I’ve known Roberto Rivera for about 15 years now, watching him since he was a young college student, first as editor of The Madison Times and later in my role with The Capital City Hues. Rivera was always implementing youth programs, hip-hop based programs that involved graffiti, spoken word and the other elements of hip-hop, always with a positive message.
As we sit down for coffee and an interview, Rivera meets me with that same smile that he had when I first met him. And to be honest, it seems like he hasn’t aged a day since that first time I met him although he is married now and has two children, one a relative newborn that keeps him up at night.
And as I listen to River’s story for one of four interviews for the Yo Soy campaign, I realize that I know Roberto, but I haven’t really known him. While we have discussed his art and the numerous projects that he has been involved in through the years, we had never really talked about Rivera and his journey growing up.
Rivera was born in Madison, spending the first 10 years of his life growing up in Bayview Townhomes and attending Randall Elementary School. As he was growing up, both Spanish and English were spoken in the home, sometimes with English being the predominant language and sometimes Spanish. It led to Rivera’s initial estrangement from education and learning.
“We moved to Nicaragua when I was four-years-old for a little bit,” Rivera recalled. “And then my aunt and uncle moved in with us. There was a lot of Spanish being spoken in the house. And when I was in MMSD, I actually got tracked for being learning disabled because my language acquisition was delayed. They took me through tests and all of this stuff. I remember going in a side room and they were testing me. But no one thought to ask me what language was being spoken at home. What was going on with language at home? And the reality was I was learning two languages. So yeah, maybe my English was a little bit delayed, but I was learning this whole other language. But that label of being LD stuck with me. That led to me leaving Randall Elementary School English class in front of everyone to go to a different room. And that was traumatizing. That stuck with me. So even when I went to Texas and we didn’t have the same level of digital sophistication back in the 1980s, even though it took a while for my transcripts and folder to catch up, if I ever had the option of being in a normal or remedial class, I self-selected the remedial because I thought that is where I belonged. I had remedial all through high school.”
Rivera’s family moved to Galveston, Texas when he was 10-years-old and then moved back to Madison when he was 18-years-old, still feeling the sting and the pain.
“I hated being schooled,” Rivera admitted. “But when my grandfather died who was someone I looked up to and he was very involved in the community, before he died, he said, ‘I want you to give school another try.’ I remembered that and so, when I started doing stuff at The Loft with hip hop and started building up my confidence, I decided to go to MATC, starting again all remedial schooling. I started finding purpose in my education. Now it just wasn’t me passing the class. It was me saying, ‘Okay, I’m going to learn this sociology content so that I can go better serve my youth and community center.’ I started getting As in all of my classes.”
Eventually Rivera earned his undergraduate degree from UW-Madison and a master’s degree. He is now working on getting his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois-Chicago in the area of educational psychology.
“I was thinking about doing educational policy and leadership,” Rivera said. “But for me, I think it’s really important to understand the social and emotional realities going on with our youth and realize that a lot of the discourse that I hear in Madison is, ‘Black and Latino youth are really struggling. There has been a lot of trauma and a lot of grief.’ In many ways, that’s true. There has been some grief and traumatic events. But looking at it through the lens of post traumatic growth, which is a discipline of looking at ‘You have this trauma. To be resilient is to come back to baseline. But to be someone who experiences PTG, that means that you can actually grow from the trauma and the grief that comes in your life.’ My experience, being a young person going to 13 different schools before high school, getting kicked out, arrested and harassed, hip-hop for me was that space where I could find community, where I could share my story, where I could begin to experience Post Traumatic Growth. You look at places and cultures that have this phenomenon, they’re cultures that make these PTG stories available to folks. They equip and empower people to tell these stories in culturally-relevant ways. My whole thing is, if hip-hop culture can create a space where kids can experience PTG, then actually, the trauma and the grief become an asset. The pain becomes propane or fuel for personal empowerment and transformative social change. And so, with that kind of asset-based approach, the ghetto might be the most resource-rich place on the planet if they can convert that pain into propane and use it.”
The profound comment Rivera getting his Ph.D. has not been lost on Rivera.
“I literally feel like getting the Ph.D. in many ways will be kind of like a big middle finger to this broken education system that fails so many kids in so many ways,” Rivera said. “To go from LD to Ph.D. I think would be a statement.”
After he got married, but before he left Madison a while back, Rivera and his wife were trying to buy a house and ran smack dab into the cement wall that is racial perceptions in Madison, attitudes on the part of the majority that tend to keep people of color in their place.
“I remember when my wife and I were at a point in Madison trying to buy a home,” Rivera recalled. “We decided that we were personable people and we were smart. So we didn’t get an agent. We just contacted people and figured it out ourselves. We both came up with a list of homes that we were interested in and we split it up 50-50. She called half of the people and I called the other half. For every single person she called, she got a call back. For everyone I called, I got no calls back. So I decided to conduct an experiment. I decided to call everyone and use a little bit of my Texas accent. ‘This is Robert and I was just interested to see …’ And I got a call back every single time. Now there was one guy who finally did call me back when I told him my name was Roberto. He said, ‘Hey, I just wanted to call you back. Sorry it took me a little while. I’m sorry, we’re not renting this place. We’re trying to sell it.’ I said, ‘I’m not looking to rent. I’m looking to buy it.’ It was just like this shock that here is a Latino guy who is trying to buy a property and they assume that he is always renting. Or when I was first getting started doing conferences, I remember there was a bigger conference here where I was invited to do a workshop. I was setting up in the room. It was getting close to the start time. And one of the women — she was a white woman — in the front came up and said, ‘Wait a minute, you’re not the one teaching this workshop, are you?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ And she just looked at me like I was the last person on the planet that she would expect to see running this workshop. She thought maybe I was cleaning the room and I was the cleaning crew.”
While many people would get angry with these micro and not so micro aggressions, Rivera is not going to let other people determine who he is or take the joy out of his life. He just converts it into fuel that he uses to propel himself forward and to prove the naysayers wrong.
“For me, that just becomes fire and fuel,” Rivera said. “If I’m going to be in a space presenting, I want them to be like, ‘Here is the last person that I thought …’ and then blow the stereotype up. That’s straight gospel. That’s the gospel impulse in hip hop that says you’re going through a brutal experience, but you can tap into a power larger than yourself. And that can be the Creator or that can be your community or a little bit of both. And because of that resource, you can find strength that is greater than you have as an individual to change that reality. I really believe that there are three different types of people. Some people believe that reality is something to be escaped because it is too painful. Some people believe that reality is something to be conformed to. And then there are some folks who believe that reality is not static. It’s fluid and it can and sometimes it must be changed.”
Rivera gave the example of being in a Starbucks where people were bundled up because there was little to no heat coming through. Although he thought others would have already done so, the Starbucks had a different heating source for the kitchen and service area than for the dining area.
“We get into this space sometimes where the climate is cold and dehumanizing,” Rivera said. “Some folks will be like, ‘Well, this is just how it is.’ But I feel like it is important for those of us who have this orientation that it can and must be changed. Sometimes we just have to stand up and let our voices be heard. And everyone else benefits and the coats come off.”