Latino Pioneers | Las Pioneras

Grace Díaz

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In 1990, after President Joaquín Balaguer of the Dominican Republic, who I worked for, stepped down, I found myself without work. With four kids, it was hard for me to find another job because in a country like the Dominican Republic, when your party loses power, the people who worked for the government, also lose their job. I did not know what to do, and so I got a Tourist Visa and I came to Rhode Island to visit a friend and his family who were living in Providence. They encouraged me to come, and that’s why I came.

I arrived on Saturday, April 4, 1990, to a friend’s house on Sumter Street. He was living there with his wife, and the reason I came to that house was because we were friends in back in the Dominican Republic, lived in the same neighborhood, and were raising children at the same time. And I felt very comfortable coming here with his family, and I started my life there.

I came here alone, with nothing but two dresses – one was yellow, very cute dress – and $40 in my pocket. And when I stopped in New York City before I came to Providence, I spent $5 at McDonald’s, so, that means I came here with just $35 to spend.

The very next day after I arrived, on April 5th, I was working in a club, a night club at the cash register – I was taking people’s money so they could go inside the club. Imagine working for the government in another country one day, and then coming here to do that. As any immigrant, who must take whatever opportunity put before them, I found a way to survive.

That was how I began my life in the United States. I spoke no English – I was not limited English, but I spoke no English at all. I was able to come here and, as soon as I started working, I quickly started sending financial support to my family back in the Dominican Republic.

At the beginning, it was very tough because I was leaving my children behind, one of them was two years old, and I was also living with mother. At first, I feel very lonely, very sad, thinking about when my kids will need me in any circumstance. You know, when kids get sick, they want mommy, and I was not able to be there. So, I was without my family for almost five years before I brought them here, in 1995. That’s a long time because when I left, they were two, nine, ten, 13 and 14 and when they came, my oldest son as already 17 years old.

At first, only the youngest three of them came because at the time, my oldest son had to go through a more detailed immigration screening process. When the youngest three of them came, that was very exciting. I remember that day very well, it was December 15, 1995 and they had, they had never seen the snow, so they were very excited about that. And then in March the following year, my oldest son was able to join us.

By then, I had remarried and had another child here, was divorced, and a single mother, so I found myself having to support a large family all by myself. I usually had two or three jobs and my oldest son became their temporary father. He was amazing and managed everybody, making sure they do their chores at home, they took turns cooking, cleaning, things like that in order for me to work and sustain us financially.

Before my children arrived in Rhode Island, I enrolled at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) and took a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) class. So, before they came here, I made sure I purchased my own home and found work so I could be ready to support them.

Soon after I was reunited with my family, I think I did a brave thing: after I received my CNA certification, and with limited, very limited English, I applied for a state job. I was very lucky and got a job with the Mental Health Department as CNA, taking care of veterans, at Veterans homes in Bristol and was able to work a lot of over time.

Aside from that, I also took extra jobs so I could support my family. I wanted to make sure my kids had everything they needed: a home, insurance, food on the table, but no mommy at home because I was always working and wasn't able to be at home.

I also enrolled them in school right away and they all learned English quickly. When they all first arrived, they were amazed at how I spoke English, broken English. And then three months later, they were speaking better than me! They would say, "Ma' you're speaking so bad!" Kids can pick up things much faster and we all laughed about that.

Three years after I was reunited with my children, in 1997, I became a United States citizen and I was able to petition for my mother to move from the Dominican Republic to live with me. That was a very long process because immigration is always a very deep, long legal process that takes a long time.

Finally, my mother came in 1999 and at that point, she helped me quite a bit. She took over my home, took care of my kids, and stepped in to support everyone while I worked. Then, soon after she arrived, my mother who was an active person back home, began to insist that she wanted to work. I couldn't imagine my mother going to work in a factory, which was the only option for her at the time! So, I figured out how I could be at home and, at the same time, my mother could work; what I decided to do then, is to open a home childcare business where I could hire my mother to assist me. The best thing about that was that I could finally be there for my kids, who at this point were teenagers.

Entering Politics

So, in 2002, I open my licensed Home Childcare Business, and began taking care of other people’s children. When I did that, I also connected with the 1199 SEIU, a local union that supports home child care workers, who reached out and asked me to help them to connect and organize many of the Spanish-speaking home childcare providers. For me, it was a great opportunity to know other ladies that were working with children and families.

Right after I won, I remember clearly a day, like it was today, my phone rang and it was member of the Dominican American National Roundtable (DANR) and he said, “You know what? You are the first Dominican-American elected to this kind of office in the history United States. I couldn't believe it! That was such a scary moment for me because I never felt it was about the title itself, but about the huge responsibility of being the 'first,' that became such heavy lift, so overwhelming for me.
Grace Díaz
What I discovered while working with them is that at that time licensed home childcare providers went through a lot of struggles. They always cared about the quality of the work they were doing, but there were no educational opportunities for them that would help them grow, make an impact on the lives of the children that they were taking care.

So, Union 1199 decided to put together a campaign to unionize all the home care providers and at that point, while we were examining the campaign and creating strategies, many of them turned to me and said: “Grace, you could be our State Rep because we don't have a voice who can represent us in the State House” and they encouraged me to run. I thought about their motivation and goals, which was social change and gaining respect for a group of lady-workers, and felt that was the main motivation that I had, so I said YES. I have to be honest because when I convinced myself to run, I had no clue what I was put myself up for. Not at all. I didn't know the responsibility I was taking on. I think it was a little irresponsible of me. It sounds good to be a State Rep, but people ought to know all the consequences that go with that responsibility.

I filed to run in May and we engaged in the campaign for two months and a half. What was incredible for me and I don't know whether it was a coincidence, but the population of the three Wards where I was running was 52% women. Not only that, but I noticed that all of the volunteers for my campaign were women! One day I had 125 volunteers all door knocking, and I spoke with neighborhood residents, and did things like that. It was especially exciting because I always felt it wasn’t about my being a Dominican-American lady, but it was mainly a lot of people with home union organizations who helped me win the election and that was an eye-opener for me.

On November 4, 2004, I won the election with 52% of the votes.

I mentioned how one should know the responsibilities of what it means to be a State Rep and an example I have is that I didn't know the salary that comes with that position. In the State of Rhode Island, when you are a state employee, you cannot run for office. So, because I was still working as a CNA with the state, I had to resign a job that that had held for seven years of my life. Before I made my petition to the board of election that I was running for office, I resigned my state job. And I did that not knowing if I would win.

And, to be honest did not know what I would do if I had not won, I had not thought about that. Sometimes one’s emotions take precedence over making important decisions and you don't realize what you're setting yourself up for because it's totally in the moment. I also had a lot of people around – the union, my campaign manager, who was one of the best, of the best, encouraging and supporting me. All of those things gave me the confidence and I felt that it was worth it. Plus, my personal reason to run was so I could help my fellow workers, my friends, all who helped me to feel like I had to work hard. With all that support behind me, I was able to win.
Right after I won, I remember clearly a day, like it was today, while I was getting into somebody's car when my phone rang and it was a Cid Wilson from Washington DC, who was member of the Dominican American National Roundtable (DANR). He was the person collecting all the information about who was doing what in terms of the Dominican American community. So, he called me and he said, “You know what? You are the first Dominican-American elected to this kind of office in the history United States. I couldn't believe it, and my response was: “What? Oh, my God!” It was such a scary moment for me because I never felt it was about the title itself, but about the huge responsibility of being the "first," that became such heavy lift, so overwhelming for me.

And at that point, I became scared. I knew I had to do this right. I knew it was not what motivated me to run, it was not part of my plan. It just happened. As I mentioned to you, I didn't know what I was setting myself up for during the campaign, so for me it was three things: learning, working and advancing. I just knew I had to put myself in that path and I had to learn, while at the same time doing the right thing.

I do want to point out with emphasis that before my election, Anastasia Williams, who is Panamanian American, was the first Hispanic and also first Latina to win a statewide Rep position. I was the first Dominican American, not just in the history of Rhode Island, but in the history of United States to be elected to a high state office. Not one female Dominican was elected to any position in United State before 2004, when I won my race.

How did I feel about that? Well, I felt a huge responsibility. Because it was not just about me or the work I can do, it was about the entire community, the district that I was now representing, the home care providers, the Dominican young ladies who were looking up to me. My legacy, what will I leave behind? What about my kids? It was a scary moment. It has been since then. I always feel that I cannot fail, I cannot do the wrong thing. I have to do things that will inspire community – my constituents, the Latinos, and also the community in general should always feel like it's worth it to have me there at the State House, representing them. It feels like I’m constantly walking on eggshells! I’m always very careful with everything I do and say and so far, for 18 years now, there has never been problem.

What was my biggest challenge? My accent. Since the day I was elected, I have felt that I have to go an extra mile to prove myself before people believe in me. When people first heard my accent at the State House, I know they felt that I didn’t know what I’m doing. Just because I have an accent many people thought I was naïve or not intelligent! Today, I still feel it's my biggest challenge. But, thank God that I have been able to prove that I have more than that to give, that my accent does not stop me from doing my work and that you can look beyond that when I speak.

In-State Tuition

My biggest success, what am I most proud of, is the passage of Rhode Island In-State Tuition, what some people call the Rhode Island Dream Act. My passion to pass that legislation started in 2005, when I went to the Central High School graduation in Providence. While there, I saw a group of students huddled in a corner, crying. It was a group of young ladies and they were crying sad tears. When I saw that, I was surprised because I thought “These kids are supported to be excited, happy and getting ready to go to college!” I approached them and I asked what was wrong and they told me that because of their immigration status, they had no chance to go to college, high school graduation was a dead end for them. They explained how college was unaffordable if you are not a citizen because immigrants have to pay three times the tuition than their American counterparts. The students came from low-income families and paying that tuition was not possible. That day stayed with me, stuck in my brain. How is it possible if somebody spends their childhood going to school, and has dreams to continue their education is not able to do that? From that day forward, I made that my personal goal and I vowed that until I don't accomplish that, until I find a way for these students to afford college, I wold not leave the State House. It was so difficult year by year, when I introduced the same legislation and it did not pass. At the same time, the media did not help, there were so many anti-immigrant groups, people from all walks of life who were against that legislation.

Around 2009, a Brown University student reached out and joined our efforts – it was the late Tan Tran, a Brown student from California who was undocumented who inspired us to do the work for all the students. We rallied students from around the state, big organizations were behind us. And our main focus was to ensure these undocumented students, all students, have access to higher education. I have to say that I believe God gave us impetus to push through because through the years we never lost any hope. We continued to work toward that goal, and it took 17 years to finally get it done. In 2022, Rhode Island In-State Tuition finally passed in both the House and Senate.

At the same time, in 2021 we passed legislation submitted by Governor Gina Raimondo that created the Rhode Island Promise, offering two years free tuition for a student attending the Community College of Rhode Island. When we passed that legislation, undocumented student were able to also benefit from that. So, now we have the most amazing thing, in my view, which is that all the students in Rhode Island have the opportunity to go to college. To me, it opened the door for education for everyone, not just undocumented students. And that is an amazing feeling. It was what I was dreaming through the years, as I carried those bad images of the kids crying, and I vowed that it would never happen again.

In 2022, this past election year, not just in Rhode Island, but all over the country there was a movement to encourage more young people to run for office. I'm glad that was the case because these young people are the ones who will replace us. I'm planning to get out of politics in a short period of time, and I hoping someone comes forward who has great moral standards, a young individual who knows that politics is not something that you use for personal benefit. Being involved in politics to me is an opportunity to raise up other people, to help people, to help others to be able to be part of the solution, to use their voice. Being in politics to me is to be a bridge for others, to provide opportunities, elevate others, support people’s needs, and through government, to be able to get access to the resources you need to accomplish all the things you that make one a success and not a failure. So, my advice if you are on the path or thinking of running for office, is to first do your research and learn what are your responsibilities as a legislative leader for those you serve.

My mother passed this year, last May and I feel that now is the time for Grace. And I appreciate that in life and I feel now more equipped and able to represent my district and my community. I have a lot of plans for the incoming legislative year and will dedicate my time to Adult Education. I feel that the best way to improve the Rhode Island economy is to help people to elevate themselves. My plan for 2023 is to form a committee that will bring attention to Adult Education, starting with training, certification, college education, you name it, anything that can connect people to a better job. So, that is the biggest thing I will do next year along with to continue to work for child care and access to more funding for early education for children

— Interview by Marta V. Martínez | November 21, 2022

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