Hi, I am Lirio Negroni Rodriguez. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico.
I have mixed feelings about Hispanic Heritage Month. I think that this one- month celebration of our latinidad – you will notice I don’t use “Hispanic” – I think it’s valuable. I think it’s needed. The only problem is that it’s more celebrated within the Latinos and Latinas. It’s like a paradox. This country acknowledges the presence of Latinos and Latinas. We dedicate a month to celebrate who they are and their contributions. Then, you go and look at policies, access to services, opportunities to advance – it varies. It’s limited, and that’s sad.
In the ‘80s, there were different organizations from the United States going to Puerto Rico from different disciplines to recruit professionals because there had been a huge migration away from Puerto Rico to the United States, and professionals from all fields were needed to provide services. So, someone from Massachusetts went to recruit social workers. And, at that same time, I was going through my divorce, so I thought, "Okay, this is a good time to detach from this life that is ending.” So, I left Puerto Rico in June 1985 to come to Massachusetts to work as a clinical social worker.
I arrived with three luggages and $300 in my pocket. That was all I had. The person who was going to be my supervisor had made arrangements for me to rent a room in a house. So, I knew I was going to have a room to live – a room, a bedroom – and I had a job and $300 in my pocket.
I was invited in December of my first year there to the holiday party. It was not a Christmas; it was a holiday party. And, I was dressed up like a Puerto Rican dresses up for a party – very elegant. And, when I arrived to the place, everybody’s wearing jeans, and they started teasing me. That was the first time when I began to feel the huge difference between being Puerto Rican and not being Puerto Rican – and how groups can have power influencing how you feel and see yourself.
So, I learned that there were different culture codes to different events or different situations. Because I wanted to be a teacher, and my coworkers encouraged me, I learned also, in Massachusetts, that to be a social worker was very different to what I was as a social worker in Puerto Rico. In the United States, social workers have much status, are better paid and can perform as psychologists.
So, that inspired me, encouraged me, gave me a stronger self-esteem as a professional, and I decided to go for my PhD. I didn’t know what I was going into. But, my father was very ill, and he kept telling me, “Give me the joy of seeing you become a doctor.”
He died a year after I defended my dissertation, so he died knowing that his dream about me had been accomplished.
So, I moved then to West Springfield, and I worked at Springfield College School of Social Work. That’s when I began to feel discrimination and racism for being a Puerto Rican, being a Latina and, in some ways, being a woman.
When I took my PhD exams, there were six people. Only three passed, and I was one of them. And, I remember, in a classroom, a student said, “Of course, you needed to pass. You’re a minority. I’m sure they helped you, so you could pass.”
Same thing when I passed my dissertation proposal. There were only two that passed out of the six. Mine was one. Again, that person was struggling why I had done so well, when I was not – I would say – white and a man.
So, in that journey, I always wanted to go back home. Home is Puerto Rico. But, I noticed I kept changing.
The first year I came to this university, some students approached me and told me that celebrating who they were with the strengths and contributions they could bring – their potential – was not something they had heard about in their classes. That made me feel like I was in the right path in terms of facilitating that in my department, in my college, at the university.
And, the idea of me going back to Puerto Rico vanished, and I felt, “No, I’m Puerto Rican, but I want to stay here.”