Remembering Viviana Muňoz-Mendoza and ’la lucha’
Remembering Viviana Muňoz-Mendoza and ’la lucha’
by Alison Barnet
Thursday Dec 10, 2009
If you passed the corner of Dartmouth and Montgomery streets in the early 1980s, you would notice that the upstairs windows were plastered with handmade signs: BUYER BEWARE, WE WILL NOT MOVE and LA LUCHA SIGUE (THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES). Sometimes a woman in a striped poncho was out on the stairs holding a press conference.
Viviana Muňoz-Mendoza had been living in an apartment at 22 Dartmouth Street for about a year when the building was sold. The new owners planned to convert to condominiums.
"I never would have bought," she said. "I didn’t have the money but, in any case, I don’t think condominiums are a way of getting money. I don’t believe in profit based on a need like housing."
Condos were a new idea at the time, and there weren’t very many of them in the South End. We hadn’t yet experienced an influx of high-powered developers; the words "market rate" and "unit" hadn’t yet become part of our everyday vocabulary, and yuppies hadn’t yet arrived on the scene. The handwriting, however, was on the wall.
WE ARE AGAINST CONDOMINIUM CONVERSION/WE WILL OPPOSE IT WITH EVERY LAWFUL MEANS POSSIBLE/WE WILL NOT MOVE
She called herself a victim of "no fault" eviction, eviction that had nothing to do with non-payment of rent or other landlord-tenant issues-hence the terms "urban removal" and "survival of the fittest."
After numerous Housing Court battles, the landlord put the building on the market, and the new owner-"I didn’t know it would be as much of a problem to get her out"-told Viviana he wanted to move into her apartment. She took him to court, and after losing in late 1980, she handled her own appeal, becoming so well-known at CopyCop, the staff all tried her recipe for Puerto Rican eggnog. All together, the legal process lasted three and half years, but it wasn’t all downbeat. She won what she called her "First Amendment case"-tenants have a right to post signs in windows. Viviana was a cause celèbre, with supporters holding demonstrations outside the courthouse, and sometimes I was one of them.
Viviana was the first person I interviewed when the South End News began. Floor to ceiling along one wall were books and records in Spanish and English. On a white brick wall leading upstairs were posters, paintings, drawings, and photographs, among them Viviana’s father with John F. Kennedy and Pablo Casals. Her father, Luis Muňoz-Marin, had been the first elected governor of Puerto Rico.
We sat at a round oak table in the window. Viviana, 40, was intelligent, blunt, vehement, and unpredictable, and we hit it off immediately. I liked the way she peppered her conversation with passionate Puerto Rican sayings: "Who is your brother? Your nearest neighbor is your brother." She was particular about words and their meanings. Instead of gentrification, she said blockbusting.
She was the divorced mother of five. Her three oldest were out on their own and the younger ones were often away at private school. Some people thought she was rich (she wasn’t), as though having money would invalidate her principles. "She could have bought the entire house!" said one.
THIS IS A HOME, NOT AN INVESTMENT
Viviana made a lot of people angry. "She made a big deal about something that wasn’t a big deal; she’s an actress," said a Montgomery Street neighbor. "In short, she’s a phony." But many of the people who complained also expressed negative feelings about condos and their impact on the South End. "I’m not overly enthusiastic about condo conversion," said the same man. "I feel condo buyers think like renters, that they don’t have the feeling they are South End residents. Yes, I think they are transient." A Dartmouth Street neighbor commented, "The telescoping of economic change in this neighborhood is quite severe. We bought our house in 1966 for $14,000. The new assessment is $166,000. This is more change than one generation of people can stand."
Viviana could have moved at any point, and supporters and detractors alike recommended it. When one of her landlords posed the question, she asked, "Move to where?" He suggested Roslindale. He hadn’t lived in the South End any longer than she had, yet he saw her as a newcomer, free to up and go.
Viviana understood that dividing up buildings and selling off floors as condos was an investor-driven strategy, a way to make certain people (real estate brokers, lawyers, city tax departments, insurance and utility companies, etc.) a fortune while getting rid of others, particularly people of color. Some people thought she was crazy, but she wasn’t so "crazy" that she couldn’t foresee what condos would do to the neighborhood. She raised important issues: "Is neighborhood stability defined by the people who live there-or by property values?" "When people of color can no longer find a place in a neighborhood like the South End, the quality of life for everyone is adversely affected."
When she lost her appeal in December 1982 and moved, she first stayed on a friend’s couch, her 17-year-old son on the floor. After a while, she moved into my house, which wasn’t always easy, but I don’t regret it. I think about her a lot and about what she would say about the South End today-the proliferation and acceptance of "luxury" condos, the sadly decreased diversity. She would be furious that we let it happen.