A councilwoman’s remarkable rise from poverty to politics

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Councilwoman Carmen Castillo (Ward 9) takes her seat in City Hall’s Room B for a Finance Committee meeting, quickly focusing on the brief agenda.

Soon, she is listening to testimony from a municipal judge for what some might call her “night job.”

“I get emails and calls all the time. Sometimes, from other Wards,” Castillo said.

There’s little doubt she’s worked harder physically than anyone in the room for several hours before the meeting.

“I like to fight for my whole city,” Castillo, a third-term Democrat, said. “I like to fight for justice. I like to fight for my daughters.”

Castillo’s three girls were all she had when she immigrated from the Dominican Republic in 1994.

After a short stint in a local factory, she started working as a housekeeper at the Omni Hotel Providence.

“I was happy to work hard,” she said. “People think you don’t need to be smart, but you learn better ways, not to hurt your back. How to work [more efficiently.] It’s hard work.”

Thinking back to those long-ago days brings back a tragic reminder of her son with medical issues, who she left behind.

Castillo recalled spending weeks saving money to afford to leave her homeland.

“Two days before I have my ticket, he passed away,” she said.

As she made 15-20 beds a day, dusted and sanitized rooms, she never dreamed 27 years later, she’d be casting votes at City Hall, in the shadow of that day job.

Castillo was elected in 2011 and has been re-elected twice since then. It was work at the hotel with her union that gave her that first taste of politics.

She helped fight for concessions, including English lessons.

“We came to this country to get a better opportunity for our life,” Castillo said. “And I believe the best way to get it, is education and try to learn the language in this country.”

Castillo’s path from poverty to politics is now the subject of the documentary titled “Councilwoman.”

But in the opinion of the star, the film is not really about just her.

“Carmen came to this country with three little girls. She tried to do much better, much better and much better, for my family, my community,” Castillo said. “I want to show [everyone], if Carmen can do it, they can do it.”

The film premiered in Providence and will be shown in a number of film festivals in the near future, with a broadcast premiere expected later this year.

Want to see Councilwoman? Here are the details about screenings near you.

Email Walt at wbuteau@wpri.com with your story ideas and follow us on Twitter: @StreetStories12 and @wbuteau.

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