It was 8 p.m. last Wednesday inside a Manhattan office building, and Modesta Toribio would not let the men in the room rest. She was directing a presentation about immigration reform for a dozen carwasheros, workers from Latin America who toil in the city’s carwash industry.
As the free pizza settled in their stomachs and their eyes began to glaze over while she detailed the federal government’s reform plans, Ms. Toribio ordered the men, sweetly, to stand in a circle. “Move, if you believe in change!” she commanded.
And then: “Better to die standing than to live on your knees!” She was borrowing the slogan often attributed to Emiliano Zapata, even if her exhortations were more practical than political; she did not want the men to fall asleep.
Ms. Toribio, a senior organizer for the Make the Road Action Fund in Brooklyn, sounded like the elementary schoolteacher she once was in the Dominican Republic. Now a working mother of two, Ms. Toribio, 36, has brought her family’s tradition of activism with her to New York City. In her organizing for workers who are predominantly men, she has challenged stereotypes within a Latin American culture that celebrates machismo.
“She’s got the stature of a man, in a symbolic sense,” said Santos Lopez, 29, from Guatemala, as he stood with her on a picket line across from the Vegas Car Wash in Park Slope, Brooklyn, last Thursday. “I feel a lot of respect for her because not just any woman would do what she’s doing.”
Ms. Toribio may stand only 4 feet 10 inches tall — she is dwarfed by the familiar inflatable rat outside union protests — but she possesses outsize energy and magnetism. As part of a campaign joining Make the Road, New York Communities for Change and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, Ms. Toribio has helped win contracts for eight of what are now the 10 unionized carwashes in the city, achieving higher wages, back pay and better conditions for workers.
“At first we didn’t believe her,” said Patricio Santiago, 42, a Queens carwash worker. “But she kept coming back, day after day, until finally we agreed to speak to her and we overcame the fear.”
The workers on strike in Brooklyn made less than minimum wage (wages for novice car washers can start at just $4 an hour, less than the cost of a wash), and have been living on the $100 per week stipend their union provides to support them during the frozen months.
Ms. Toribio has not lost a fight yet.
Growing up in Navarrete, a town north of Santo Domingo, Ms. Toribio was a precocious, independent child, she said. She recalled, even at 10, being unafraid to set an example for neighborhood youths by buying ice cream from Haitian vendors despite the rumors that they were there to kidnap Dominican children.
At 21, after completing college, she was already organizing neighborhood and church groups to demand functioning utilities from the government. “If you want to get something, you have to make a group,” she said.
Her father, Andrès Moran, was a construction worker who built houses even for those who could not afford a roof. When he died in 2000, his funeral was akin to that of a president, Ms. Toribio said. Her mother, Concepción Santos, was an unofficial money lender, defying the stereotype of women in a subordinate role.
“I raised my family teaching them that you have to help those who have the least,” Ms. Santos, 69, said in the Toribio family’s living room. She was a teenager in November 1960 when three famous women, the Mirabal sisters, were murdered as a result of their activism against the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.
Ms. Toribio has lived that lesson. But in New York, it still comes with a personal cost. She rarely sleeps. She rises early to make lunches for her children, Oswaldo, 8, and Fatima, 4; she is not always home for dinner. When she gets home from meetings, she prepares others’ applications for the city’s new municipal identity cards. She is tethered to her cellphone, answering even at 2 a.m. to help workers fearing deportation or illness.
“Put it this way,” said her husband, Roque Toribio, 35, a teddy bear of a man, “sometimes I get mad at her because she doesn’t want to stop. Her thing is, do whatever she can for others, no matter what it takes. She could be sick and she’s answering phones, going places, taking people to wherever they need to go.”
He loved her since they were young in Navarrete, but was then too shy to tell her. He came to New York at 14, but it was not until 2006 that they saw each other again. They were married two years later.
“She is very good at what she does and I do feel proud of her,” Mr. Toribio said. “I want to help her in whatever way I can.”
He sometimes drives her to late-night meetings where she is often the only woman in a cramped room of a dozen men, sharing her own experiences. As a cashier working at a Brooklyn thrift shop soon after coming to New York, she learned that her co-workers were making only $3 an hour. Many were afraid to speak up because they were undocumented, but Ms. Toribio, who had legal status, organized a protest. In retaliation, her boss cut her hours, but eventually raised salaries.
She soon joined Make the Road New York as a volunteer, and then became a staff organizer in 2009. She now makes about $43,000 per year, she said, just slightly more than her husband earns as a concierge at a Park Avenue office.
“She can read a person, she can read a group of people, she can read a carwash,” said Deborah Axt, Make the Road’s co-executive director. “Her instinct, her connection with people is real.”
She said the women in the office have co-opted the Spanish nickname that Latino carwash owners used to call them to embarrass the workers. “They would say, ‘Why do you want to be part of that campaign of ‘shouting women?’ ” Ms. Axt said.
Ms. Toribio just laughed.
She is already thinking about her next campaign: Chinese restaurant deliverymen who are paid only in tips. “I have to continue organizing,” she said.
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