“I’m living a little bit better, but now it’s a different type of violence, a different type of abuse for the people,” says Monica Huertas. “I started learning a little bit about it and then I spent three years running the campaign for No LNG in PVD.”
Huertas is running to represent Ward 10 on the Providence City Council, replacing Luis Aponte, who resigned as part of a deal with the attorney general’s office over his embezzlement of campaign funds. Huertas is an unusual city council candidate; for starters, she’s among PVD’s most prominent local activists. She’s no lawyer or developer. Huertas led No LNG for three years and currently sits on the boards for Crossroads RI and DARE.
We’re sitting in the Honey Dew on Allens Ave. Behind us is a skyline so full of symbolism, even the worst English teacher would roll their eyes. Ward 10 is utterly dominated by the tanks, the scrapyard, the Port of Providence. The industrial site produces so much air, ground and water pollution that it drastically affects the quality of life nearby. Monica Huertas and her husband live with their four children in a house in the ward’s Washington Park neighborhood. Monica is a social worker; her husband, Juan, is a union carpenter. When they bought the house, they didn’t know anything about their National Grid neighbors until someone from No LNG knocked on Monica’s door and invited her to a meeting.
How many politicians in RI today can say they were homeless? Monica and her siblings were raised by her single mother, a certified nursing assistant, but they were still homeless growing up. “She literally went out there every single day in the morning and comes home at night and still [couldn’t] earn enough,” says Huertas. “It’s the combination of low wages and high rents is why we were homeless and why a lot of people are homeless today.”
Huertas’ struggle with poverty continued as an adult. She had her first child at 17. Monica attended RIC, but was still homeless for long stretches. That didn’t stop her from making the Dean’s List. “It came full circle,” she reflects. “It’s like I [was] homeless with my two kids and my husband.”
While she attended college, her husband took city programs to find a better paying job. It’s this hardship in Huertas’ background that gives her a unique perspective among other candidates.
“I’m here for the people, I’m here for the people who get up every day and go to work… I’m here for the one that works in Dunkin Donuts, the one that works in Walmart, the CNAs,” says Huertas. “The ones that aren’t unionized, for the person who gets up every day and works and still lives paycheck to paycheck, that’s the person I want to advocate for.
“Rent control, that’s what we need in this city,” says Huertas. “We cannot keep going like this. We won’t have any people of color left in this city, we won’t have any single parents, or good cultural diversity because who else is going to live here? We need rent control now and we need it bad.” She also emphasizes the need for affordable housing and blames gentrification in Ward 10 as the culprit.
Johnson and Wales’ new harborside campus is just a few miles up the road, and the overflow of college employees and their students are starting to drive rents and taxes up as the land becomes more valuable. Huertas cites her neighbor Erica as an example. Her landlord sold her building to a new owner who jacked up the rent to $1,165 a month. “She’s on a fixed income, her and her two children, and she doesn’t want to move.” says Huertas. “She loves her neighborhood and her kids have roots here.”
Huertas wants to look at the big systemic issues. “If you give kids things to do, if you have good community centers and good childcare,” she says, “they won’t be up and down your street knocking your plants over.” She wants to ask, referencing the recent headlines over JUMP bikes, why those kids think it’s okay to do those kinds of things in the first place. Her social worker and activist background informs a view of a bigger picture.
Schools are a top priority for Huertas; people need schools that are beautiful and healthy where students can learn. She remembers growing up in the Providence school systems and seeing a lot of the issues brought up in the now infamous Hopkins report. The state’s takeover of the city’s school system is something Huertas is skeptical about; after all, they took over Central Falls and nothing changed. She says, “When the solution comes from the community, from the bottom up, we’ll find it and we’ll get there.”
As city councilor, Huertas wants to support studying the issue of the Port of Providence more deeply. “How are we going to get rid of fossil fuels?” she asks. “How are we gonna stop having the 9th highest asthma rate in the country?” Nearly 11% of the state suffers from asthma, something certainly familiar to the Huertas family. Close proximity to the port, along with poorly maintained school buildings, gave her family a host of health problems. Huertas considered running in 2018, but one of her sons was hospitalized seven times for asthma.
“I wanna see the regular old mom and pop shops come back again,” says Huertas, referring to her ward’s business community. “It doesn’t always have to be a club or something.” She’d like to see more diversity along Allens Ave, and the particular stretch we’re on is empty except for a few breakfast places. She wants more incentives and business classes for her ward. Huertas cites zoning as part of the problem. Where we currently sit in the Honey Dew is zoned for heavy industrial, and now some of the businesses are trying to use zoning to cater more to Providence’s college population rather than the residents who call it home.
“You don’t have to be a politician, you don’t have to be a person with money, you don’t have to be a political insider,” says Huertas. “You can run a campaign and you can win. I plan to win.” Huertas brings with her a special kind of empathy rarely seen in those running for elected office. She is someone who has been shaped by the violence endemic poverty brings, and seeks to minimize that violence and suffering in others. The LNG plant is being built in PVD’s most overlooked communities, a deliberate act of violence on the city’s poor. If it was not, why not build it on the East Side?