Watch Retiree Stories

Carmen RodriguezWorking women have historically had to struggle to balance work with caring for their families. This Local 237/Oral History Project interview focuses on the relationship of work and family. Following are excerpts of an interview with Carmen Rodriguez, a retired housing assistant and mother of four children. Rodriguez worked for the New York City Housing Authority for 15 years, first as a senior intergroup relations officer in the Lower East Side, then as a housing assistant at Pomonok Gardens in Queens. After she retired in 1988, Rodriguez and her husband, Victor, moved to Puerto Rico. There, she served for three years as retiree coordinator of Local 237 retirees on the island. Today, the Rodriguezes live in Newport News, Virginia, near their daughter.

I worked all my married life. When I worked at Henry Street Settlement, before I worked for the Housing Authority, I had three children, two already in their teens. My apartment [in Vladeck Houses in the Lower East Side] burned down. My children weren’t home. My boys had just gotten out of school. My daughter was eight months old and she was staying nearby. I didn’t work anymore after that.

Then a job as assistant director for a senior citizen program at Henry Street Settlement came up. I went to apply and they hired me. The program operated at Vladeck Houses

. . . . When I got pregnant with my fourth child—my baby, my mamala—I thought about quitting because we were already in the process of moving to Rosedale, in Queens. But I worked through the eighth month. I made the trip from Rosedale into the city. When she was born I stayed home for six months with her. Then I went back to work, but I wasn’t happy. I liked challenges, and the job had become set—there were no problems to deal with. That’s why I left. I saw an ad in the Chief for senior intergroup relations officer at the Housing Authority and I applied.

. . . When I started working at Housing [in the Lower East Side], the only drawback was the evening meetings. Boy, we had so many evening meetings. My husband, God bless him, was a very, very good husband, a very good father. He would pick up the kids when I went to school, he would pick up the kids when I went to work or had meetings, he would get me at the train station at night—because the Housing Authority would give you a car and a driver to drive you home, but sometimes they had no drivers, so I would take the train and it would be late and my husband would come to the station to pick me up.

Those were hard times. My husband got home from work at 4:30, and that was a blessing. My seven-year-old got home from school at 3 or 3:15. And the baby—I had someone in the neighborhood to care for her in the daytime.

At that time it was taking me four or five hours a day to commute to the Lower East Side from my home. I wanted to be closer to my job, so when the opportunity came, I took it. I passed the test for housing assistant and went to Pomonok Houses. By car I was 15 minutes away. I took a demotion in my salary, but I needed to be closer to my family.

. . . My problems began really when my oldest daughter started junior high school. She was beautiful. She was outgoing. She was the party type. So whenever the phone rang I was worried it was from her school. I held every teacher responsible. They all had my office number. I told them, If my daughter isn’t in class, you have to call me immediately or I will hold you responsible if anything happens. So whenever she missed a class, they called me, and I would come home.

The boys were okay. They were never a problem. But this daughter—today she lives near me. Today she’s a darling. When she tells me stories about what she did during those years, what they did at parties, I can’t believe it! She tells me, “Ma, you would have dropped dead then if I told you what I was doing.”

The two boys went to Seward Park High School in the Lower East Side. The drug scene was heavy there in those days.

My kids swore all of their lives that I had a detective after them, that I paid someone to check them out. But I had my ways to find out who their friends were. My two daughters used to tell me I was old-fashioned, I was this, I was that, I was not with the times, but they are much stricter with their children than I was with them. I have 11 grandchildren, and they’re all doing very well.

Pomonok Houses is very, very large. There were 450 to 500 tenants. As housing assistant I made sure the tenants paid their rents on time, I made home visits to tenants to help with whatever problems came up. There weren’t enough housing assistants. Thank God the majority of my tenants were responsible. As a matter of fact, when I left, there were no delinquencies. Mr. Moritz, the manager, said, “How did you do it? Tell me!” I said, “Do what?” He said, “You have no rent delinquents!”

. . . I joined the union when I went to Pomonok Houses. I was happy that I could be a member and participate. . . . I went to union meetings, parties, and get-togethers.

The one thing I liked about the union was that you could express your opinion, you could speak your mind, and everyone treated you with respect. The union would say they would see what they could do about a situation and then you would get a call with an answer a couple of days later. Even if they said there was nothing they could do about a situation because it was part of the contract or whatever, they still followed up. . . . I never bothered the union with my problems. But I did call the union on behalf of some of the employees.

. . . One thing I want to emphasize is that I have never—and I am a very good detective for that—I have never experienced or suspected or witnessed any type, any form or any shape of discrimination in the union. What’s good for me is good for the next person and the next person. That has been my impression. And I don’t think it’s different when I’m not around. This is the way they are. I’m a very good observer of character. . . . If I were to define in one word or one sentence what the union has done for me since I became a member of the union and since I retired, I’d say the union has become part of my family. The people who work for the union are people that I can count on in case of an emergency or if there’s a medical situation. Or even if I just need to talk. And they call me. This is something that touches my heart.

To participate in the Local 237 Oral History Project, or donate artifacts, please call (212) 807-0555 or E-mail us at