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Puerto Ricans in the Rust Belt: The Life and Activism of Isabel Melendez

Llana Barber


Si yo hubiese sido cobarde, no existiera nada, no existiera nada de lo que ves, te lo digo yo, no existiera nada. [If I had been a coward, none of this would exist, none of what you see, I tell you, none of it would exist.]

—Isabel Melendez, Puerto Rican community organizer in Lawrence, Massachusetts

Lawrence, Massachusetts became the first Latino-majority city in New England with the 2000 census, and the former mill town is today nearly three-quarters Latino, mostly Dominican and Puerto Rican. Latino settlement in Lawrence began in the 1960s, but expanded in the 1970s as Puerto Ricans and Dominicans left a crisis-ridden New York City in search of a safer, more peaceful place to raise their families. And yet, Lawrence, like cities throughout the Northeast and Midwest, was also in the process of losing residents and resources through white flight, suburban competition, and deindustrialization. Latinos arrived in the small city to find its jobs disappearing, its stores closing, and its tax base shrinking. Many white residents scapegoated the newcomers for the city’s economic decline, greeting Latinos with widespread prejudice and exclusion. In the face of economic crisis and racism, Latinos had to struggle in order to make the city home, not only to organize for political power, but to resist quotidian street-level efforts to force them from the city.

Latinos organized in countless ways to build community in Lawrence: demonstrating against bigotry and discrimination; campaigning for office, registering Latino voters, and suing the city to protect Latino voting rights; advocating for bilingual education, interpreting services, and affordable housing; creating social clubs, cultural celebrations, and storefront churches to serve the community's social and spiritual needs; forging a Latino-oriented service sector to provide a safety net for the community's survival -- the list could go on for pages. Isabel Melendez could be found at the center of much of this organizing throughout the late twentieth century and into the present day, and the story of her life and activism is thus an incredible lens through which to view Lawrence’s troubles and transformations.

Melendez moved to Lawrence from Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico in 1959 when she was twenty-two years old. Her migration story was initially one of profound disappointment, an "American Dream" cut short both by the reality of postwar urban blight and decline, and by the second-class nature of U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans. Melendez had gone to university in Puerto Rico and had been working as a teacher before coming to the United States. She described her dismay as she realized that her education back in the U.S. territory would not be applicable stateside, "When I first came, I started looking for a job… I went to the employment office, I remember. I says, in my broken English -- back then, remember, there was no bilingual, there was nothing bilingual, ok?  -- and I says, I'm maestra, yo soy maestra. I teach in Puerto Rico." The employment office sent her to nearby Merrimack College but, "when I went there, I brought my transcript. When they read it… the first words that they said, and this stays in my mind, 'that's no good!' … That broke my heart!"

She was deeply disillusioned, and resigned herself to looking for a job in the city's manufacturing sector, "Every day, I was crying, I want to go back to Puerto Rico." Like many Lawrence Latinas, Melendez got a job working for the shoe manufacturer, Lawrence Maid, with a starting pay of one dollar an hour. She only lasted there a week before she left; the smell of the shoe factory sickened her and communication issues made work very difficult. The limited English she had learned in Puerto Rico was not useful and left her feeling isolated, “If you go to the Lawrence Maid, where I worked, maybe my tears they're still on the floor because I used to cry all day."

Courtesy of the Lawrence Public Library

After two months of living in Lawrence with her cousin, she and her husband found their own apartment on Union Street. She described it as being easy to find an apartment back then, but the quality of housing in the fading mill town was far from ideal. Melendez's first apartment had no bathtub, just two big sinks for dishes and clothes. She purchased a big plastic tub to bathe in. She recalled her shock at the living conditions in the stateside city, "I come from a poor family… but we have a bathtub!" She remembered asking herself in amazement, "Nobody here takes a bath?" These conditions were not unique, however; as late as 1970 the census reported that 6 percent of housing units in Lawrence lacked complete indoor plumbing, and Latinos were disproportionately concentrated in the city's worst housing.

Melendez transformed her suffering into organizing in order to reconstitute the sense of community that she had left behind in coming to Lawrence. She and her husband formed the first Latino social club in the city, opening the Club de Juanadinos Ausentes on Garden Street in 1964. Melendez made the space freely available for community gatherings and celebrations. Over the next few decades, Latinos formed countless social clubs in the city, such as the Dominican club, Los Trinitarios, organizations that came to play important advocacy roles in Lawrence. In 1964, Melendez also helped create an adult baseball league for the city's early Latino residents. Participants kicked off the league with a parade, and Melendez described the furious reaction they encountered, "When I opened the first one, [the league for] adults, that was crazy! …Because we did a parade in the city. Oh my god! And the people… decían: Mira ese parece uno del zoológico. Oh my god! We receive many insults." [the people were saying: Look at that; it looks like a zoo.] Latino community building took place in the face of cruel dehumanization and bitter resistance to their public presence in the city.

In 1970, Melendez opened a clothing store on Newbury Street in Lawrence, named Casa Melendez. She would travel down to New York City regularly to obtain merchandise for her store. As a business venture, it was a disaster, but her calling was to community service, not retail, and Melendez ultimately turned the store into a hub for settlement aid. After having suffered adjusting to life in Lawrence, Melendez committed herself to easing the transition for subsequent arrivals, "I dedicated my life to the newcomers." People regularly came to Casa Melendez for help finding an apartment or a job, and she would close the store for hours at a time to bring them to suitable contacts around the city. Melendez eventually formalized her role as community aide and advocate through four decades of work at the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council [GLCAC]. GLCAC was formed in 1965, one of countless local organizations across the country created out of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" program. While the small Latino population in the city was not its main focus at the time of its formation, GLCAC did create a Spanish Coordinator position responsible for organizing services for the Latino community.

Isabel Melendez gained the position of Spanish Coordinator at GLCAC in 1973 after applying and being rejected each year since 1967. Before her only men had been hired for the position, because, as she explained it "back then, remember, they didn't believe in women." She worked at GLCAC until her retirement in 2010 (although she continues to organize in the city to this day), and under her stewardship, the Spanish program there "became the emergency room for the Latino community." GLCAC played a particularly important role in providing immigration-related services as greater numbers of Dominicans and other Latinos arrived in the city. Of course, Puerto Ricans had no need to concern themselves with the vagaries and heartbreak of the U.S. immigration system, as Melendez noted, "¿Que sabía yo de inmigración si venía de Puerto Rico?" [What did I know about immigration, if I came from Puerto Rico?]. But in her role running the “emergency room” for the city’s growing Latino population, Melendez devoted herself to learning the system, and GLCAC quickly became able to help immigrants and their families with all phases of the process.

Melendez was involved in array of other struggles in the city: advocating for medical and court interpreters, bilingual education, affordable housing, and Latino voting rights. She mediated between rioters and the city after the civil disturbances in 1984, and organized anti-discrimination protests (like when a sandwich shop owner posted a sign in his window in 1971 saying, “This store closed to all Purto Rican [sic] in this building and all their bum friends”). In 1979, she was involved in the creation of Semana Hispana, a massive panethnic Latino cultural celebration in the city’s main park that also served as a voter registration site. The annual festival ultimately grew into the largest event in the city, drawing tens of thousands of people from throughout the Northeast into the heart of Lawrence.

Melendez spent her professional life in community service, but she also used her extensive organizing network as formidable political leverage, fiercely and relentlessly pressing City Hall to be responsive and accountable to the city's growing Latino population. Melendez became one of the most powerful figures in Lawrence politics throughout the 1980s and 1990s, culminating with her becoming the first Latino person, of any gender, to win the Democratic mayoral primary in 2001 (although she was ultimately defeated by the Republican candidate).

Melendez’s public recollections generally focus on achievements gained through organizing and coalition building, rather than on bitter reminiscences of slights and prejudice. Yet, she has occasionally offered glimpses of the bigotry and harassment she personally endured as a Latina activist in the city, "How many times I was told 'go back to Puerto Rico,' 'learn English' … 'why don't you stay in Puerto Rico.'" Her point in recalling these insults, however, was not to complain about the bigotry of her white neighbors, but rather to highlight her commitment to the city. She explained that she always answered these types of insults in the exact same way, "'because I came here to stay.' I always said that, 'I came here to stay; I'm not leaving. I came here to stay.'"

Llana Barber is Assistant Professor in American Studies at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. This essay was adopted from her recent book, Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1945-2000 (UNC Press, 2017).

Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1945-2000
UNC Press, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-4696-3134-9
340 pages; $29.95 [paper]
To order the book from the publisher click here.

Adapted from Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1945–2000 by Llana Barber. © 2017 University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.org. Published in Centro Voices 21 June 2017.