Friday, February 11, 2005
By NATALIA MUÑOZ
SPRINGFIELD – Barbara Rivera, daughter of a politically prominent Irish-American family who became a powerful advocate for poor Latinos, died yesterday at 69 after a short illness.
Born Barbara Coakley in Chicopee, Rivera began a lifetime of activism after she herself was forced to accept state welfare assistance as a young mother. She became an advocate for the largely Latino North End, where she served for the last 31 years as director of the New North Citizens Council.
The mother of state Rep. Cheryl A. Rivera, D-Springfield, she died at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where she was being treated for coronary disease. She was surrounded by her children and her husband, Evaristo “Pancho” Rivera.
“She was just an outstanding woman,” said Mayor Charles V. Ryan. “A towering figure who, in my opinion, devoted her life and energies to other people. She had great courage, great fortitude. Her life’s work was to make things better for the people whom she served. This is a tremendous loss to all of us in Springfield.”
Rivera was born on Sept. 26, 1937, into a family of Chicopee politicians. Her father William Coakley was a member of the state Democratic Committee, her uncle Andrew Coakley was a state representative for Chicopee and her grandfather, also named Andrew, was the city’s mayor.
Rivera’s community activism began when she was a 19-year-old struggling mother trying to make ends meet. When they didn’t, she applied for welfare. When she believed the state Department of Welfare displayed favoritism in deciding who received aid, Rivera applied pressure.
Twice she was arrested at protest lines targeting the welfare office in Springfield.
That activism translated into a lifetime of advocacy for residents of the North End, where she lived for most of her life.
“Rivera has been the standard bearer for the Hispanic community for 40-odd years,” said Juan Gerena, director of the Springfield Commission on Community Development and former longtime director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. “By an accident of birth she was not born Puerto Rican but she has done more for Puerto Ricans than anyone else that I know of.”
Rivera was married for more than 40 years to her husband, Evaristo Rivera. In a recent article in The Republican profiling her work in the North End, she recalled enduring discrimination along with her husband for their mixed marriage at a time when it was a minefield for people of different ethnicities and races to live together and start families. Together, they raised five children.
Rivera’s life was a rich mix of seeming contradictions: though she had Irish blood she was Puerto Rican in her bones; she could be tough but was also tender, friends said; she was a no-nonsense business woman with a sparkling sense of humor.
Although a few have criticized her over the years for wielding too much power in the North End, she was considered by many a role model on several counts: as a mother, an activist, a keen behind-the-scenes political player, an employer, a neighbor, a friend, a mover and a shaker.
Her death brought condolences not only from City Hall but from people throughout the city.
“We thank everyone for their love and prayers,” said Janet Denney, who, as the eldest of Rivera’s five children, is the family spokeswoman.
“She loved this city and we will continue her legacy of loving and working for what’s best for this city,” said Denney, who is executive director of Catholic Charities for the Springfield Diocese.
Gerena said Rivera’s office was wherever she was. At home, at work, at the market, on the street people approached her for help and advice.
“She has never shut the door to anyone,” he said.
The former welfare mother with a high school degree oversaw the expansion of the New North Citizens Council from a small center to an agency with more than 100 employees and an annual budget of $4.5 million. It is the only neighborhood council of the city’s 10 that is open five days a week and offers more than a dozen social programs to about 6,000 people each year.
Her clout became such that any major project, whether proposed by the city or Baystate Health System – a North-End based employer that is among the largest in the city – first needed approval from New North Citizens Council even before the City Council.
Yesterday work in the usually busy building came to a standstill as employees and clients mourned Rivera’s loss.
Many agreed that Rivera’s honesty and reputation helped bridge cultural divides. In a city where neighborhood lines are drawn by ethnicity and race and even streets, Rivera helped break down barriers.
José Claudio, an aide to Ryan, remembers when Rivera was a frequent visitor at the Brightwood Elementary School, which he attended along with Rivera’s children. His first impression of her was that here was “a woman with authority.”
She was still in her 20s.
“For me, she was like a second mother, a wonderful, warm mother,” said Claudio, who was hired by Rivera when he was 19 to work as a youth counselor.
“She wouldn’t take bull, but she had a good heart,” he said, a characterization often used to describe Rivera.
Her youngest child Cheryl inherited the political gene. Cheryl Rivera was first elected in 1998 to represent the North End, South End, downtown and parts of Forest Park.
Barbara Rivera leaves her husband; four daughters, Cheryl Rivera, Janet Denney and Doreen Rodríguez, all of Springfield, and Cynthia Rodríguez of Chicopee; one son, James Rodríguez, also of Springfield; one son-in-law, Michael Denney, chief operating officer at New North; longtime family friend Laura Marino, Cheryl Rivera’s law partner; and Constance Holmes, Barbara Rivera’s lifelong friend.
She also leaves five grandchildren, her sister Joyce Coakley of Texas and her brother William Coakley of Chicopee.
Hundreds attend wake for Rivera
Monday, February 14, 2005
By NATALIA MUÑOZ
WEST SPRINGFIELD – Nearly 1,000 people from all walks of life paid tribute yesterday to Barbara Rivera, a woman they considered a best friend, a second mother, a font of wisdom and an influential supporter.
Rivera, 69, a longtime community leader in Springfield, died Feb. 10 after a short illness.
She had been executive director of the New North Citizens Council in Springfield’s North End for 31 years, having spearheaded its growth from an idea with a lot of volunteers to a $4.5 million agency with more than 100 employees and dozens of social programs benefiting thousands.
The wake was held at the Curran-Jones Funeral Home, where private citizens stood shoulder to shoulder with leaders from civic, religious, political and business communities.
Springfield Mayor Charles V. Ryan, several city councilors, the Most Rev. Timothy A. McDonnell, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe, and Steven Bradley, a vice president at Baystate Health Systems were among those present.
Also present was Heriberto Flores, who with Rivera and Benjamín Ramos, who died last summer, had been labeled the most influential Latinos of their generation in the city.
The vestibules at the funeral home were a celebration of Rivera’s life, with dozens of framed photographs showing her from little girl to grandmother. In a corner foyer, a documentary on the council’s 30th anniversary ran continuously.
“Barbara Rivera started the New North? No,” says Rivera herself in the film with her typical generosity. “This community created the New North.”
Certificates from different organizations gave testament to Rivera’s dogged pursuit of social justice. One, an honorary degree from Our Lady of the Elms College, read in part that it was bestowed because “she has built bridges between cultures, neighborhoods, generations and organizations.”
Her surviving five children, state Rep. Cheryl A. Rivera, D-Springfield, Janet Denney, James Coakley, Cynthia Rodríguez and Doreen Rodríguez, received condolences from Anglos, blacks, Latinos and Vietnamese of all ages and professions for more than two hours.
“She had given us the chance to speak up. She was a great role model to fight for justice,” said Van Nguyen, first director of the Vietnamese American Civic Association.
Dana DiCocco, who grew up with Rivera’s son James Coakley, said, “All of us are who we are today because of her.”
It was an oft-repeated sentiment at the wake, where politicians and residents agreed on one thing yesterday.
“She may be one of the few people who, when she opens her mouth, what’s going to come out is the truth, from the heart,” said City Councilor José Tosado. “It’s a sad day for the community of Springfield. She was everywoman, so down-to-earth, a very rare jewel.”
Rivera died after surgery failed to clear an artery. Faced with diminished capabilities, she asked to be taken off life-support devices so she could depart on her own terms.
“OK, kids, it’s time,” she told her children, said Cheryl Rivera. Evaristo Rivera, Barbara’s husband, and the children bid her farewell and were at her side until the end.
“We prayed for her peaceful passing, and that’s exactly what happened,” said Cheryl Rivera.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated today at 10 a.m. at Sacred Heart Church on Chestnut Street. The burial will be private, quietly marking the end of a life that had for many years been public and prominent.
The community has initiated a fund for the Barbara Rivera Family Centre. It is a fitting memorial to her continuing impact.
We miss you Barb,