Gilberto Rivera, tireless advocate, dies at 75

Gilberto Rivera

Activist fought to save Hostos and improve housing

Gilberto Rivera, one of the co-founders of the Melrose-based housing organization Nos Quedamos, died on Nov. 25. He was 75.

Rivera, who had been president of Nos Quedamos’ board, suffered a massive stroke shortly after a board meeting at the Nos Quedamos office on Melrose Ave. on Oct. 5. He was rushed to Lincoln Hospital, then later transferred to the Veteran’s Hospital where he died.

Rivera was one of the main grassroots organizers with a group of South Bronx Latinos who helped tenants forgotten by the city’s housing bureaucracies battle for their rights against slumlords and against the city’s own plans to remove the families that remained in Melrose after the fires and abandonment that devastated the area in the 1970s in order to build highrise housing projects.

Rivera was born in 1936 in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. He moved to the South Bronx in the 1960s and began organizing South Bronx residents in a variety of causes soon after his arrival.

Tenant advocate Maximino (Maxi) Rivera of the neighborhood advocacy group Pueblo en Marcha met Gilberto Rivera in 1976 while both men were helping Hostos Community College students and faculty fight the city’s plans to close the institution as part of the city’s belt-tightening during its fiscal crisis.

They organized a takeover of what was then the college’s lone building at East 149th Street and the Grand Concourse, resisting the city’s attempts to get them out and remaining for several months. The school was a crucial resource South Bronx Latinos could not afford to lose, they argued.

Shortly after they succeeded in convincing the city to keep Hostos open, Maxi took a job as a tenant organizer and hired Gilberto as his partner.

“We spent more time together than we spent with our families,” Maxi recalled.

Together, they visited beleaguered tenants in dilapidated buildings, negotiating with landlords and often taking them to court to force improvements.

Gilberto had savvy, not just for skillfully negotiating contracts with greedy landlords, but for understanding the nuts and bolts of how buildings are built: wiring, plumbing, the quality of construction work, Maxi recalled.

“Gilberto knew what he was talking about,” Maxi said, and, as a result, landlords couldn’t fool him.

Over the years, Rivera continued to fight for tenants’ rights on a number of projects. In the early 1990s, Melrose resident and social justice advocate Yolanda Garcia asked her friend to help her form an organization to be christened Nos Quedamos (We Stay), that would help tenants fight against the city’s efforts to displace residents and for the participation of residents in planning the neighborhood’s renewal.

Rivera’s advocacy was not confined to Mott Haven where he lived, or to Melrose where Nos Quedamos has worked for nearly 20 years.

“His door was always open to us,” said Mildred Colon, former president of the Phoenix House Tenants Association on Coster St. in Hunts Point. Colon said Rivera’s dogged advocacy in 2007 and 2008 on behalf of the tenants there helped take the property from the landlord who for years had allowed it to crumble. Under a new owner and management, extensive renovations on the buildings have been underway for two years.

“Gilberto would never say no to anybody,” Colon said.

At the December meeting of the 40th Precinct Community Council, Council President Alex Diaz paid tribute to Rivera and said the council would ask Community Board 1 to support renaming the block of Bergen Avenue where he lived Gilberto Rivera Way.

Rivera is survived by his wife, Raquel, a son in Florida and another who is a detective with NYPD, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

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