NEW BEDFORD, Mass. – Just two years ago, Mariangeli Vargas was told by doctors that she would be paralyzed for the rest of her life. For a lover of community life, it was the worst diagnosis imaginable.
But Vargas made a promise to God and to herself that if she ever walked again she would dedicate herself to protecting other Latinos from the pitfalls that nearly rendered her an invalid — and her call was answered.
“My story’s a little complicated,” said a smiling “Angie” Vargas, 44, who moved to New Bedford four years ago after falling ill.
Sitting beneath the flag of her native Puerto Rico, she told the story of her long path to forming the Puerto Rican and Latin American Art and Culture Committee, the group she established after two years between hospital beds and rehab centers.
Born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, in 1969, Vargas studied at Inter American University of Puerto Rico before marrying and moving with her family to Attleboro in 1993.
Vargas said she moved to the United States because she was raped in college and had to escape the stigma she suffered in her country. She was also attempting to save her marriage to a man who had fathered her three children.
But things weren’t any better in the states — after splitting with her husband, she lost her house, then her two daughters decided to stay with dad.
“When that happened that kind of broke my heart, because I was a very hard-working woman trying to raise my kids on my own,” she said.
In spite of her troubles, Vargas had established herself in Attleboro, volunteering, working in the schools and directing a homeless shelter.
When she fell ill in 2009, she moved to stay with family in New Bedford. Then things took a turn for the worse — one day Vargas’ gallbladder burst, poisoning her body and nearly killing her.
She said the doctors saved her life, but in the hospital she fell into an eight-day coma.
“I started losing my ability to walk, to talk, I ended up in a wheelchair,” she said. “I was completely paralyzed in bed for almost eight months. I lost my hearing in both ears. … After that, I made a promise to myself when I was very close to death.”
The promise was to help other Latinos, but it would be more than a year before she was ready to walk again.
That’s when Vargas met a man she calls an angel who would help usher in her recovery — Matt Dansereau, coordinator of the office for people with disabilities at Catholic Social Services.
“When I first met her she was better than her worst point, and then she got worse as the condition got worse,” Dansereau said, “and then I helped her get into rehab.”
He met with Vargas every day for months, helping her navigate the system and get the support she needed. Because she had been rendered nearly mute, Dansereau was the only one who could understand her, and he translated for Vargas as she went about her recovery.
He said if it weren’t for state benefits, Vargas could easily have ended up homeless and permanently bound to her wheelchair. But she had a spirit that wouldn’t allow her to succumb.
“She’s just a wonderful, wonderful woman,” Dansereau said. “Always positive, even with everything that happened to her, she was always deep down very positive about everything.”
But a doctor at Greater New Bedford Community Health Center would give Vargas her golden ticket, permitting her to do rehab. It would start with a two-week trial period, and if her body didn’t respond, she wouldn’t be able to continue the costly treatment.
Vargas quickly showed signs of recovery, getting permission to continue and spending the next year and a half in physical therapy. It was time to make good on her promise.
“I made a promise that if one day I come out and I walked again that I was going to do things in a better way to help others, so they don’t go through what I (did),” she said.
She began reaching out to the Latino community and spreading the word of an organization she hoped to form. She said many Latinos were without a proper sense of unification. There was poverty, immigration troubles and a lack of services that kept them apart, and she saw herself as a catalyst for change.
She remembers the day that would result in the formation of her group, the Puerto Rican and Latin American Art and Culture Committee. Twenty people attended and several would assume leadership positions in the newly founded PRLAACC.
“It was a good boom, a good explosion of ideas,” Vargas said.
The majority of attendees were Puerto Rican and called for a Puerto Rican organization. But Vargas argued that similar efforts had failed in the past, with many nationality-based groups forming but none of them lasting. In order to succeed, the new group would represent all Latinos.
Asked if she feels she’s delivered on her promise, Vargas was humble yet confident.