Faculty Spotlight

"Boston's Welfare Rights Movement" An Interview with Tatiana M.F. Cruz

Below is a conversation with historian Tatiana M.F. Cruz, Assistant Professor of Critical Race, Gender, and Cultural Studies and Interdisciplinary Program Director of Africana Studies at Simmons University. Talking with Taylor Eubanks, graduate student of Gender and Cultural Studies, Professor Cruz discusses her scholarly essay-in-progress on the Boston Welfare Rights Movement.

What is the article you are working on for the Hazel Dick Leonard Fellowship?

Tatiana M.F. Cruz: The long title is, "'There's Very Little Love Shown to a Welfare Mother': African American and Latina Motherwork in Boston's Welfare Rights Movement." It is an article that looks at how women on AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), often called "welfare mothers," developed a grassroots movement for welfare reform in Boston in the 1960s and 1970s. It is also part of my larger book manuscript, Deep North Uprising: African American and Latinx Identity, Community, and Protest in Boston.

How did this project start?

Tatiana M.F. Cruz: I'm a historian by training and my research specializes on the civil rights movement and is located here in Boston (I am a Boston native). My broader book project is based on my dissertation. I look at African American/Latinx mobilizations in Boston, including identity, community uplift, and protest. The book will be organized thematically, looking at different moments of either strategic coalition building or when African American and Latinx communities organized on separate, parallel tracks. Welfare is one of those pieces.

I was drawn specifically to the welfare rights movement because of a locally famous story, often called the Grove Hall Riot. In 1967, when urban unrest and rebellions were happening across the country, Boston had its own: Grove Hall in Roxbury. Before my research, I did not know much about the "riot," except that it began as a welfare protest. The protest turned into a weekend of violence and destruction and I wondered, "How did we get to this point? Why do we only know one part of the story?" Those questions drew me to the research.

You mentioned parallel tracks for African American and Latina women, and your article brings up a lack of Latina leadership roles in the welfare movement. Why do you think that is?

Tatiana M.F. Cruz: I think there are a couple of reasons. First, the Latinx community was very new in

mid-1960s Boston. Even though it had started to blossom, many of the folks involved were newly arrived immigrants, mainly from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It can be hard

to jump into a movement as a community activist when you've just arrived, experience language barriers, and work with people who are already established in their activist work.

"African American women and mothers organizing in MAW, as well as social service agencies like anti-poverty groups, saw that Latina women and mothers needed help."

So the Latinx population was generally smaller, but additionally, I think that the African American community was more established and the welfare mothers were experienced community organizers in other fields like education and housing before they began organizing for welfare reform. Because of that, it made sense for Latina mothers to defer to the leadership of African American women in groups like Mothers for Adequate Welfare (MAW).

That ties into the establishment of Spanish speaking MAW chapters.

Tatiana M.F. Cruz: Right. I found in my broader study of Boston that during this time the Latinx community grew very rapidly. Many of them settled in Roxbury, Dorchester, and South End. They were high-needs populations because they lived in poverty. African American social service agencies and local communities (like the mothers organizing in MAW) recognized the growing need for support services among the Latinx community.

African American social service agencies like the Roxbury Multi-Service Center initially worked to provide Spanish-speaking liaisons but eventually Latinx organizations like La Aliana Hispana emerged.. MAW eventually established its own Spanish-speaking chapter to serve the community. This provided a way for Latina moms to meaningfully participate in the organization and movement.

Returning to the Grove Hall Riot. What did your research show about the other side of that story?

Tatiana M.F. Cruz: The women were portrayed as violent and inciting violence, but they brought their kids with them and advertised the protest ahead of the day. So all these moms show up with their children who are playing together, having pillow fights, and sitting on the floor of Grove Hall eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was happy and joyful.

"The mothers of MAW were willing to fight for their families, even when the welfare rights agencies said they didn't have the right type of family."

Moms do not bring their children to places that are going to be violent. We just don't. But the narrative I heard growing up was that the welfare mothers from the Grove Hall Riot were agitators causing violence and destruction. In reality, they just wanted more for their kids.

Why is this project important?

Tatiana M.F. Cruz: As a historian, I think it's helpful to connect the past with the present. I understand that Boston is a changing city and looks entirely different now than it did in 1965 or 1985. The population has shifted significantly in the last 30 years where the largest population growth has been within the Latinx community.

What really drew me to these stories is that folks don't know about these mothers. I'm very interested in the leadership of ordinary poor and working-class mothers who emerged as organizers and leaders in local grassroots movements. There is so much more to be written about that challenges dominant narratives of welfare mothers as disengaged or taking advantage of welfare systems (ie "welfare queens").

The mothers of MAW were willing to fight for their families, even when the welfare rights agencies said they didn't have the right type of family to receive aid—to be a single mom was to be dysfunctional, or to have a partner meant you couldn't qualify for assistance. They were in a lose-lose situation but continued to fight for basic rights, not only of their own families, but for the idea that motherwork is that they fought for welfare rights for all Black and Brown families in the city.

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