Mayor Maria Rivera loves the people of Central Falls, Rhode Island. Whether she’s entering a restaurant or walking down the street, she loves that people will go so far as to roll down their car windows just to start a conversation. Since assuming office this January as the city’s first woman elected mayor and the state’s first Latina mayor, Rivera has worked to enshrine this sense of community in City Hall, whether that be through the inclusion of Spanish-speakers in every department or the simple “good morning” she tells her staff every day.
Rivera wants to make sure that “when people walk into City Hall … they feel that somebody is listening to them,” she told The Herald. Indeed, from her two terms on the Central Falls City Council to her current tenure as mayor, her focus has always been maintaining an ongoing dialogue with the community through frequent conversations with residents.
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha, who said he doesn’t “make a lot of endorsements,” shared in a recent conversation with The Herald that it was this “willingness to really know her residents” and her “real, genuine commitment” to the city that led him to endorse Rivera in her 2020 campaign.
Throughout her conversations with the community during the campaign and throughout her tenure as mayor, Rivera pledged to and has continued to bring to City Hall a set of grassroots policy interests, all of which focus on improving the “quality of life” of Central Falls citizens. Some of these include raising the local COVID-19 vaccination rate, improving the relationship between the police and the community, addressing the opioid crisis and balancing economic development with access to affordable housing.
Alongside her policy agenda, Rivera is cognizant of the importance of presiding as the first Latina mayor of a city that is more than 66% Hispanic or Latinx, partially because she knows the value of representation.
“I have all these young girls looking up to me right now, who — because I’m in this position — can say, ‘I can do it!’” she said.
Journey to City Hall
Before acquiring this post, Rivera had not imagined pursuing a career in politics.
Born in Camden, New Jersey to a mother who had emigrated from Puerto Rico, Rivera spent the first 10 years of her life in Chicago. There, she learned English in school while her mother got by for a period of time with welfare assistance. Eventually, Rivera’s family moved to Central Falls, where her mother began working despite her lack of English fluency.
“I (have) seen her struggle, I (have) seen her work so much and that (pushed) me to do more, especially because I have a daughter,” Rivera said.
Rivera worked in government for 16 years as a caseworker for Rhode Island’s Department of Human Services, but she entered into the world of politics after taking a class in 2014 offered by the Rhode Island Latina Leadership Institute.
The leadership course tasked its students with overcoming a challenge, and Rivera chose to overcome her fear of public speaking. Rivera said the other women in the class taught her “how to believe in (herself),” and after 10 months, she was prepared to speak at the Institute’s 10-year anniversary.
“After that, I had tons of people reaching out to me, especially elected officials … to see if I could open up their events,” Rivera said. People soon began urging her to run for public office. Eventually, Rivera joined the Central Falls City Council, rose to the rank of City Council president and launched a campaign for mayor.
According to Rivera, the relationship she fostered with the community while on the City Council greatly aided the campaigning process, adding that when she tried to talk about her platform amid the praise she received at events, “people didn’t want to hear it, because people already knew me from being out and about.”
She attributes her 77% electoral victory last November to the conversations she had with the residents throughout her career in politics, as well as to her own community membership.
“I know the challenges that my community faces because I have been there,” she said. “My family has been there.”
James Diossa, who served as the first Latino mayor of Central Falls before reaching his term limit in 2020, endorsed Rivera’s campaign. He said that her work on the City Council, which distinguished her as a “very strong” and “capable” problem-solver, prompted him to realize that “she needed to be the next mayor of Central Falls.”
While relinquishing office was “an emotional process” for Diossa, he said he was comforted by the belief that he was “passing the torch” to someone he knew would “continue the good work in moving Central Falls in the right direction.”
Pandemic challenges, reconceptualizing policing
Rivera, who assumed the mayorship during a pandemic that left her city as one of the hardest hit in the state, said her proudest accomplishment was her team’s work to combat COVID-19 during the six months that followed her inauguration.
She and her staff worked a “Sunday-to-Sunday” job tending to pandemic-related issues, hosting events to distribute food and connect residents to housing resources, promoting vaccination and often volunteering to operate weekend vaccine clinics that served 800 to 1,000 people in a day.
It was important to Rivera that she and her staff, rather than the police or the National Guard, hosted these clinics at the beginning of the pandemic in order to gain the trust of the community. She stresses that the lack of vaccine uptake could largely be attributed to the fear of deportation among undocumented community members, rather than an unwillingness to get vaccinated.
“If it wasn’t (for) the team I put together,” Rivera said, “I don’t think a lot of our undocumented residents would have gotten vaccinated.”
Despite the rigor of this work, Rivera said that her biggest challenge was replacing the city’s police chief.
Following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in summer 2020, Rivera knew she needed Central Falls residents “to feel comfortable with (their) police department.” Rivera made it a priority to expand the community policing unit — which, at the time, only included four officers — to include the whole department, in order to increase its engagement with the community.
Former Providence Police Sargeant Anthony Roberson shared Rivera’s same “vision for community policing.” Rivera revealed the month after her election that Roberson would become the first Black police chief of Central Falls, assuming the role that former Chief Daniel Barzykowski had held for the last 21 years. The decision provoked critiques from members of the police union, who said at the time that they felt blindsided by her decision to replace the veteran chief.
Rivera admitted that it was sometimes difficult to maintain faith in her decision while many people shared their disapproval online, but she was determined to not think “about what people from the outside were going to say.” She added, “I needed to stay focused on the reason behind it.”
Now, “everything has changed so much,” Rivera said. Officers from the whole department, all of whom have completed a roughly 40-hour nonviolence training program, attend community events and strive “to build important relationships” with residents, she said, adding that members of both the department and the community tell her they are happy with the change in policing.
Neronha said the “positive” dynamic between the residents and the police department is self-evident at community events.
“That’s a real challenge in today’s environment, and Mayor Rivera is a big part of making that happen,” he said, emphasizing the “inspired choice” of appointing Roberson.
Leaving a legacy
In the future, Rivera is interested in fostering economic growth in the city. She added that a Pawtucket-Central Falls train station offering service to nearby cities such as Boston, which is expected to open in 2022, has the potential to encourage people from other municipalities to support local businesses and invest in the city.
While Diossa said the train station offers “unique opportunities,” he speculated that balancing this with the “overall concern of gentrification” will be a primary focus of Rivera in the coming years.
Rivera, who said she is “huge on economic development,” also acknowledged the “need to focus on the residents that live here” and ensure they aren’t pushed out by increasing housing prices. She underscored an intention to expand affordable housing in the city to counter the threat of displacement.
“If there’s anybody who could handle those kinds of complicated issues, it’s Mayor Rivera, and (so far,) she’s doing very, very well,” Neronha said.
When Rivera’s tenure ends, Neronha said he hopes to see “a city that is vibrant, that has made strides economically” and “is well positioned for the rest of the 21st century.”
Diossa said he looks forward to seeing Rivera continue his work of restoring faith in government among a community of immigrants who have had negative experiences with “corrupt, dangerous” authorities in their countries of origin.
“It’s not impossible to do good things in this one square mile,” he said. Rivera has “been able to show that in her first months in office, and I think she’s going to leave a very important legacy as the first woman (elected) mayor of Central Falls.”