Maria Rivera

Mayor | Central Falls, RI

Maria RiveraTell us about your background. What are the experiences, including education, that make up the person you currently are?

My parents, both from Puerto Rico, moved to the U.S. with just 8th-grade educations in search of a better life, leaving their families and everything they knew behind. I took many ESL classes to keep up in school since my parents didn’t speak English, and remember working multiple jobs through high school to help with the bills. I moved to Central Falls, Rhode Island from Chicago in 1987, and eventually earned my Bachelor’s degree while raising my family and working full-time for the RI Department of Human Services helping people impacted by job loss, domestic violence, teen pregnancies, disabilities, and other hardships. This has shaped me into who I am today.

What was your trigger moment and why this specific office?

When I first decided to run for public office, I ran for City Council and was elected as Council President after just my first term, becoming the first Latina in this position, quickly recognizing the direct impact I could make for my community. Our community needed more leaders who listened and who could relate to residents, and I knew I could represent us as Mayor – our families, our neighbors, and our businesses. Our city never had a woman Mayor, and I felt called to step into this role to represent so many of the young women, strong women, and fearless women before, alongside, and after me. The moment my children said they believed I could run and win, I knew I was ready.

What made you feel qualified to run for office?

I knew my community deeply, and the direction I wanted to keep it moving in. I have deep personal connections to our residents, our businesses, our community organizations, and know first-hand the hurdles many families and individuals in our city face, many who are of color, may not speak English, and live with very limited resources. I felt called to be a voice, an advocate, and a leader for my city. It’s been an incredible and challenging experience, particularly being sworn into office during the peak of a global pandemic, with our city as the most impacted community in our state, and at one point, the world.

Do you work full-time or part-time?


Most people don’t know what their elected official does on a daily basis. What’s a typical day looking like for you?

I start each week by bringing all of our city department leaders together so we all know what to expect and prioritize for the week ahead – it’s important our city doesn’t work in silos. I was proud to appoint a team that included more women, people of color, and multi-lingual professionals. Each day has been a busy, jam-packed schedule from public events celebrating new fields and construction projects, to meetings addressing our city’s budget and spending, to canvassing to get more residents vaccinated, to crisis management when we have a devastating house fire and I’m hands-on helping families. I’m always surprised that I think I know the most important thing at any moment, but that can change very quickly.

Additionally, they might not know what their elected official is responsible for. What is your role in comparison to other elected offices on your level?

I take this job very seriously, and very personally – I recognize what a big step this has been for women as the first Latina to ever be Mayor in our state and the first woman mayor in our City. As Mayor of Central Falls, together with my incredible team, we manage and oversee the operations of our One Square Mile city – with a population just under 20,000 that is two-thirds Latino, we are one of the most densely populated cities in the country and the only “majority-minority” municipality in the state. We’re facing many challenges, from a mounting affordable housing crisis to urgently needing to get more of our residents vaccinated, particularly our undocumented families. It boils down to trust and understanding the real needs of our residents.

What do you think people would be surprised to know someone in your position does?

Because many of our city homes are old triple-deckers, this year alone we’ve had many devastating house fires that have displaced too many families. I’ve been on-scene at every fire, spoken to every family, and taken them back to City Hall to help them figure out the next steps while we connect them to resources through our new Office of Constituent Services and the Red Cross. This job is about serving our people, especially in their most vulnerable times of need. I never want to forget that.

What are 3-5 skills needed to be successful in the elected office you served in/are currently serving in?

Being self-aware is extremely important – knowing what you know, and when you don’t know something and need to trust your experienced team. Another important skill is communication, not just in a political sense, but being able to adjust how you communicate your important messages to each audience and what’s most important for them to hear, which goes hand-in-hand with listening skills to understand the needs of your residents and your team. Lastly, having compassion is a necessity, because at the end of the day, being an elected leader is representing a community, and you must remember why you’re there and what a privilege it is to help change lives.

What’s the best part about serving in elected office?

Being able to serve my community. It fills my heart to be able to work hand in hand with the residents of Central Falls. I’m overwhelmed with the amount of support from the residents. I get letters at City Hall, text messages, phone calls just to say thank you for the smallest things, like connecting residents with food programs or recognizing one of their accomplishments with a Citation, and that means the world to me.

What has been the accomplishment you’re most proud of while in office?

I came into office in the middle of a global public health crisis. Central Falls was the hardest hit community statewide and at one point globally. My biggest accomplishment has been getting vaccines into the arms of residents even before being sworn in because I worked hard to build the trust of this community. Too many residents were being impacted – from their health to their jobs and housing – and it was really important for me to do whatever I had to do to get my community stronger.

In terms of finances, how much money did you have to raise for your campaign?

My campaign was very low-budget and relied heavily on a volunteer team that was continuously canvassing and speaking with residents. I didn’t love asking anyone for money but understand this is an important part of the process. I prioritized reaching each resident directly to be sure they knew me, could ask me questions, and felt confident in my ability to lead this city – I prioritized community meetings and door-to-door work to deepen my connections with our community.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone who’s thinking about running for the position you serve/have served in their community?

Know why you’re running, remain true to that reason, and be accessible to your community. I am not a politician that enjoys sitting behind a desk all day at City Hall – I want to be out in our city, speaking and meeting with residents and businesses, which has helped me deepen my work and impact. Remember that this role, at the end of the day, is about serving a community you care about.