Against Rosa's Odds

On the Road With a Welfare Warrior

Photographs show Rosa over the years becoming a thin shadow of her former, full-faced self. Five-foot-three, she has at times dipped to 90 pounds. Her domestic troubles killed her appetite and caused ulcers, and a pack-a-day nicotine habit took firm hold. At her lowest, she says, she thought about suicide. "But when I went to open the bottle of pills, I was like, what am I doing?"

Frustration eventually overtook her fear. "I was tired of looking at the four walls, never seeing anyone," she says. She watched The Burning Bed—a TV movie in which Farrah Fawcett's battered wife sets her spouse on fire—and found herself enjoying it. Rosa stopped having sex with her husband and insisted on separate beds.

Then one night in August 1995, Rosa's husband got drunk, climbed on top of her, and took off her clothes. She called the 78th Precinct. "He told the cops I liked it that way," she says.

Rosario Rodriguez, bruised but not broken, in Washington, D.C.
photo: Bill Burke
Rosario Rodriguez, bruised but not broken, in Washington, D.C.

The police were unable to confirm Rosa's account for the Voice, but surprisingly there was no need. For Rodriguez says, "Well, I come home that night, drunk. She was sleeping. She was half fully clothed [sic]. So, I would say that I was kinda horny. I pulled out my rubbers, pulled down her panties. All I did was touch her, and she made a big scene, like I tried to kill her or something like that."

Rosa kicked her husband out of the apartment for good. Daughter Melissa, now 17, avoided contact with him for the next seven years, while the youngest, Andrew, 16, today simply says, "I love him."

Rosa's husband continued to have trouble taking no for an answer, according to several orders of protection issued by Brooklyn Family Court between 1995 and 2000. It took several years for Rosa to find a free divorce lawyer, but in 2000, a judge terminated the marriage, citing "Cruel and Inhuman Treatment."

The tensions that peaked that August night had escalated as Rosa looked for work outside of home. "He didn't want me to be self-sufficient," she says of her husband's objections. But given his lack of income, dependency was a psychological point. The children were growing and so were their expenses.

Without a high school diploma, Rosa possessed one skill she felt sure of, raising children. In 1994, she landed a job at a day care center, after volunteering persistently. Her family left welfare for the first time. But after a few years, she says, she was accused of poor performance and fired, and she lost the next job after questioning a parent's care of a sick child. She learned that fast-food wages would not cover the bills. By the middle of 1999, Rosa was broke, supporting three teenagers, and facing public assistance in Giuliani's New York.

Signs of want surrounded the family in their rent-regulated Park Slope one-bedroom, which had not been renovated or painted since the Rodriguezes moved in some 15 years earlier. Swarms of hundreds of cockroaches would well from cracks in the walls and stove, photographs show. There were two sets of metal bunk beds to hold four, two gaunt tabbies to kill the rodents. Second-hand furniture weathered the years under thick coats of shiny black paint. Rosa cherished a single luxury: a half-dozen painted plates, her china.

An able-bodied adult without very young children, Rosa was scheduled by her welfare caseworker for maximum time in Work Experience Program (WEP)—35 hours a week for $153 in aid every two weeks. "I asked them, 'Can you help me get a job? I just lost one.' " She was ordered to report to a municipal parking lot in Brooklyn, where she received garbage bags, a pair of gloves, and a quick lesson in identifying poison ivy. She and several others filed into a van and disembarked on a highway median. Once, they thought they must have set a record, filling 200 bags with trash and weeds in a single shift. Another time, they were dropped by the Coney Island boardwalk, where rats teemed among litter-filled weeds. A panicked worker grabbed a power hedge-cutter and hacked away, sending bloody rat bits flying.

The toil not only gave her blisters and backaches, it also battered her self-respect. She pleaded to be placed in a GED program, something she had previously been unable to do. Before a crowded center, her caseworker issued a loud—and illogical—refusal: "You've got no education, no skills, no nothing!" Despite the onlookers, Rosa cried.

Eventually she was placed two days a week in a city-contracted program advertised to deliver education and job training. Supervisors told her to arrive in a suit or be sanctioned—which would mean reduced benefits. Class time meant being supplied with the yellow pages and a telephone and being ordered to call around for job openings. Sometimes they gave her a crossword. The rest of the week, she wheeled a trash can along Third Avenue in Brooklyn, not far from where she lived, cleaning her neighbors' mess. "I wouldn't have minded if I got paid" a living wage, says Rosa, but the Department of Sanitation told her "you need a GED to pick up garbage for them."

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