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.

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

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.

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.

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."

One day Rosa was waiting to meet with her caseworker when somebody handed her a flier asking whether she was fed up and angry and inviting her to learn her rights. "Welfare makes you crazy. I was desperate. I was like, I gotta do something," she says.

And so she met the women of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, or FUREE, a nonprofit community-based organization in Park Slope. "In the beginning, I was thinking, these people are nuts," Rosa recalls. They sat around shouting about dignity and social justice, and cracking jokes about politicians, and they were mothers on welfare.

Her first protest ever was at City Hall. Recipients gathered to denounce Giuliani's campaign to slash the welfare rolls while failing to provide meaningful training or sometimes food stamps. A giant puppet of Giuliani-as-Hitler bobbled in the breeze. "I couldn't believe all these people," says Rosa. "I was like, I don't want to get arrested."

She agreed to hand out fliers, but generally she tried to escape notice."Rosa put herself down a lot," friend Isabel Rodriguez (no relation) recalls. "She said she's ugly, which is a lie. One time, somebody asked who she was. She said, 'I'm nobody.' " But, Rosa found, these women did not look for her failings—many faced similar challenges. She began to smile more often, though she couldn't quite shake the habit of shielding her grin with a hand.

Rosa and an advocate unraveled miles of red tape to get her into a respected GED program at Sunset Park Adult and Family Education Center. Her caseworker balked, but Rosa demanded a fair hearing—after learning she could—and won. She began commuting four days a week to a hushed, carpeted room in a large church, where she is neither divorcee nor aging dropout, but simply a student. When the semester ends this month, Rosa says, she will require perhaps another year of classes before she'll be able to pass the exam. Getting approval to continue, she predicts, will require more battles, ones she is not at all certain she will win.

And so as conservatives and liberals in Congress debate welfare reform—to raise or maintain current work requirements, to limit or expand educational opportunity—Rosa has much at stake. There are her education and future employability, her children's school supplies and clothing and possibly college. Since the government ties rent aid to welfare compliance, there is the roof over their heads. She wonders, "Are we going to survive any new work requirements?"

The FUREE women nominate Rosa to deliver a speech during a day of protest in D.C. with recipients from other cities. She is, they enthuse, the perfect example of poor women struggling to survive in the nation's harshest welfare system. In a burst of brazenness—or insanity, she begins to think—she agrees.

So Rosa swallows bubbles of terror on the bus ride down, running her eyes over the wrinkled page where she has carefully drafted her message. "My name is Rosario Rodriguez," it begins. "I am a welfare recipient."

With the others, Rosa wends through the Senate office building distributing letters opposing "make-work" increases and demanding more education and training. In front of Hillary Clinton's three-story townhouse, she totes a poster depicting a two-faced senator—Clinton's rightward lean on welfare is discouraging her liberal colleagues—at a protest that later garners headlines.

But Rosa hardly utters a word all day. "I'm tense, I'm tense," she whispers. Her hands are ice. In the hot sun, she removes some of her layers, then puts them on again. She can't tell, she says, if she's coming or going.

Late in the afternoon, she arrives at the rally, on the corner of 16th and H. The anti-globalization event means to link world poverty to domestic welfare policy. The crowd numbers several hundred. The microphone volume is cranked high, and Rosa waits alone by the elevated stage through speech after speech, not knowing when she is up.

Her notes rattle in her cold fingers. A couple of friends approach to whisper encouragement, but Rosa barely nods in response. An eternal second later, it is her turn. The moderator blares, "Come on, show 'em what you're made of, girl!"

Rosa climbs onto the stage and steps to the mic. She reads from her paper, "My name is Rosario Rodriguez. I'm a welfare recipient. I've been a welfare recipient since 1999. I've complied with the program completely." Then she stumbles and loses her place. Silence stretches while she scans the page in her hand, seeming frantic. "I'm sorry, I'm really nervous," she finally says, her whisper exploding through the speakers.

The crowd responds with a warm roar. She looks startled. Familiar voices call out, "Go, Rosa!" And suddenly she's back. She begins again, this time loud and strong. She tosses aside the paper she's held all day, and the words just tumble out.

"I lost my job, and I had to go to welfare. It's hard out there, to depend on the damn system!" Rosa gets a round of amens and applause. "They tell you you have no skills and put you into WEP. There are hundreds of thousands of people out there who are treated badly and put into WEP. If you don't know what WEP is, it's when you pick up garbage from highways." She's crying now, her breathing ragged. But she's not scared, she's mad.

"I wish the politicians could walk in my shoes, so they could know how I really feel—walking around out there without the right shoes, without lunch, nine to five, every fucking day!" The crowd screams and stamps. Rosa inhales and belts: "We have to organize! We have to stop this! We have to beat the system!"

She exits to whistles and cheers, shaking all over. "Rosa, Rosita," a sister intones. Hands reach out and tousle her hair. Arms gather her into an embrace. A smile grows at the corners of her mouth. She nailed it.

Now the rule makers in suits will decide the rest.


Research assistance: Marissa Moss

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