History and the people who make it: Ines Rios

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler

This is the twenty-first in a continuing series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.Ines Rios was interviewed by Angela Thorp [T] in 2011.

T: What was it like growing up in Puerto Rico?

R: It’s very similar since we’re part of the United States. We are very Americanized. It was more of a small-town type feeling where you would go places and they’re like, Oh are you so-and-so’s daughter?My dad is a lawyer and he teaches law school in Puerto Rico. My mom is a special ed. teacher. She’s here now in Gainesville.

We were raised Catholic. Entering middle school my parents got divorced and that turned my world upside-down because the Catholic Church frowned upon divorce so I was kind of taken out of that community even though I still attended Catholic school. It was really isolating. Learning a new culture, language, all that good stuff, it’s like ah.

I did elementary and middle school in a Catholic … school in Puerto Rico and then came to the States and did my last year of middle school in a public school and a public high school but I dropped out of high school, took my GED, and then went to Santa Fe and then UF.

T: What was it like initially arriving to the United States?

R: My mom [laughing] in her wisdom, she was all like, so we are moving to Florida and, that’s where Mickey is. Even though I was a teenager, I was like, okay, we are moving close to Mickey Mouse.

But in reality we were moving to Miami so it’s like five hours away. She came over a month or two before to set up an apartment, look for a job, and all that stuff. She left us with our dad, me and my older sister in Puerto Rico and then they send us by ourselves over here. I remember being in the airport and that’s the first time I saw my dad cry.

It was really exciting – and then really like culture shock. Not knowing anybody, not being close to any family. I remember getting lost my second day of school.

I missed the bus and, who do I call? My mom is at work. She can’t get out of work. What do I do? I knew the language in Puerto Rico. We have to learn English and some of the textbooks are in English but because you are not speaking it all the time, you really don’t have a good mastery of it.

I was put in the ESL program and the kids were very welcoming. Everybody had similar experiences — they came from Venezuela or Colombia — and having to learn the language, leaving your whole support network, so we were very tight-knit.

But the rest of the school was a constant struggle … we would kind of huddle to the side and having kids be like, “Speak English, this is America” [in gringo accent].

We went through a lot of hard times. My mom not finding employment and both of my sisters, they got pregnant and they weren’t married and it was just one thing after another and just feeling alone and not feeling like anybody at school could understand. I very much isolated myself.

T: Was there ever a group of people that made you feel okay?

R: I don’t think I found that until college.

T: What brought you to Gainesville? 

R: My mom got a job here. She was unemployed in Miami, and one of her best friends moved to Gainesville. The first time coming here seeing the university and it was like, oh my god, I’m in a movie — the brick buildings and stuff. And it was cold so we had to wear jackets. You would go into the stores and they would be like, hey y’all [southern drawl]. And feeling again that sense of small-town that I had lost in Puerto Rico. People actually acknowledge you; you’re not invisible as much.

T: What was it like being Latina in Gainesville and at UF? 

R: I was kind of Other and a minority but, it didn’t feel as isolating as it did in Miami. The other interesting thing in Gainesville was that you kind of had to pick a race. You’re either white or black; because we don’t know anything else.

In Miami, you can be Latina, but what Latina — you’re Cuban or you’re this or that. So you have all this different distinctions and you can be like, I’m a black Puerto Rican female. And here it’s like, no, black or white, black or white, black or white.

In Puerto Rico we have every single color — we are all Puerto Rican. I remember being with my cousin who looks white, American, we were in this smaller town and they’re like, “nigger- lover!” And I was looking around, and I was like, oh my god they mean you and me? That’s weird. At UF I got my degree in psychology and women’s studies in 2003.

T: What was your first encounter with the Latina Women’s League? 

R: In 2005 I just happened upon it because they used to have it downtown and they had the Latino festival too.

The Latina Women’s League, I want to say they started 2003. We have two Victorias and other women and the majority of them have a graduate degree from their particular countries and then come here and they wanted a forum where other Latinas will give you a blueprint of how this community is.

T: What motivated you to get involved? 

R: One of our first things with Victoria was to get to know local government and discuss how that affects us and to get more people involved in the process. My parents were very political back in the island. They were part of the Socialist movement. I remember being little and dragged to rallies and all this stuff so always been interested in politics.

Victoria talked about getting to know the local government, putting ourselves out there, letting them know about the Latino community and how we can partner together.

One of the things that I love, a lot of professional women and we always end up talking about our particular struggles at work or in the community and how to support … and mentor to one another. I love that.

T: Did those sort of support networks exist for you at UF?

R: I think my situation was unique in the way that I dropped out of school. My parents had tough love and when I decided to get my degree, they’re like, you’re just going to have to do it yourself. So I had to work full-time while I was at UF.

Working full-time for me meant the graveyard shift, so I was at work all night and then I would get out at five o’ clock in the morning so then I had to drive to UF and sleep in the parking for a couple of hours and then go to class. I had class until three, and then go to work, sleep a couple of hours in that parking lot, and work. I didn’t get opportunity to explore whether there were any social clubs.

T: What would you say the League’s goal is?

R: It’s to definitely promote education, not only within our group, to get to know this community and what’s out there but also to educate the community. One of the biggest things with the film festival is to put out there issues that really matter to us. We’re multidimensional. We care about the environment, or race.

T: What do you personally hope to accomplish with the League?

R: Hopefully to form a really strong relation and support, especially for newcomers and being like, if you need anything, we are here and you don’t need to feel isolated.

I do the social services side of law enforcement. I’m the only Spanish-speaking person. I come in contact with a lot of Latinos so I’m always giving them brochures about the League and talking about the struggles – not only the pressing crisis maybe they cannot get food, but all this other underlying things that exacerbate some of the problems.

T: You are currently Program Director of the League.

R: For the film festival. I used to be the secretary for the League and then I stepped down for a little bit. I took a second job at the homeless shelter. Then I left my second job and I wanted to challenge myself.

Usually we have about seven films that we present. My job is to get with the producers and distributors and directors to get permission to show the films and to negotiate pricing since we’re a nonprofit organization and sometimes I’ll get to talk with the directors and invite them. This past year we had one of the directors and one of the actresses for different films come here: one from Mexico and one from Panama.

We offer free English classes for migrant workers or anybody that wants to learn conversational English. We give acculturation and we talk about the different rights that people might not know that they have. We talk about law enforcement, visas, different things like that.

I love that. The other really big program we have is with the migrant workers. We do a health fair where we go out to the fields and we give them health talks. A lot of them are exposed to different pesticides and they don’t have the best nutrition. We talk about that.

For the moms, we talk about parenting, domestic violence, and where to get help. We also collect clothes and different first aid things, water, Chapstick, stuff that they might need. And then for Christmas, we adopt the children and we give them Christmas presents, which I love.

We had this one gentleman who was a migrant worker who was here illegally. He got diagnosed with cancer and we were able to collect money to put him up in a hotel while he got the clearance to go back home and die with his family, and get enough money so he can take presents home so he wasn’t empty-handed.

The other thing that we did — a group, I think they were from UF — they were doing a project in Peru, and they wanted to get money to go back to that particular village to make water accessible so we were able to help them to get money.

T: What’s it like being Latina in Gainesville?

R: The Latino community has grown immensely since 1996 and now there are Cuban places to go eat. There’s a whole bunch of Mexican restaurants. There used to be one or two. You hear Spanish at the store. When I started being a victim advocate I was the only one in the county. They’re like, Oh, Hispanics they don’t need anything with domestic violence and I’m like, really?

T: What has to be done in the future?

R: I think education, education, education. One of the cool things about the League is that we have professional women in different areas, so you have me in law enforcement, and some that are business-owners and accountants.

We want to get better with our English classes. We used to partner with the school board and the school board all of a sudden started charging for the classes so it’s hard economically. We want to be seen as a viable part of this community; we can contribute, so it’s okay for the community to invest in Latino issues and know that some are kind of unique to us, like language – but at the end of the day some of the bigger issues is universal.

Search for “Ines Rios” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu/collection/ for the full transcript of this interview.The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy.SPOHP needs the public’s help to sustain and build upon its research, teaching, and service missions: even small donations can make a big difference in SPOHP’s ability to gather, preserve, and promote history for future generations.

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