Home Culture The Legacy of Tom Olivieri, Hoboken Latino Activist, Through His Daughter’s Eyes

The Legacy of Tom Olivieri, Hoboken Latino Activist, Through His Daughter’s Eyes

by Victoria Marie Moyeno
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We seldom meet people who witness an issue and dedicate their lives to the cause and to righting that wrong. Fighting against injustices in the world is no easy task, especially for people of color who are historically the communities that are directly affected by all kinds of injustices. It takes someone strong of heart and mind to tackle systemic obstacles with no resources other than their voice. Hoboken was home to a lionheart who fought for tenants’ rights and equality on behalf of the Latinx community — his name was Teofilo Olivieri, lovingly known as Tom, and he was a giant. In Tom’s honor, Hoboken is hosting an official ribbon cutting ceremony on June 5th at 1PM to belatedly commemorate the opening of Tom Olivieri Park. Read on to learn more about Tom’s life with the help of his second youngest child, Margarita Olivieri.

tom oliveri hoboken tenants rights activist

A Brief History

Tom was a tenants’ rights activist. He supported and fought on behalf of the Latinx residents in Hoboken that couldn’t or didn’t know how to fight for their rights. His activist work was vital to the people who leaned on him for help, particularly so in the 1970s, when poor Latinx residents were being displaced left and right. At that time, the town was mainly industrial, with several factories pumping out everything from garments to sweets. Latinos were a large portion of the labor force, many of whom didn’t speak English as a first language, and did not make a lot of money. His work led him to become an official for the Cultural Affairs Department for the City of Hoboken, furthering the work he did for the betterment of the city. 

tom oliveri hoboken tenants rights activist

Margarita, Tom’s second youngest child, spoke to us about the legacy of her father, and after living in Jersey City for almost a decade, she has returned to her roots as a Hoboken resident.

Tom’s Roots

Tom Olivieri’s family was one of the first Puerto Rican families to move to Hoboken and the second family to move to his block on Willow Avenue. His last name Olivieri is of Italian origin because his grandfather was born there. “My great grandfather was born in Corsica, which is just off the coast of Sicily, but migrated to Puerto Rico for a better quality of life and started a family there,” Margarita told Hoboken Girl.

Tom’s family made the trip from Catano, Puerto Rico, to New York, and finally Hoboken in 1950 when he was just 10-years-old. He was the oldest of three siblings. His father served in the army, worked for the government, later in a factory on Clinton Street that made rubber sandals, and eventually became a stationary fireman {the person that works with heating systems}. Just a few years later, Hoboken would become home to hundreds of Puerto Rican families.

Read More: Nellie Moyeno: A Q+A With This Longtime Hoboken Resident

“It was definitely a culture shock for him in the sense that they were coming from a tropical place to a barren place that was different in every aspect. They came here in October, so he always spoke about the colors, how Puerto Rico was rich with vibrancy, bright green palm trees, crystal clear water, and blue skies, and then moving to an industrial city with leafless trees and everything is gray. He compared it to watching a black and white movie,” Margarita explained.  

Although they left the Island of Borinquen, Tom’s family did not leave their traditions behind. She shares, “My grandparents made sure to keep our families basic customs {the language, the music, the art, the food} and keep our culture alive. It was very important to them, which in turn made it important to my father to instill that when raising us.”

“My father loved that more Puerto Ricans were moving into town. It began with Puerto Rican residents telling their relatives that Hoboken was a nice place to live, and the rest was history. He would explain that the other residents saw the Puerto Ricans ‘cute’ and ‘less than’ because they spoke a different language and were not a threat to employment or to housing at that time. Racism and classism were alive and well. Despite those facts, my father was one of the proudest Puerto Ricans I knew,” Margarita said.

From Resident to Activist

tom oliveri hoboken tenants rights activist

Tom attended Wallace School and went on to attend Demarest High School but dropped out in the 10th grade to join the Marines from 1956-1959 to help his family meet ends. He and his wife Margarita met shortly after, got married, and started a family. They had four children in total, Vivian Colon, Teofilo Olivieri Jr., Margarita Olivieri, and Kristle Olivieri. 

tom oliveri hoboken tenants rights activist

“He was actually going to a costume party with friends but my grandmother had a gift for a groom and made him stop at a wedding to drop it off. The wedding was in an apartment, so he dragged a couple of his buddies and told them they just needed to make a stop along the way but they never made it because there were so many girls there,” Margarita shared. “That’s when he met Margie, my mom.” Margie worked in the main office at the Hoboken Housing Authority for 25 years.

It wasn’t until the mid-1960s when they were looking for an apartment together that he experienced the racism that was so prevalent at that time. As someone who was raised in town, Tom took offense to the treatment of the Latinx people and made it his mission to advocate for fair housing on their behalf, but he helped people struggling for different reasons along the way.

tom oliveri hoboken tenants rights activist

“My father was so involved in helping people in the Latinx community that there are more stories of his efforts than I can count. But the ones that stuck out for me were how he helped the families whose apartment buildings were being burned down to push them out of the neighborhood,” Margarita said.

Tom’s Legacy

From 1969 to 1973, Tom worked for the State Regional Drug Abuse Agency as a counselor for teens struggling with addiction. He also went to schools to educate the county’s youth on the epidemic and offered suggestions on how to overcome it. From 1973 to1975, Tom counseled drug addicts in the NJ’s Model Cities Program, a government program that aimed to develop new antipoverty programs. From 1975 to 1979, he helped educate families on their options if they chose to stay in Hoboken when the poorest residents were actively being displaced. From 1985 to 2001, Tom became a prominent tenants activist and was a Cultural Affairs Official for the City of Hoboken.

tom oliveri hoboken tenants rights activist

“I was always super proud of what my father did for Hoboken. As a kid, my father took me to work when he was doing tenant advocacy for the city. There were also a few nights a week when he would sit in St. Matthew’s church to listen to residents’ struggles and would advise them on their rights,” Margarita said. “Most people back then didn’t even know they had rights as tenants. I would sit and watch, and notice the difference in the people’s energy before and after talking to my dad. He gave them hope and gave them the tools they needed to defend themselves, knowledge. I used to think to myself ‘yup that’s my pops!’”

He retired in 2001, but never stopped fighting for the people. He remained active in his community, including fighting against a city ballot referendum in 2013 that would have made rent protections vulnerable.

Sadly, Tom passed away in 2014 at the age of 75, but his legacy lived on. “He battled cancer for two years and he did it valiantly, never complaining about the aggressive chemo and was still helping people who were seeking advice. He even stood outside in the cold during one of the elections fighting for tenant’s rights.”

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A lot of Latinos have since moved due to the gentrification in the 1980s, but there is a strong camaraderie amongst the ones who were able to stay. I feel that it is super important for the Latinos that are still here in town to have genuine representation and to be treated as equals. My father focused on the Latinx community but he helped all people in this town, of all races, because he felt an injustice was an injustice no matter what nationality you were,” she told us.

In 2019,  on the fifth anniversary of his death, the City of Hoboken voted to rename Legion Park at 1225 Willow Avenue, the same block he grew up on, after Tom Olivieri to honor his work as an activist for his Latinx community. There is finally an official ribbon cutting ceremony planned to honor the opening of Tom Olivieri Park, which will be held on June 5th, 2022.

Legion Park tom oliveri

Tom Olivieri’s work will live on through his selfless legacy for years to come. He was a hero to many residents, and his efforts to fight for equality will always be a part of Hoboken’s history.

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