He was among three dozen Latino students selected for a leadership program that was only supposed to last a year at Wayne State University in 1971. But Osvaldo “Ozzie” Rivera and his peers fought to keep the Latino en Marcha program to create a legacy for other Latinos to get access to higher education and become community leaders.
More than 40 years later, the renamed Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies has become a sort of Who’s Who of Detroit-grown Latinos, including Rivera: He has served in numerous human service, academic and cultural roles to promote and celebrate Detroit’s Latino community.
“Though it may seem like (my positions) are disconnected, the common themes are activism and community engagement,” Rivera said. “So some of it was direct experience, like setting up programs to help people, particularly the community I grew up in. And then at the academic level, it was helping to train future leaders and give people a perspective about why understanding our past is important for understanding our present.”
Born in Puerto Rico, Rivera’s family moved to southwest Detroit when he was an infant and raised him and his siblings in the Corktown neighborhood.
Now 62, Rivera is the director of community engagement at Southwest Solutions, an agency providing counseling, affordable housing and opportunities for economic success. He also served for 15 years as CEO of Latino Family Services, and mental health director at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services.
He also was director of multicultural affairs at Madonna University, working to retain students of color while simultaneously teaching courses in social work, AIDS, gangs and the influence of African-American and Latino in American music and culture. He also served as interim dean of student services at Wayne County Community College and currently is teaching a course, Afro Latino Culture in the U.S, at Wayne State.
Rivera’s reach also has included the arts. In 1981, he founded the now-defunct Casa de Unidad, which worked to promote Hispanic and Latino arts and traditions in southwest Detroit. A percussionist, Rivera plays bongo and conga drums and is leading two bands: BombaRica, a Puerto Rican drum/dance collective and arts advocacy organization, and La Inspiracion, a Latin/Caribbean dance band.
It’s these roles that has lead some to refer to Rivera as an “activist educator.”
“He’s a treasure for the community,” said Jorge Chinea, director of WSU’s Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies. “Ozzie exemplifies the best of the work at the center.”
Occupation: Director of Community Engagement, Southwest Solutions
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Wayne State University; master’s degree, University of Michigan
Family: Two daughters
Honored for: Serving in numerous human service, academic and cultural roles to promote and celebrate Detroit’s Latino community.