

Rosa says the family endured not only violence but also relentless poverty, and was on public assistance from the start. Her husband concedes he preferred drinking with friends over his sporadic work as a security guard. Rosa redeemed soda cans to buy diapers, and stretched meals with donations from relatives.

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