Las Voces del Lowcountry

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Puerto Ricans like Lydia Cotton enjoy the right of U.S. citizenship. Lydia was born in 1962 and moved to South Carolina in 1989. She emerged as a community leader after witnessing the victimization of her Latino neighbors in North Charleston and providing them with assistance. 

Selection from interview with Lydia Cotton by Marina López, 31 May 2013, courtesy of The Citadel Oral History ProgramLowcountry Digital Library. Clip from original interview minutes 14:40-23:02. To access the full oral history and transcript, click here.

Lydia Cotton: In 2002 the day of Thanksgiving, the day before Thanksgiving I was working. I was the manager of the supermarket Piggly Wiggly for many years, a good job with good benefits, good salary. I felt bad—that was the day before Thanksgiving, and I had to leave work and go to the hospital. When I arrived at the hospital, they gave me a CT scan, they found a tumor. I didn’t know what it was but they found a tumor in my brain so they hospitalized me and on Thanksgiving I discovered that I had a very big brain tumor in the center of my skull, at the base.

So, on January 8, 2003, they decided to operate on me because there had not been any situation of this type. They could not use chemotherapy; they had to take it out. So consequently I had a very difficult surgery. It took me three years to recuperate because the tumor was spread all over my Eustachian tube, and they had to remove the entire area. I had many difficulties affecting my sight, my speech, so it took a long time. I also had a brain leak during the time of the operation.

After this, I spent a lot of time in bed. I was depressed, thinking of what I could do, because I am a very active person. In my silent prayers I said to God, “Look, what am I going to do?” I mean, I tried to return to work. I fought with Piggly Wiggly to return to my job, and they sent me again to the hospital, so I couldn’t. They told me, “You are disabled because you cannot be on your feet or active for more than four or five hours.”

So with that, I decided—after my prayers, I started to look—something spoke in my heart, “Lydia, there are a lot of Hispanics,” especially when you drive down Ashley Phosphate, they are at the gas station there, the BP, there are a lot of Hispanics, like one hundred every day, I don’t know if you’ve seen this before or—

Marina López: Yes.

LC: And when I saw this, I said, “that does not make us look good, it does not,” because I know that all of those people are decent people, hardworking, but there has to be a way that I can help them to have more order. Well, I met a very good friend named Miriam Walker. I helped the community for free in the courts, taking them to different sites, and I tried to help them in the same way with navigating the government systems, etc. So when I met Miriam Walker, she told me, “Lydia, we have a problem here on Stall Road.” It was the same thing that I had observed, and I knew the councilor Rhonda Jerome. From there, the three of us met and we started to help the police department to better communicate with the community. That was when I started to see exactly what it was that was happening in the community and I gained more strength to do what I am doing today. 

One of the things that I promised myself is that I would not earn one cent from another person. I worry about this a lot because it is difficult, as a disabled person, I only receive one check from social security, but to this day, I have succeeded, and to this day I lack nothing. So yes I have been able to see how lives have changed through the work we have done, and I say community leader, but honestly I feel like a servant more than anything.

ML: Let’s see if I understand you. You were sick. You recovered a little. You could not return to your job, to what you were accustomed to doing, an active woman, a good entrepreneur, with a lot of things, with a lot of life, with a big desire to do things. How did this come about with Miriam and Rhonda and why the North Charleston Police? How did this come about?

LC: Well, in that time, we are talking about around eight, nine years back. There were a lot of Hispanics who were attacked by African Americans. There were people who were killed. They killed them to rob them. There were robberies. There was domestic violence. There was abuse. There was rape, and through Mariam I learned that, and through the Council, it is her district.

ML: What did Miriam do? Did she know of these stories?

LC: Miriam was the first victim’s advocate for the North Charleston Police Department in the history of North Charleston.

ML: Ok.

LC: Her job was to represent those families, but there were certain areas that she could not do, and that is where I did it.

ML: So was she the connection with the North Charleston Police because she worked for the North Charleston Police Department?

LC: Correct, correct, and Rhonda Jerome was the Council member. So these three people that we brought together were vital to lowering crime because while Rhonda handled the affairs of her district, Miriam handled the part of the victims. I handled the part of communication as far as, “don’t be afraid, this is what you have to do in order to receive these benefits from the police, to convince them,” Miriam, having a political title, naturally scared them. So I was the one who went to the homes and explained to them what their rights were, why they shouldn’t be afraid, and in the end we reduced crime by fifty-four percent.

ML: How did you get people to let you into their homes? You say communication, but I always notice that your presentation letter is only your name.

LC: Yes.

ML: And your name and your photo.

LC: Yes.

ML: How have you won the trust of these people for all of these years?

LC: Well, first it is that I put myself on their level. I never make a person feel—first I explain something to them, “Look, I don’t have a profession, I am practically at the same level of education as you, perhaps a little more, perhaps a little less.” I give them confidence—perhaps it is what I project, when I speak with someone, I speak to them on their level. I understood from the beginning that we cannot go to speak with someone who is afraid of authority. Honestly they tell me, because I don’t see it, that I have this ease with which I communicate myself with them and make them feel better, but I never practiced. Honestly, because I didn’t plan it, all I did was say, “Look ma’am, without penalty, without any type of fear, I have something to tell you.” And people open their eyes wide to me, “But where did this come from?” “No, I have something to tell you, you have to listen, I am here to help you, I don’t want one cent of yours, all I want is to tell you that you do not need to be afraid,” and to explain to you that there are ways that you can resolve a problem. And every problem has a solution. So, with that, the people understood. Regrettably, many of these people had been abused. It isn’t as difficult to approach them, so that many of these people have been abused by unscrupulous people who have taken money from them for something as simple as making a call.