Pablo Rodríguez

Pablo Rodriguez, MD (pictured above far left) was the first Latino Chair of the Rhode Island Foundation, first Latino to join the boards of Citizens Bank and BankRI and the first (and only) Latino to be appointed to the First Judicial Nominating Commission. His story — recorded in November of 2000 — continues below.
I was born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, I went to school at the University of Puerto Rico and I studied biology. From there, I went to study medicine at the State University of New York in Buffalo, New York. From Buffalo, I moved to Long Island where I did my training in obstetrics and gynecology. And then from there, I moved to Providence in 1985. And I've been here ever since.
In Rhode Island, I did obstetrics and gynecology for a couple of years and then I became medical director of Planned Parenthood. And that gave me more of a statewide view on women's issues and many, many issues that gave me a bigger profile that allowed me to get more involved in the community and public policy.

Since then, I have worked in many interests in the community: I was president in the early 1980s of Rhode Island Project AIDS in its early years when AIDS was a poorly-understood disease. I also got involved with the International Institute, dealing with issues of immigrants. I was president of that board for two years.

Since then, I've become involved with Women & Infant's Hospital, which is the hospital where I do most of my work and where I'm the associate chief of OBGYN.

In terms of politics, the last thing I've been involved with has been the creation and the establishment of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee or RILPAC, which I chair and started at my house, basically, during a party where a group of us thought up the idea of creating a political action committee that could influence the mainstream political process on behalf of Latinos in the state. And that's only the abbreviated version that I have about that.

Right now [in the year 2000] I have this Spanish-language radio show. I've had it now for about a year and a half, almost, two years. I also have a television show, which is in English and also a medical show on Cox Cable 3.
What you feel is your largest commitment to the Latino community?

My largest commitment is basically to change people's minds about Latinos. That to me is the most important role that I play and I serve in this community because there are not that many role models, visible role models in the community. Unfortunately, what you read in the papers and the people you see in all the number one shows in the country, are negative images of Latinos. So, one of the things that really inspired me to add all this craziness to my life is the fact that I wanted a better image, I want to change the perception that many people have of the Latinos. I think that's really the best thing I can do.

What first interested you in political organizing?

You can't be involved in human services and not be cognizant or aware of the problems of the Latino community and the community in general, both communities in Rhode Island and nationwide. So, I think at the moment I had time to be interested. I mean, as a resident in obstetrics and gynecology, you're lucky if you get to sleep. So, I didn't have much time to get involved while in New York. But as soon as I came to Providence, the first thing I did was try to align myself with local community-based organizations so I could give back some of the good luck I've had. That's what I promised my admissions officer, when I had my interview. I said something like "Oh, I'm going to help humanity. I don't care about the money, I just want to help the world." And seriously, I meant it, and I've been involved in community work ever since I came here, to Rhode Island.


RILPAC is a nonpartisan group that basically involves people from all different nationalities, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Guatemalans, Peruvians, Mexican, Argentinians – we have almost the entire gamut of nationalities that comprise the Rhode Island Hispanic immigrant community. And what we have discovered through our own experiences individually is that political action committees have been the driving force of many negative policies within our community. The people in this country didn't rise up and say, well, we want to declare English the official language of the United States, or we want to take benefits away from legal immigrants. It was done as a result of very small groups of powerful individuals that have constituencies behind them and money behind them participating in the political process, and then instilling those ideas into the political discourse. And we, those of us who started RILPAC, believe that the Latino political action committee can do the same thing.

The driving force for RILPAC started when Juan Pichardo and Victor Capellan showed up in my office suggesting to form a political group to educate and assist the community but I convinced them to do a PAC instead and to begin fundraising and endorsing candidates. When we formed the group, I was the President and then later, Nellie Gorbea became the second President of the PAC and she took it to another level.

In our first fundraiser, we raised twelve thousand dollars, and we've used that to basically take our message to the candidates and to the politicians. We were able to get some endorsements in the last election. And what you find is that the minute there's a perception of political activity in any community, then politicians become much more in-tune to what that community needs and wants. We have seen through our limited experience of just two years, that we've been working that people who may have had certain ideas when we began this process have changed their ideas as a result of our political activism. Which, you know, we all think of democracy as a place where thousands of people come together and demand action, but really it doesn't work that way. It really is how political influence in this country works, talking one-to-one with politicians and small groups coming together and being able to influence those politicians.

On a little more personal level, why do you feel that RILPAC is important to YOU, to the community, and then to Rhode Island?

A group like RILPAC is very, very important because immigrants traditionally do not feel ownership of the political process. For example, let’s take somebody that's here without papers – you learn that they are a recent arrival and that they feel that this country is doing them a favor. They feel that they don't have any rights, that they don't have any opportunity to really let their voice be heard. That they don't speak English is even worse! And I think that we have demonstrated that that's not the case, that we can have an agenda that benefits Latinos. But, more importantly than benefitting Latinos, what we're trying to portray is that an agenda that benefits Latinos, benefits the entire community. That this is not just about making Latinos better. This is an agenda that is to make entire communities better. And because of that and because of it, I think that message is absolutely essential for people to understand not only the needs of the Latino community, but the benefits that go towards the entire community by working to improve the lives of Latinos.

I think the Latinos that I surround myself with have been able to make a good impression about that, and also in making an impression on people that this is a nation of immigrants and that the Latino experience is not a new experience. The Latino experience is the same experience that Italians, Irish, any other group of immigrants that were here before us went through, exactly the same. I mean, you can write the same book, not put a title, and know exactly that you're talking about, an immigrant person, regardless of where they come from. So, that's what we at RILPAC are trying to portray, and I think that's an important message that people need to understand.

What has been your biggest victory to date?

My greatest victory has to be a trial, in court, that I went through. I was the lead plaintiff against the State of Rhode Island when they were banning partial-birth abortions. This was legislation that was clearly unconstitutional and it was done with not the best interest of patients or health care at all. It's a very controversial piece of legislation where people that do not know anything about the field have an opinion that really does not jive with the medical experience and medical knowledge that that people like myself have as doctors. And I think it was such a big victory because I was pretty much alone, I was the only plaintiff. Nobody wanted to come forward and nobody thought that it was going to be “a win.” But, it was a win, I won against the state and now it’s being appealed. I think that was my greatest victory to be able to fight the political establishment. The legislature voted for this bill overwhelmingly because nobody wanted to be seen as being in favor of partial-birth abortion when the legislation had nothing to do with partial abortions. It was just a very poorly crafted law. And it just basically showed that a single person can fight the system, can really fight the state. I mean I was suing the Attorney General. And, I won! Every time I think about that, because it was a David and Goliath situation, I feel that this was my biggest victory.

Can you share with us any particular stories that you might hold close to your heart that continue to motivate you in times of struggle?

Yes, there is one story that always reminds me of the power of individuals, and it's one of the reasons why I'm here. While I was in Puerto Rico, still in college and applying to Medical School, I saw this little card on a bulletin board announcing open applications for a summer program at Harvard. It was specifically for a Pre-Med Program for minority students to train and become better prepared to get into medical school. And I said, well I'll just write my name, so I sent it and they called me back and with the help of ASPIRA, I got into the program.

ASPIRA is based in New York and it was originally designed to help Puerto Ricans achieve educational attainment, and later expanded its mission to include all Latinos. Little did I know that when my card got to the pile in the Admissions Office with all the other applications, one person, a student working in Admissions, picked up my application, read my essay, read my story, and probably said something like, ‘You know, this guy's interesting. Let’s give him a chance.’

And little did I know that there was a huge philosophical block to admit people from Puerto Rico into this program. And this single student basically took my application and did not let it go until he exhausted every possible opportunity for me to get into this program. And the program basically said no. They said no way. The dean of Harvard believes that Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico have all the opportunities in the world, they're rich. His view of Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico was that there was no need in Puerto Rico. That everybody um, that the only Puerto Ricans that he had met were from the upper class. And, you know, my father was a barber and my mother was a secretary. And so he held on to the application and took it to the board of Aspira and said, this guy needs to go to Harvard for the summer program, he's worth it. And he was able to convince the board to pay for my position. And I actually got money and they basically bought that position for me at that summer program at Harvard. And I had the opportunity to find this out after I was in the program for a few weeks when I was summoned to meet with the dean of Harvard, the Harvard Summer School Office. I'm like, I don't know why this guy's calling me, but maybe I am in trouble. I don't know. And he basically just told it to me. Right. He said, you know, I am. I was fighting for you not to get in. This is the impression I had a Puerto Rican, in Puerto Rico, and after you being here for four weeks, I've come to understand that that's not the case. And he basically told me how he has changed his mind, and since that time, they reserve two seats for a Puerto Rican in Puerto Rico to join this program.

During that program, I also met the admissions minority officer at the University of New York at Buffalo, who also brought my application to a committee and said to them: ‘You know, this guy's worth it, and we’ve got to do everything possible to admit him.’ He then told me to be sure to apply and that he would do everything possible to get me admitted.

And I got in.

What happened to me at that point just shows how a single person, can have such a strong effect on someone’s life. And that memory always comes back to me, and I remember that what kept me going is that I too felt that I could get in.

Each of us just, you know, one person here, one person there has a certain critical mass and you can change the world. One person at a time changes it for me. I mean, if that student had not been at that meeting, involved in that committee work, sitting through an admissions process where you just read letters and applications all the time. If he hadn't been there, I wouldn't be here.

So that's my story.

How have you seen that the work of the “early pioneers” has impacted the lives of the Latino community in Rhode today?

There was a group of people who were out there when it was not fashionable to be Latino, when it was very difficult to break through. When there was no constituency, when there was not even an interest in helping this community. So, the early work was so important for the entire community. But we're the next generation, and we just came along and continue the work that they started.

I will add that one of the biggest problems that we had in the early years, I would say 10 years ago, was that the agendas were very regional, very local, very country-oriented. So, the people from Central Falls never talked to the people from Providence, never talked with the people in Warwick or Woonsocket. And Puerto Ricans had their own organization, Colombians had their own organizations, and Dominicans had their organization and nobody accomplished anything because they were too small, they didn't have any critical mass, they didn't have any really professional staff associated with those organizations. And I think it's just a matter of evolution. And it's the same evolution that immigrants have everywhere. It’s the same thing that happened with the Italians when they first came here and they isolated themselves into communities that were geographic … ‘Okay, well you're from the South of Italy, I’m from the North ...’ So, you know, they all saw things the same way, and eventually, they came together. And I think that's what happened in the Latino community. People started discovering that, wait a second you know, we're never going to accomplish anything if we’re divided. Let's start a dialog, and let’s get together in a social setting.

At that point, Nellie Gorbea and I got together and both thought that what we need to do is just have people meet socially first and develop a social group. We then started these parties – the first one which was at my house – and we basically rotated parties all over the state. And after four or five, we then made the pitch that it was time that we all start working towards the community.

And it worked. And I think it was because people saw that our agenda was a common agenda. And yeah, okay, to be very honest, I also had a job. In the past, I saw that the “leaders” during that time were unemployed and when they saw the first opportunity to get a job or to get “a handout,” they would work with or for whoever would potentially give them a job. And the difference now, I feel, is that I have a job, many others who joined us already had a job, and what I saw is that we didn't have to do this for our own empowerment or employment. And it also makes it much easier when you don't have to have the constraints of saying, ‘well I'm not going to speak against this department or against this person because they might be giving me a job in the future.’

What issues are there within this community and what interests are there that motivates people like you and others to mobilize and to organize?

There was a national poll sent out to the Latino community [in 2000] and one question that was asked is: “What is the American dream for you?” And about five percent, answered ‘sending my kids to college.’ Education is the American dream for Latinos today; education has become the central and most important aspect in the life of Latino families. And I think that's a universal theme that not only helps us make a case for political involvement, but also makes perhaps a case for that agenda to be a common agenda for all communities, not just Latinos. And I believe that education has been the strongest force, the strong driving force of common agendas that people can rally around because we want the best for our children. I think that's where it's at.

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What kind of challenges do you [through RILPAC] face?

The biggest problem that we have are the very high number of people who are NOT registered to vote. RILPAC has organized strong drives to get people to register, but we can't get ... and it's one of the things that the we are trying to work the hardest to do, simple things ranging from just translating voter registrations to actual going out to vote. And we see apathy. Apathy because many people feel that they don't have any impact in the process.

We already have shown, here in Rhode Island, that Latinos, when they vote, they do have an impact in the process, like take for example the election of Bob Waygand to Congress was directly as a result of Latino political involvement. We activated the community against Joe Paolino, who was the endorsed Democrat, former mayor, ambassador to Malta, he had all the money, all the connections. And because he decided to advocate for English as the official language of the United States, we successfully torpedo his candidacy by just having people that never participated in primaries for the Democratic Party to come in and to overwhelm the popular vote. So, we do have the evidence that we can do it. It's just a matter of having an agenda and having an issue that people can rally around and just basically get off their butts and vote on election day.

Money Talks

One thing I learned from a local prominent politician is that if you don't demonstrate your ability to fundraise, it doesn't matter how smart you are, doesn't matter how good you are, doesn't matter how brilliant are your policies, you must demonstrate your ability to raise money. That's the way politics works in this country. He said sometimes he spent 20, 30 percent of his time on the phone checking people down. And that's the reality of it. That's why campaign reform is so important because we are deciding who the best politicians are by their ability to raise money. And fortunately, fundraising for political purposes is not an easy thing to do in the Latino community. There was a time when I was not interested in giving at all to politicians because of complete distrust of politicians. And it's very difficult, very, very difficult to fundraise. Because of those aspects, I don’t think you will get anywhere if you don’t raise money. And I believe that is a big problem for Latinos.

There seems to be a high amount of people who seem to contribute to politicians in places like the DR and PR, but not to those in RI. What can we do about the percentage of Latino Rhode Islanders who still follow what is going on in their own countries in terms of politics.

It's ownership, ownership. Immigrants do not feel that they own the process. They feel that they are an afterthought, that they don't have any voice, that they don't have any opportunity, that politicians don't speak for them. And in many respects, they're right, that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy in that you don't get involved, that they definitely don't speak for you because you're not talking to them. And that's what the message is that we're trying to bring across to that community, that the way to be heard, is not by staying away, but actually by getting in and getting involved. So, it's the actual truth, you have one of the Dominican candidates who came here and was able to fill a stadium. And the people who attend those rallies seem to be the same people that on election day won't get up to, you know, pull a couple of levers. So, we have to translate their political activism from their home countries to their activism here. Those are the kinds of messages that we [RILPAC] are trying to internalize, to see what resonates, to see what moves Latino voters.

And I think as far as issues, it’s children, well, I mean, education, which should be an important motivator. The Latino community is a very young community, and we’re at the stage where people are starting families. The average age for Latinos today is 19, 20 years old. So, this group is in their family-building mode. I think that education has become more of a central theme for people to rally around. Especially public education, which is to me one of the most important issues we face today.

I think that these new parents understand the importance of education. As an example of what we all share is, look at my father, who I very rarely saw because he would leave the house at 7:00 am and he'd come home at 10:00 at night, because he had to travel two and half hours to work – I believe that is the typical experience of the Latino family. You have two very, very hard-working parents that you barely see because they both work. The reality is, no matter what socioeconomic level, Latino families work very, very hard and the young Latinos of today, know that.

Do you feel that others will follow in your footsteps?

Oh, God, yes! And, I tell you, I’m working hard to make sure that happens.

Yesterday, we at RILPAC met with students at the University of Rhode Island (URI). We met with the Latin American Student Association (LASA) at URI because that's where we felt we must put our efforts. First, we have to raise the money. And now we have to raise the soldiers. I’ve learned that students could be a very important force in our future because they're the ones that I am able to inspire. So many people are getting just too damn cynical about the political process, and I strongly believe that what you're doing right now, and what I am doing is essential.

As long as I can stay with it and not have a heart attack in the process, I continue. I have a very fast car, and I tend to drive fast ... so nothing will stop me. ◼︎

Interview by Monica Lucero
for the Nuestras Raíces Oral History Project
November 7, 2000

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