Sabina Matos will soon be the first Afro-Latina to serve as Rhode Island’s lieutenant governor, one heartbeat or presidential appointment away from running the entire state. And it almost never happened.
Not because she isn’t qualified for the job (she is) or because she doesn’t have the necessary experience (11 years on the Providence City Council prepares you for just about anything in politics).
It was because of her accent.
Matos, 47, grew up in the Dominican Republic and she treated high school English there the way many kids treat Spanish class in the US, so she came here at age 20 with very little understanding of the language. She grinded it out, enrolled in English courses at the International Institute, CCRI, and RIC, and she gradually became fluent.
But when she was first thinking about running for City Council in 2006, she developed a paralyzing fear that her thick Spanish accent might not play in Providence. What will the neighbors think? Will they be able to understand me?
“I was very self-conscious,” Matos told me this week. “I didn’t want to run.”
She doesn’t have a grand story about a mentor giving her the motivational speech that convinced her to run for office or even a chip on shoulder about some racist telling her she’d never win. It was simply her desire to serve a community that she loves that pushed her to take a chance.
She lost by 123 votes the first time, but came back to win a seat on the council four years later, and she’s been there ever since. She was elected council president in 2019 and was plotting a run for mayor in 2022 until Governor Dan McKee offered her the lieutenant governor’s job.
Even as she’s risen up the political ranks, the fear of misusing an English phrase has never gone away.
She has gotten more comfortable with public speaking over the years, but she almost didn’t apply for lieutenant governor because she thought that her accent might hurt her chances. She’s still worried about what voters outside of the cities will think when she’s on a Democratic primary ballot next year.
You read that correctly. This accomplished, bilingual public servant should be a role model for every child in the state. But she talks about her accent as though it’s a political negative, like it’s something she needs to fix.
“I know there’s a lot of room for me to be improving,” she said. “I’m always thinking about ways to improve.”
She’ll appear before the state Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday for her confirmation hearing, and all signs suggest she’s got the votes she needs to become the next lieutenant governor. But if you happen to hear someone insult her accent, a display of authenticity in a profession where everyone is always trying to be something they’re not, shout them down.
McKee was right last week when he said, “Sabina’s story is our story. It’s a real American story.”
Let’s embrace that.
And if we’re going to be really honest, that conventional Rhode Island accent is not exactly music to anyone’s ears.