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A Seat At The Table

by Janelle Nanos, Tufts Magazine

THE WAY SHE TELLS IT NOW, Rivera wasn’t supposed to be born. Her parents had two daughters, ages five and six, and were expecting a third when her mother, Minerva Diffo, and the five-year-old were hit by a car. Both survived, but doctors failed to detect movement in the fetus and told Diffo she would have a stillborn child. A month later, Wilnelia was born, two months premature.

Wilnelia Rivera photographed in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood.

Then Diffo had to make a choice. She’d already relocated from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico to marry her husband, a war veteran and a successful architect, but, said Rivera, he was abusive to their family. So Diffo decided to move again. She left him, taking her two older daughters with her and settling in the working-class city of Lawrence, Massachusetts. Rivera stayed in Puerto Rico and was raised by relatives until she was eight. Then she joined her mother and sisters in Lawrence.

While it was odd, at first, to come to the US mainland and live with a family she had known only over the phone, Lawrence was “a little bit of a protective zone,” Rivera said. “English was something people spoke when they had to, but Spanish was all around us. I arrived in a different version of what I was already living.”

Rivera sponged up English in the Lawrence public schools and was tracked into its advanced classrooms. But academics weren’t all she learned. “I remember being a kid and internalizing the negative things people say about Lawrence,” she said. “It politicized me without my knowing.” She also conceived of a different kind of life for herself.

Her basketball coach gave her the first glimpse of towns outside Lawrence when he took her to college basketball games throughout the state. The counselors at Upward Bound, a college prep program for first-generation students, helped her navigate the college application process. And her math teacher, Susan Gerber, J71, AG74, nudged her toward Tufts.

Rivera was admitted to the class of 2004. Arriving on campus, she said, was an even larger culture shock than moving to Massachusetts and learning a new language. “You go from Lawrence to Tufts, it’s night and damn day,” she recalled. “It’s only an hour from home, but it might as well have been China.”


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