"If I have to struggle, I have to struggle"

Yesterday, just before the lunch rush, Victor Capellan and I walked into La Casona, the biggest sit down restaurant in the little city of Central Falls, Rhode Island. The waitress on duty flashed a smile of braces with pink rubber-bands and gave Victor a hug. He greeted every table on the way to the corner we occupied for the rest of the day.

We sat down and he reminded me where La Casona used to be. “See that place down the street?” he said, pointing out the window, towards an auto parts store and a takeout restaurant. “They used to have a small storefront operation up the block, but now they have this whole place.” The new restaurant has a bar, a split-level first floor, and a big mezzanine with additional seating. Behind Victor’s head were two tall vases full of yellow calla lilies, which, in retrospect, may have been fake, but were still very pretty.

I have had many meals in Central Falls over the last five years, but I had never heard of the place before it made national headlines in 2010. First, after years of mismanagement and a crippling recession, the city went into bankruptcy, which became emblematic of the fiscal turmoil that still haunts Rhode Island state and municipal finances.

Second, in the wake of the Obama administration’s stimulus package, the school district tried to use the leverage created by new federal school improvement policy to fire all of its teachers, which threw salt on a particularly contentious collective bargaining session.

“That’s in the past now, which is hard to believe,” Victor reminded me. Just last week he was appointed superintendent of the city school system, which covers one square mile just north of its larger cousin, Providence. A trip down the main drag in “CF” reveals double decker houses sharing gridded city streets with old mills and warehouses, evidence of the textile jobs that don’t exist anymore. La Casona’s expansion is emblematic of a modest economic rebound in a city that still has far to go.

Victor and I spent all day talking to students, former pupils, parents, and even the town’s mayor. What emerged was the picture of a city that is grappling with its past while trying to secure a stable future. That was apparent when talking to Evelyn, who at eighteen years old is struggling to afford the college education that she always thought was hers for the taking, but became somewhat less straightforward when she found out that she was “undocumented” as a sophomore honors student in high school. “I busted my hump for twelve years in public schools,” she told me, “and I don’t get the same opportunities just because I moved here from another country when I was five. I don’t need anyone’s sympathy or sorrow. If I have to struggle, I have to struggle. That’s why I am the way I am.”

It came through in my conversation with Therese, a mother of two who has to wear a headset to hear the translations of PTO meetings, because she doesn’t speak the lingua franca of the parent committee: Spanish. “It gave me a better appreciation of what my Spanish-speaking neighbors experience everywhere else,” Therese, who was born in the United States and is one of the few English speaking parents at Central Falls High School, said. “My husband still waves his American flag and thinks everyone should have to speak English, but I have a much different perspective now.”

Five years ago, there were CNN trucks parked outside of Central Falls High school almost everyday. President Obama and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten traded jabs over the situation. If you worked in education at the time, you couldn’t avoid having an opinion about Central Falls. Now, the schools are better, as scores are up and graduation rates have increased by double-digits, but there is still a lot of work to do. I decided to revisit Central Falls to figure out how a school system and its home city return from rock bottom, what kind of energy that takes, and what happens when the news cameras leave. Over the next couple of weeks I will be sharing the extended versions of my conversations with Evelyn, Therese, Victor, Mayor James Diossa, and others as I try to make sense of a story that is hard to unpack, especially for the folks living in it.