“I always had a mind of my own” says Carmen Salavarrieta as she shares her life’s experiences full of ups and downs. This strong belief in herself helped her stand up for what is right, to help others get back on their feet, and to make a difference in the community. “I don’t know how to do things, but I think I ‘m going to try to find a way to do it. That’s how I reach out to a lot of people, to know how to do things that I don’t know how to get.” Unafraid of learning, meeting people, and figuring out how to achieve her goals was key in unlocking her potential as a social worker and community organizer.
Born in 1950 in Sevilla, a small town in western Columbia Carmen’s childhood was not carefree like many others of her age. Her father became alcoholic and domestic violence dominated her home environment. She found every opportunity to visit and stay with her paternal grandmother who she came to admire as a hardworking, kind, and caring person. “The whole family was involved in the farms. What I remember is I went to see them every day, they took me when I was six years old, and everybody was just very hardworking all day and they have nice things that I really looked up to them and I liked what they were doing. They cared about the people who lived next to the farms. Every morning they would check on them, some of the neighbors. I’d see my grandmother get up on the horse and check on her neighbor who was not feeling good. That really impacted me a lot, to care about others. I always had that on my mind, the way she was.” Her grandmother was a very busy lady but “she was also very charitable.” Her grandmother lived in the town and had farm workers helping her run the farm. So, while she did not grow up living on a farm Carmen remembers her grandmother receiving beans, plantains, fruits, and vegetables from the farm on weekends. “I would help her distribute it in baskets to give to the neighbors and to the immediate family and that really impacted my life. I thought that I was wonderful to care about other people.”
While she was able to get away from the abusive home environment, she saw her mother suffer from the violence inflicted upon her by her father. “Because of the situation, I was growing up too soon, you know, by seven years old, you always think like twelve or fifteen. I started doing a little job on the side…that way, they can give me some food and give me some money.” She was bold enough to tell her father that “I am going to help my mother and take her away from you” and that is exactly what she did when one day he beat her mother badly. She called the cops and with whatever little money she had earned that day she got a taxi and sent her mother along with her younger siblings to her maternal grandmother’s home. “I will stay with my grandma, don’t worry about me. At that time, I thought I can survive myself. I was very grown up. So, I sent her and said goodbye. In my mind, I know it was forever. I know, I wouldn’t see them again.” When her father returned, she had to “hide herself in her neighbor’s house” because he knew that she was responsible for sending her mother away. Having experienced domestic violence as a child Carmen in her later years focused her attention on helping victims of domestic violence because she realized that it changes “children’s lives forever. You will never forget those experiences. You start feeling a different way when you grow up in that kind of environment.”
Disruption at home and constant interference from her father whenever her grandmother tried to send her to school had a negative impact on her education. It was in school that she first learned about John F. Kennedy and America. At that time children received breakfast in school through assistance from America. When she ate that bread, she would think of how amazing it was that “the President of the United States was thinking about children in other countries.” The thought that “one day, I am going to be on that airplane to leave here” took hold of her imagination.
Another vivid memory that later led her to start collecting and delivering toys to children around the world also came from receiving a small doll during Christmas from one of the community organizers. “We’d watch some of those kids. Christmas comes and everybody’s neighbors would get up in the morning. They had toys. They’d come outside and play with the toys, and we don’t have none. A lot of kids would come out just to watch the neighbors play with toys and we don’t have anything, not even a ball. So, you grow up like that, and you say why, but you are happy. You play with the stones, or you play with whatever you find on the street and you’re happy at that time. But then, when you start growing up, you’d think about it…It was always on my mind.” For the last seventeen years Carmen along with her children has been collaborating with many local organizations to collect toys, shoes, clothing, and other items to be distributed during Christmas. Her children have helped her travel to El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Santa Domingo, and many other places to deliver hundreds of toys to children who often had none. While the pandemic did not allow her to travel Carmen is ready to travel to Guatemala in 2023.
After sending her mother away Carmen decided to take the offer from a customer of her grandma from Bogota who always wanted to adopt her. While her grandmother was sad, she let her go thinking it would give her a chance to start a new life. Living with a new family was not easy especially since the children of the lady who took her home were not kind. They thought she had been brought to do housework and when their mother wanted her to go to school, they “were not too happy about it.” “Why should you be treated like a daughter? You are not a daughter” is what they told her, but Carmen decided to continue helping her with her adopted mother with her dress making business and doing her part because she loved her. When she moved to New York Carmen had to stay with her family who did not treat her well. While her adopted mother treated her as one of her own and even filed her immigration papers, she could not take the ill-treatment from her children. She decided to move out at age fifteen and make it on her own. She started working for a family who had politicians and lawyers as friends, and she was able to perform secretarial tasks for them. Her adopted mother was upset that Carmen had left home and with the life choices she had made but Carmen was clear that she did not want to live in that toxic environment. As she got to know people she decided “That is it. I am going to work my way to the United States.” She met her husband, during this time but had to break off the relationship as he was leaving for Unites States for further studies.
Carmen continued to find ways to survive, save money, and keep the dream of going to America alive. Her friends helped her obtain visa and finally in 1969 she was able to visit New York. She reconnected with her adopted mother who was shocked to find out about the way her children had treated her. Her stepfamily was also in America and were attending school. She joined Morris school where she met a lot of people and after spending a very memorable year decided to stay back. She also reached out to her husband, who was a chemist by now and they got married in and settled in Plainsboro.
“At that time, I already have in my mind, all the past, and I always think that one day I’m going to help people. I don’t want people to be alone. I wanted to help the same way my mother, the family I grew up with helped me.” So, she started volunteering at the Plainfield Health Center helping seniors who needed assistance with transportation, food, and companionship. Even though she was expecting her first baby she continued to work at the clinic and helping as best as she could especially those for whom language was a barrier. When she realized that the center needed bilingual staff to help the folks who came there, she immediately went about trying to hire people. Her ability to get things done eventually led her to become a board member and she served in this position for thirty-five years.
Carmen continued to work full time while raising her family of five by now and volunteering. Carmen worked in several blue-collar jobs for American Cyanamid, a window factory, and then as an assistant in a day care which her children has attended. The work was demanding, and she could not even take time off when she got sick. So, when her friend asked her to join her cleaning business, she decided to take the opportunity. Reflecting upon her work Carmen says, “I am so grateful for that work. I love it. I ‘ve been doing it all these years. I teach a lot of people. A lot of people who come in that are immigrants. I teach them how to do cleaning service and they start their own business.” This was very rewarding, and she has special customers who have used her service for over forty years. Many times, the clients invited her and her children for vacations and many of the business relationships turned in to friendships. The flexible schedule also gave her the opportunity to do her volunteer work. “My God, I think I was multitasking at that time because I was able to take somebody to the hospital, go back home, and do something, go back to work. It wasn’t easy, but I make it. We made it.”
She is very grateful for the support of her husband because she feels that “You cannot do this if you don’t’ have full support.” Her children went to private catholic schools even though her husband and her had to work hard because she felt that good education would improve their lives tremendously. She taught them to “work hard always” to achieve their goals. She is proud that they not only support her work financially but also volunteer their time and expertise.
As years passed by Carmen began to expand her charitable work. She joined the National Council of Catholic Women and began to attend conferences to advocate for women. She joined the board of El Centro Hispano-American in Plainfield so that she could help and advocate for people in need. She also began volunteering at the Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center and joined their board. She helped start the nursery school at Muhlenberg. When the hospital was going to shut down, she fought hard to keep the dialysis center open. She realized that to be able to help someone it was important to know people in the government. She began to participate in many organizations like the Food and Health Department, WIC, and DYFS. She helped elected officials, and those who were running for political office, and became part of election groups. She came to know Governor Corzine, McGreevy, mayors of various towns, local policemen, and judges. All these connections along with being on the different boards was useful because she could tap into this resource group to help people in need. Sometimes she faced discrimination herself or saw that people were unkind to the Spanish-speaking community members, but she tried her best to advocate for them.
Always ready to extend a helping hand she sprang into action when she found out that the Costa Rican community members in Bound Brook were facing hardships and discrimination after the disaster of Hurricane Floyd in 1999. She worked with a good friend Jody Wood to help them with food, clothing, and even finding shelter. When she found about the housing discrimination, she helped eight families file a suit challenging the zoning ordinance. “Through Corzine, who was the senator, he me out in the case. I go to the Justice Department, and it took a year to investigate it. It was a lot of work. I traveled to Washington every month to bring papers to the Justice Department, all the proof, and after that they got a fine of thirty thousand…or forty thousand dollars for the mayor and they had to takes classes on how to deal with Latino community.”
In the same way, when she found out that a group of people were homeless and living under a bridge in Plainsboro, she did not waste a minute to find the right help for them. She worked with Sharon Robinson-Briggs, then mayor of Plainsboro and did not rest until she had found shelter for these immigrants, food, and other help. “My goal was to rehab those people. Everybody was on drugs and alcohol and things like that.” She got word out through media outlets like Telemundo to get the right help for them and many of them recovered over time. “Factories would open the door for these people because they were workers. They had just come into debt and become homeless. They have family in other countries. One by one by one, they started to really work.” It was a success story that brought a lot of attention and accolades for Carmen.
In 2004 when a spate of incidents involving beating of Hispanic men occurred in Plainsboro Carmen began to work with law enforcement to find a way to bring the criminals to justice. When the town did not act and another beating left a man nearly dead, she contacted the news media to bring attention to the issue. She began working in earnest with various groups to hold the perpetrators accountable. The North Plainfield police eventually caught the offenders in action. She never lost sight of the help Oscar and his family needed and got financial help from Victims of Crime Compensation Office to pay for his rehab program. Carmen used media effectively to bring attention to issues she was dealing with and to get the right help for victims.
In 2009 Carmen started Angels for Action to provide services for immigrant populations. PNC Bank gave Carmen the ability to hold ESL classes from their office and eventually provided the space from where the organization operates. She continues to leverage her contacts and provide social services, immigration services, computer and language classes, and other special programs. One of the most consequential services undertaken by the Angels for Action was the community identification (ID) initiative by which undocumented residents for Plainfield. Through this service, people were able to get a photo ID that was recognized by Plainfield Police Department, library, schools, pool, local hospitals, and clinics. This was by no means an easy task. While the state has approved the identification program, she had to get approval from the township. After crossing that hurdle, she had to find a way to get the machines. “We had no money for the machines. My children put all the money together, between all of them, my five kids, they bought the machine, which was over three thousand dollars…we did it and we started the program.” Today many people rely on this service and Carmen’s children continue to support the initiative by chipping in to upgrade machines.
“They wanted me to run for city council in Plainfield. They all asked. People asked me. Of course, I cannot do that, and I say, “No, I don’t want to work for no entity, even the government. I say, “No, because if I work for somebody, I have to be dedicated to the job. I cannot fight the way I fight now.” So, Carmen forging her own path since childhood continues to advocate, serve, and fight for those who need her help. She is glad that she has the support of her children and her husband along with the many friends and connections she has made over a lifetime of service.