Osvaldo & Iliana — life after addiction
For years, substance abuse had scarred the lives of Iliana and Osvaldo “Ozzie” Rivera. Now, as soldiers in The Salvation Army, they talk about how they found each other and the work they do to help break the generational curse of addiction.
Iliana Rivera: In the 1950s, when my family came from Puerto Rico, my parents became heroin addicts. When they divorced, I divided my time between my mother, who lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., and my father, who resided in Worcester, Mass. I also used heavy drugs and became pregnant at 15 with my first daughter. I had three more children after that, two of whom were twins. We lived up and down the East Coast—Massachusetts, Florida, New Jersey, and Brooklyn, N.Y. My children had become difficult. Having been affected by my drug use, they suffered from behavioral and mental problems. So much moving made it impossible for me to provide the stable home they desperately needed.
Osvaldo Rivera: I grew up on a sugar cane plantation in Caguas, Puerto Rico. I was the oldest of 16 children. My mother had me when she was still in high school. At 15, I used drugs and alcohol. By the time I turned 23, my two younger brothers and I were all drug users. We were sent to Worcester, Mass., to live with family. Unfortunately, that experience was short–lived. Eventually, the family threw all of us into the streets. Even as I continued to use, I never saw myself as bad an addict as my brothers. Although I thought I could help them, the truth was, I needed help myself. Alcoholism took the life of one brother, and the other died from a heroin addiction at 18.
Iliana: My mother and sister took charge of my life. My children went to live with them, and I would not get them back until I was clean. Wanting them back in my life made me go into rehab and finish the program. My father and his wife then helped me enter another program, where they allowed my children to live with me as I continued my recovery. Around that time, my oldest daughter got pregnant at 15, just as I had done. When her baby turned three months old, they moved in with me and my children. Four children and a grandchild lived with me in a recovery program. By then, I was 32 years old.
Osvaldo: In 1978, I lived on the streets of Massachusetts. My addiction grew to the point where I couldn’t even survive homelessness. From 1978 to 1992—15 years—I was either on the streets or in jail. In 1994, the court forced me into rehab, and I completed the program. Around that time, I met Iliana through her family who lived in Worcester. It was the right time for us to arrive in each other’s lives; we were healthy enough to appreciate what we could offer to one another.
Iliana: After being clean for over a year, I worked for a recovery clinic as a volunteer. This made me want to begin a career helping people who were struggling with addictions as I was. I went back to school and got my GED. Ozzie also returned to school. We took steps in our education together, supported each other, and let our relationship grow.
Osvaldo: I worked at Casa Esperanza, the center where I had been cured. I also did an internship at the University of Massachusetts. Iliana worked in women’s programs for the city of Boston and attended Northeastern University. We both worked and studied full–time. Even though we were busy, we gave each other something that neither of us had before—stability.
Iliana: Ozzie was an angel to me and my kids, who loved him. We attended therapy together with my and Ozzie’s children. Despite so much trauma in our lives, we became one family. When I earned my GED, my father gave me a terrible, old car as a gift. I didn’t know anything about cars; I had never even gotten a license. Ozzie fixed the car up so I could drive to school and to work. The car was bright yellow and had a hole in the gas tank. If I put more than $10 worth of gas in, it would spill out. Ozzie nicknamed it the “Banana Boat,” but I was so proud of that car, and of him.
Osvaldo: For one of my college classes, I did a case study on Iliana. When I presented my study to the professor, he warned me not to marry this girl. “She’ll be way too much trouble in your life,” he had said. It didn’t surprise me to hear this, as it was the same thing Iliana’s father had warned her about me. It’s a good thing that neither of us listened.
Iliana: Homeless clients from outpatient centers with whom Ozzie worked actually introduced him to the Salvation Army’s Boston Central Hispanic Corps. They talked highly of Majors Elizur and Mayra Vasquez’s ministry because the clients received so much help. When Ozzie visited the corps for the first time in 2013, he fell in love with the congregation.
Osvaldo: But that year, doctors diagnosed Iliana with cancer. She was still recovering from major surgery when the corps invited her to a women’s retreat in Pennsylvania. Major Mayra, who just wanted to meet Iliana, said she would not have to do any set up or work. It’s hard to say no to a kind person like her, so Iliana went. The Major was Iliana’s roommate at the retreat and took care of her. From that day on, we have been devoted to the corps, where we’ve become soldiers. After visiting the Bayamón Corps in Puerto Rico, we now see how we can help the Army in our home country. Helping people fight their addictions is something we’ll continue to do in retirement.
Iliana: God brought us out of suffering to share our testimony with people who’ve experienced similar pain. I know how raising children can trigger a relapse. I share my struggles to encourage the women I counsel. I tell them, “If I became what I am today despite having an addiction, four children, and a grandchild, then you can do this too.”
Osvaldo: Today, I work as a counselor in a men’s health and recovery program. I have seen that God’s plan also includes His sense of humor and irony. Although I vowed I would never set foot inside a jail again, I now go back to those jails to speak to people. Iliana has also returned to the recovery house, but this time, as a director, helping women and mothers who were in her position.
When we became committed to lives driven by purpose in God’s name, He guided us, and brought us to the right people and at the perfect moment.
Interview by Hugo Bravo