This past December 15, Bronx housing activist and educator Carmen Vega-Rivera transitioned from her mortal life into her post-mortal existence among her ancestors. She was 65.
Carmen had an indomitable will and unconquerable spirit, and her life was one of exemplary selflessness and community activism. She was a tenant leader in her building, 888 Grand Concourse, and a leader at CASA, New Settlement Apartments-Community Action for Safe Apartments. She helped plan and implement workshops and trainings on tenants’ rights and create effective tenants’ associations. She was actively involved in the campaigns to reform Bronx Housing Court; to win indigent New Yorkers facing eviction the right to counsel; to win partial rent freezes and lower rent increases from the city Rent Guidelines Board; to establish a Repair Enforcement Board; and to pass the historic rentlaw reforms of the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019. She helped craft legislation to stop landlords’ practice of collecting illegal fees and surcharges. At CASA, she was instrumental in developing new members on the leadership team, and was an inspiration to both members and leaders with her leadership skills and passing on knowledge.
In her more than four decades of lifting up and enabling others to empower themselves, she brought hope to many who thought they were hopeless, and help to many who thought they were without help. Hundreds of students and artists blossomed under her guidance and mentorship.
In her long career as an educator, she was associate director of the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and was a leading spokesperson nationally for after-school and arts education. She founded and headed the Atabey Collaborative, which provides professional development to community-based and educational organizations. She was a director of two educational-assistance programs: the East Harlem Tutorial Program, which provides education, social services, and employment programs to thousands of youth and families in East Harlem, and the New York City chapter of Say Yes to Education, which now serves nearly 400 families at five schools in Central and East Harlem. She also taught at the Henry Street Settlement and was a consultant for the city Board of Education’s trilingual/bilingual program.
She served on the boards of numerous organizations, including the Hostos Community College Foundation, the Girl Scouts, the Center for Collaborative Education, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and New York City Planned Parenthood. She held key positions at the Partnership for After School Education, and served on several panels that helped develop the city Board of Education’s arts curriculum.
From 1983 to 1985, she was a delegate member at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. She was also a member of the International Alliance of Indigenous Peoples. The awards she received included the Women’s History Month Governor’s Award for Excellence and El Diario/La Prensa’s 50 Outstanding Latinas Award.
Carmen chose to be a warrior for social justice because injustice and inequity were anathema to her. She faced each challenge not knowing how she would be victorious, but knowing that she would not be vanquished. She was a ferocious defender against gentrification, displacement, and the destruction of her community’s cultural institutions and heritage.
Carmen left her mark on all whom she touched—her family, her community, the institutions she built and supported, and the coalitions of which she was a member and in which she played prominent roles. She was passionate, committed, resolute, determined, unrepentant, steadfast, loyal, true, dedicated, and devoted. She chose her path, and blazed her own way while being guided by the works of those who came and fought before her. She chose to be useful and to make change for the good, rather than be used and be a tool of those who oppress and subjugate. She chose to fight with those who can and for those who cannot.
She will be missed.
But in her name, the struggle must go on. We must say, as the Mozambican liberation fighters did in their fight for independence from Portuguese colonial rule, “A luta continua, vitória é certa.” [The fight will go on, victory is assured.]
Fitzroy Christian is a tenant leader at CASA.