Angel Taveras

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Angel Taveras is an attorney and in 2011 made Rhode Island Latino history when he became the first Latino mayor in Rhode Island. Taveras also became the third elected and fourth serving Dominican-American mayor in the United States.

In 2007, Angel was appointed to sit on the Providence Housing Court. In 2010, he stepped down from his judicial position to run for mayor of Providence. In a four-way Democratic primary, Angel Taveras won with 49% of the vote. He would would go on to win the general election with 82% of the vote, and was sworn in as the 37th mayor of Providence the following January.

In 2014, Taveras stepped down as Mayor of Providence to run for Governor of Rhode Island. He was defeated by Gina Raimondo, who made history the following January 2015 by becoming the first female governor in the state. Had Taveras won the election, he would have made history for a second time as the first Latino governor in Rhode Island.

In this interview, Taveras talks about his desire to be a role model for all youth, using himself as an example of how one can go from Head Start to Harvard. The interview below was taped in 2000, when Taveras had just announced his candidacy for a seat in the 2nd Congressional District of RI. He lost that election to incumbent James Langevin (D).
My name is Angel Taveras and I was born in New York City. My family is from the Dominican Republic. They immigrated [to the U.S.] in the mid-60s, around 1965 or ’66, looking for a better life and to have an opportunity, to pursue the American dream.

I grew up in Providence. I was about one when I came to Providence. My mom and dad divorced when I was seven, and I grew up here with my mom, and my brother and sister. School was a big thing. So was baseball.

Latino Role Models

I think it’s powerful when you see someone on T.V. and you think, ‘Wow, look! This person looks like me, talks like me, is like me.’ It’s important when you see that. I didn’t think deeply about that [while I was growing up], but I just knew that I wanted to be something, someone I hadn’t seen before. And I think that we don’t have enough of that now. I think it’s important that kids know that … too often we have so much publicity for athletes and things like that, but we are more than just athletes — Dominicans are more than just baseball players. We do a lot of different things, and I think it’s important to make that known. When you see it, you remember and I believe it’s more important for young people to see and not just to just hear about those things. And I see myself as that kind of role model today.

Politics

People have asked me: “What made you interested in politics?” My reply is: “I’m not interested in politics. I’m interested in helping people.” And I think politics is one way to do that. It’s not the only way, but it is one way.

What I do know is that I want to make my time on earth count for something. I want to leave the world a little bit better for others, everybody who comes after me. When you think about that, if everyone did that, then we would have a much better world. It may sound a bit idealistic in that sense, but certainly, I think what I feel is idealism tempered with realism.
In terms of keeping America’s promise, when immigrant come to America I think they expect opportunity. And I think it starts with education. The issues I believe are important are all interrelated, because I believe you can have the best educational system in the world, but if you don’t have a strong economy, where do the people go?
Angel Taveras
But really, what made me decide to get involved at this point in my life is just that I feel that I am now in a unique position to represent the people of my district.

Because I know I can say that I went from Head Start to Harvard; and in terms of where I work, I went from minimum wage to maximum wage. I think that it’s important for someone to have that opportunity, to have a perspective that’s unique from other people. And I think my perspective is definitely unique from the other candidates. They’re going to talk about things that they imagine. They’re going to imagine what it’s like to be poor, imagine what it’s like not to have health care, imagine what it's like, you know, to struggle from paycheck to paycheck. And I can tell you what it’s like, because I can talk from experience: I’ve been there.

So, what was it like to be struggling? It all depends; it’s all relative. I say “relative” because I didn’t realize that I was poor. I had pretty much everything that I wanted. We [my family] didn’t have fancy stuff, or a fancy house that we would’ve liked. We couldn’t even afford to visit the Dominican Republic; we only were able to visit there one time, and I know that was because of our financial situation.
But truthfully, I don’t realize that until I went to Phillips Andover Academy [in Massachusetts]. When I first arrived, I looked at the cars around me; they were all Mercedes and limos or similar cars. And I thought to myself, 'Whoa, what a difference!' It was that experience that made me realize that some people are rich not because they’re smarter, but because they were born into a family that has money. As for me, where I am today, I feel like a lot of it is because I have been blessed. My experience at that time taught me not to take anything for granted. I think I learned how hard it is for anyone to get to where I am today.

In my life, there have been a lot of turns here and there, along the way. But I know now that I just have to stay the course. And that’s hard. It’s a different environment when you go to Harvard, when you go to Georgetown, when you come from the background that I’ve come from. So I think it’s taught me to be humble, to not take anything for granted, and to be very grateful for the many blessings I’ve received.

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Mayor Taveras in 2014 at the book launch
of Latino History in Rhode Island: Nuestras Raíces
(with Marta V. Martínez)
Education

I went to Classical High School. While I was there, I got a three-summer scholarship for math and science for minority students at Phillips Andover. I received a scholarship to do that, and it was a great opportunity, a great opportunity. In fact, they really just taught us all to really aim high, that we could do anything we wanted.

So, going back to role models being people of color in different positions . . . You can say to a child: 'You can be – You can be the president of the United States.' It’s easy to say that. But, until you show that to a child . . . that child is still gonna be a little, 'Hmm . . .' Telling young people just doesn’t have the same impact as when you show them.
Higher Education

I went to Dartmouth for a year. But, I try to keep that in the recesses of my mind: I didn’t enjoy Dartmouth very much. After that, I went to Harvard from sophomore through senior year and I majored in “Government.”

After I graduated from Harvard, I became an Echoing Green Public Service Fellow. I received a fellowship to start an innovative public service project anywhere in the country – actually, anywhere in the world. And what I did was, I came back to Rhode Island, and I started an after-school and summer program for kids in partnership with the [Brown University] Swearer Center for Public Service. We selected the Elmwood Community Center [in Providence] and had volunteers go down after school and during the summer. It was a great program. During the summer, paid counselors led education/recreation activities. It’s just a great example of a way to give back, and a way to provide positive role models. We tried to recruit as many people of color as we could, a wide range of people.

I did something similar while I was at Harvard. So I had some experience and that became part of my public service, my commitment to really becoming involved.

So after that experience, I went to Georgetown Law School, and that was a great experience as well. I went to law school, practiced law for a while. I’ve been practicing law for almost four years now.

As a practicing lawyer now, I realize what tremendous power lawyers have. Sometimes there are I’m able to solve something just by telling people that I am a lawyer. It’s nice to be able to pick up the phone sometimes and be able to solve a problem. The other thing I’ve learned is that a lot of people who need legal help can’t afford it. And that’s too bad, because sometimes it’s the most important issues that need attention. People can’t afford a lawyer, and that’s difficult.

First Latino Candidate for Congress:
Having an eye on the future, with respect for the past

I am running for the United States Congress from Rhode Island’s 2nd congressional district. It’s the first first time I ever ran for office and to get here, I first looked at the field, and I realized that there were more of the same types of people running. I felt that it was a wonderful opportunity to really make a difference and get involved. And I also researched the fact that Rhode Island has sent several newcomers to Washington who had never run for office. For example, the last four congressmen from this district, two of them had never run before they did. That’s something else I looked at too, to see if it was unprecedented. And that was very encouraging to me. Going back to what I said earlier: It’s when you see it that you can believe it, you remember it, never forget it.

Another thing that influenced me is that it is important for me to be involved at a policy level, at a higher lever, in making change.

And I’m very excited about that.

For my platform, what I talk about is keeping America’s promise. What that means is really remembering what made this country great, why people wanted to come here in the first place. I want to make sure that we preserve that for the future.

I believe it starts with education, and making sure that our education system is the finest in the world. But I do think we have a long way to go. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and what I want to do is to make sure that Head Start is expanded to include everyone. To me it’s very important to show that if you start early, in terms of early childhood education, you know you’re going to get a better return.

I want to make sure that we have good teachers, well-trained teachers who are the best, and very well prepared to deal with students. And that we hire new ones where we need them, and train them well; provide them with good professional development. I want to make sure that we have after-school and summer programs like the things that I’ve experienced in my life.

I think that it’s important to keep kids engaged. I want to make sure that we build our schools – our infrastructure – and build new schools across the way.

I want to make sure that we have accessibility to higher education because ultimately, if you get a higher education, it will all pay off. I’m a good example of someone that wouldn’t be where I am today without Pell Grants, without having had that opportunity, without having done those things. So the education is very important. Education doesn’t occur in a vacuum.

I want to work really hard in terms of health care, and finding a way to get people coverage – affordable coverage. I don’t think that a single-payer system is the way to go. I want to show that a lot of communities of color, for example, are disproportionately folks without health care. And that’s a big problem. I believe that we have to work toward getting universal coverage. We need a strong Patient’s Bill of Rights.

For the elderly, we need to make sure we have prescription drug coverage. But it has to be prescription drug coverage that makes sense. What I mean by that is: often the elderly who get prescription drug coverage, but then we raise their premiums. If you raise their premiums, it’s almost the same thing as not having prescription drug coverage at all. If you’re going raise the cost of insurance, you have to make sure it’s not too high so that it becomes unaffordable again.

I care about the veterans in our country. They pay a tremendous debt to this country. And I think that it’s a shame that when they’re in times of need, we don’t return that debt of gratitude. And then that’s something that I want to change as well. So those are some of the issues that I want to talk about.

So in terms of keeping America’s promise, when immigrant come to America I think they expect opportunity. And I think it starts with education. But the issues I believe are important are all interrelated, because I believe you can have the best educational system in the world, but if you don’t have a strong economy, where do the people go?

So I think it starts with education. I think the economy’s very important. And I think what people expect is that if they work hard and play by the rules, they will be successful and get ahead.

In America, it’s “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I believe that means that if you work hard, and you really stay committed, you will do very well for yourself and for your family. And I think that’s what people expect.

I really do.

Important Issues for Latinos

Education, health care, and employment. I think those are the biggest issues facing Latinos.

Education. Making sure that the children get the highest-quality education possible. Making sure that we stop the dropout rate that among Latinos is the highest of any group. Making sure that kids go off to college and succeed, and do well.

In terms of health care, making sure that there’s health coverage. Unfortunately, too often, it’s our children who aren’t covered by health insurance. It’s disproportionately us [Latinos], which is a big problem. And if you’re not healthy, you can’t learn. You can’t be productive.

In terms of jobs and employment, the economy in Rhode Island has expanded in a way that’s produced more service-industry jobs. They’re low-paying jobs. That’s something that has to change too. But that also goes along with the education, you know, a component as well.

And making sure that education’s not only for K to 12, but K through college; and for adults as well so they can be trained and prepared.

I think that those are probably the three most important issues facing Latinos.

Oh, and immigration is a big issue as well for many people. That’s policy – immigration policy.

There are lots of different issues as well. But just in terms of the most important, I believe those are very, very important issues right now that I will focus on in my campaign.

Political Empowerment for Latinos

I feel that Latinos in Rhode Island are becoming more politically active as a whole, but not enough. By that, I mean that our voting numbers just don’t reflect what they should. I think we [Latinos] need to be much more active and get out there much more. The number of people that I’ve met who have never voted before, it’s unbelievable. We need to change that.

I think part of it is my candidacy, to some degree is encouraging Latinos and making them see how politics affects their lives.

When I say “Latinos” or “Hispanics” – people have to remember that there are so many different Latino groups. We’re so distinct even within our own groups. And I think that we’ve come a long way. The numbers show that we’re really becoming much more involved. As a whole, I think Latinos still lag behind in many different areas. And I think that’s got to change. Nationally, I think that Latinos are becoming much more involved in the political process. I think that’s important. It’s good that Latinos are in some of the most strategic presidential states.

In Rhode Island, I feel we’ve got to get people more involved. What we’re seeing now to some degree, at least with the Dominicans, is we’re going to see the first generation of Dominicans who grew up here [in Rhode Island] and I think we have to become more active. Like myself – Dominicans who were born here, and grew up here – we’re becoming much more involved in different aspects of politics. I think that’s great

In terms of Unity: I think that Latinos are such different cultures and different experiences and come from such different lands, but we’ve got to remember, though, that we’re in this together: That together, united, we’re much more powerful.

We’ve got to get people much more involved in the process, and remind ourselves that our experiences, while they’re different, we still have a common experience. We also must make sure more people become citizens.

For me, I don’t think [being a minority] has been a barrier in any way. I think that, certainly I’ve already been asked some questions on this campaign that I probably would not have been asked but for the fact that I’m Latino. But I don’t think it’s been a barrier. I think it’s been exciting in a sense that it distinguishes me. I think it gives me unique perspective. I think that people, once they hear me speak, they feel a little bit more comfortable once they get a chance to ask me some questions. Certainly I do feel that I’ve been asked some questions on this campaign that I would not have been asked, I don’t believe, were it not for how I look.

On Getting Involved

I think what I would like to say to people overall is to get involved in as many ways as you can in terms of dealing with different types of people, and educating yourself as to what is going on and what’s happening. There are a lot of different ways to help, even at the college level. I was involved in after-school and summer programs that were very important to me while I was in college. I would like young people to not underestimate how important it is to have a wide array of experience. Because it really allows you to talk to people in a different way: talk to people in a sincere way, talk to people in a way that people can feel that you understand their problems. So I think that that's really important.

Advice to Future Generations

What advice do I have for young people? I think that to get involved in campaigns like my campaign, and campaigns overall, because you get a chance to see what it’s like to be political involved in making change. And you get a chance to learn about what’s going on, and what people are like, and what candidates stand for. Also, get involved in student government somewhat to see what the process is like – even though I wasn’t involved in student government, I think that’s a good option for young people today.

Overall, I think it’s really getting involved and finding ways to experience as many different things as you can. Because ultimately, that helps you, I think, be a representative – a representative of all the people.

Interviewed by Peter Kim
April 10, 2000

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