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Hispanic Heritage in SWFL: Lirio Negroni

Rachel Iacovone
Dr. Lirio Negroni

We're now more than halfway through Hispanic Heritage Month, which extends from September 15th through October 15th. So, in honor of those of Hispanic heritage here in Southwest Florida, WGCU is featuring local Latinos from across the region — from all sorts of professions, genders and backgrounds.
Today, you'll hear from the associate professor of social work at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Hi, I am Lirio Negroni Rodriguez. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico.

I have mixed feelings about Hispanic Heritage Month. I think that this one- month celebration of our latinidad – you will notice I don’t use “Hispanic” – I think it’s valuable. I think it’s needed. The only problem is that it’s more celebrated within the Latinos and Latinas. It’s like a paradox. This country acknowledges the presence of Latinos and Latinas. We dedicate a month to celebrate who they are and their contributions. Then, you go and look at policies, access to services, opportunities to advance – it varies. It’s limited, and that’s sad.

In the ‘80s, there were different organizations from the United States going to Puerto Rico from different disciplines to recruit professionals because there had been a huge migration away from Puerto Rico to the United States, and professionals from all fields were needed to provide services. So, someone from Massachusetts went to recruit social workers. And, at that same time, I was going through my divorce, so I thought, "Okay, this is a good time to detach from this life that is ending.” So, I left Puerto Rico in June 1985 to come to Massachusetts to work as a clinical social worker.

I arrived with three luggages and $300 in my pocket. That was all I had. The person who was going to be my supervisor had made arrangements for me to rent a room in a house. So, I knew I was going to have a room to live – a room, a bedroom – and I had a job and $300 in my pocket.

I was invited in December of my first year there to the holiday party. It was not a Christmas; it was a holiday party. And, I was dressed up like a Puerto Rican dresses up for a party – very elegant. And, when I arrived to the place, everybody’s wearing jeans, and they started teasing me. That was the first time when I began to feel the huge difference between being Puerto Rican and not being Puerto Rican – and how groups can have power influencing how you feel and see yourself.

So, I learned that there were different culture codes to different events or different situations. Because I wanted to be a teacher, and my coworkers encouraged me, I learned also, in Massachusetts, that to be a social worker was very different to what I was as a social worker in Puerto Rico. In the United States, social workers have much status, are better paid and can perform as psychologists.

So, that inspired me, encouraged me, gave me a stronger self-esteem as a professional, and I decided to go for my PhD. I didn’t know what I was going into. But, my father was very ill, and he kept telling me, “Give me the joy of seeing you become a doctor.”

He died a year after I defended my dissertation, so he died knowing that his dream about me had been accomplished.

So, I moved then to West Springfield, and I worked at Springfield College School of Social Work. That’s when I began to feel discrimination and racism for being a Puerto Rican, being a Latina and, in some ways, being a woman.

When I took my PhD exams, there were six people. Only three passed, and I was one of them. And, I remember, in a classroom, a student said, “Of course, you needed to pass. You’re a minority. I’m sure they helped you, so you could pass.”

Same thing when I passed my dissertation proposal. There were only two that passed out of the six. Mine was one. Again, that person was struggling why I had done so well, when I was not – I would say – white and a man.

So, in that journey, I always wanted to go back home. Home is Puerto Rico. But, I noticed I kept changing.

The first year I came to this university, some students approached me and told me that celebrating who they were with the strengths and contributions they could bring – their potential – was not something they had heard about in their classes. That made me feel like I was in the right path in terms of facilitating that in my department, in my college, at the university.

And, the idea of me going back to Puerto Rico vanished, and I felt, “No, I’m Puerto Rican, but I want to stay here.”

Rachel Iacovone is a reporter and associate producer of Gulf Coast Live for WGCU News. Rachel came to WGCU as an intern in 2016, during the presidential race. She went on to cover Florida Gulf Coast University students at President Donald Trump's inauguration on Capitol Hill and Southwest Floridians in attendance at the following day's Women's March on Washington.Rachel was first contacted by WGCU when she was managing editor of FGCU's student-run media group, Eagle News. She helped take Eagle News from a weekly newspaper to a daily online publication with TV and radio branches within two years, winning the 2016 Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence Award for Best Use of Multimedia in a cross-platform series she led for National Coming Out Day. She also won the Mark of Excellence Award for Feature Writing for her five-month coverage of an FGCU student's transition from male to female.As a WGCU reporter, she produced the first radio story in WGCU's Curious Gulf Coast project, which answered the question: Does SWFL Have More Cases of Pediatric Cancer?Rachel graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University with a bachelor's degree in journalism.
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