Tania Fernandes Anderson was 10 when she first arrived in Boston, landing on a flight from her native Cape Verde, alone, her head shaved so there would be no questions about lice.
She had never been on an airplane before; she encountered an escalator for the first time at the airport. She spoke Cape Verdean Creole and Portuguese, not English, and when she arrived at Logan Airport, she did not know her own mother’s face: Her mother had moved to the United States six years prior, seeking a better life, leaving Fernandes Anderson behind with an uncle on the Cape Verdean island of Santiago.
”Everyone comes to America for the American Dream,” Fernandes Anderson said recently, seated in a Nubian Square cafe.
In its broad strokes, Fernandes Anderson’s story in many ways fits that archetypal immigrant’s tale, including the most recent chapter: In January, the 42-year-old who worked in social services for more than 25 years will be sworn in as the first Muslim to serve on the Boston City Council, joining a body that increasingly reflects the city’s racial and ethnic diversity. She will also be its first formerly undocumented member, and the first African immigrant to serve on the council.
But her life was far from a fairy tale, punctuated by stints of homelessness, an eviction as a teenager, racism at school, and immigration complications.
Upon landing in the United States as a child, she remembered not knowing how to respond when she saw her mother. She threw up in the cab on the ride from Logan. She could not comprehend how all the city’s tall buildings “fit together.” Her destination, Academy Homes in Roxbury, confused her for a different reason, “because it still looked poor to me.”
“It’s America, right?” she said recently, recalling the moment. “I’m [thinking I’m] going to luxury. I remember my mom being sad about that.”
She grew up the child of a single mother, and first attended Tynan Elementary School in South Boston. It was the early 1990s and recess was awful, she said. White children would bully and throw spitballs at her, she recalled.
“The African-American kids were like ‘You’re not really Black’ and the whites were like ‘You’re definitely Black,’” she said.
She would go on to graduate high school from the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, and, from there, attend Springfield College.
There were other difficulties growing up. She was undocumented. Her mom was not always employed. As a child, she understood that a green card would allow you to work. At age 13, she paid $50 for a Social Security card, not knowing it was illegal.
“You’re constantly living in fear,” she said.
As early as 12, she would babysit for people in Academy Homes. She won a scholastic writing competition three years in a row, which drew attention from the Roxbury Multi-Service Center, which offers behavioral health, education, and supportive housing services; officials there recruited Fernandes Anderson to work as a peer leader. When Fernandes Anderson was 15, her mother returned to Cape Verde to gather two of Fernandes Anderson’s siblings, a younger brother and sister, after Fernandes Anderson squirreled away enough money to pay for the plane ticket. Her mother was gone for about six months and Fernandes Anderson stayed with her grandmother in Boston.
In 2007, she had her drivers’ license suspended for a year because the registry found that she should not have had one because she was undocumented, she said. She had to carry her child by bicycle to day care in winter. She was homeless twice and spent time in shelters. She has faced deportation proceedings.
In January 2019, she became a US citizen.
She is among a slate of newcomers to the city’s legislative body, after five open races brought significant turnover to the council in this fall’s municipal election.
“I’m really excited about the work,” she said recently. “Am I nervous? I am a little nervous about just making sure that I do the job well and be effective.”
In September’s preliminary contest, Fernandes Anderson finished first in the eight-way race to succeed Kim Janey, with a platform focused on improving affordable housing and funneling more resources to the district. She cruised to victory in the general election last month, soundly defeating perennial candidate and pastor Roy Owens, Sr. It was her first time running for office.
She will represent District 7, which includes parts of the South End and Fenway but is anchored in Roxbury, a neighborhood that remains one of the city’s poorest. The per-capita income is estimated to be less than half of the citywide average. Almost 90 percent of residents are people of color, and almost a third are living in poverty, according to city data.
Fernandes Anderson listed housing and public safety as among the most pressing issues facing her district. And she spoke of climate injustices and lack of access to healthy dietary practices and how that can lead to mental health problems for residents, including depression. She said she wants the city to bolster rent-to-own opportunities.
“If we’re not building wealth, we’re just impoverishing more people,” she said.
Regarding a new police commissioner, a position Mayor Michelle Wu has vowed to fill next year, Fernandes Anderson said “cultural competency is huge.”
“You want someone to understand how to build relationships with integrity,” she said.
The fact that someone with her life experience won election to the City Council “says that there are a lot of good people out there. Most people are good.” She specifically credits the support of Black women in helping her secure ballot box success.
“They always have America’s back,” she said.
She said her Muslim faith will help her manage her new role. She draws on her faith to avoid acting in a reactionary way, as well as to forgive people who act wrongly, she said.
Fernandes Anderson’s professional background is mostly in social services, in which she worked for 27 years. She also fostered 25 children herself. She was an HIV counselor and tester, a child and family service coordinator for non-English speaking families, a career counselor for the homeless, a family and community outreach manager for Boston Public Schools, and she provided intervention to traumatized youth.
She eventually decided she needed a break from that world. She taught herself to sew from YouTube and started designing and sewing gowns, work that led her to open her own clothing store, Couples Therapy Boutique, in 2016. She would put on mental-health-themed performances through fashion and music at the Strand Theatre in Uphams Corner. Most recently, she served as the executive director of Bowdoin Geneva Main Streets.
A mother of two, Fernandes Anderson said she likes to stay busy and is approaching her upcoming council tenure as a new project. Her eldest son, Louis Roca, 22, is a Marine; her younger son, 16-year-old Shak Muhammad, described his mother as a hard worker.
“She gets things done,” he said.
Mohammed Missouri, a political strategist for her campaign, said Fernandes Anderson has a dynamic way of connecting with people from all backgrounds, something he chalked up to her disarming straightforwardness, and her ability to disagree without being disagreeable.
“We are living in very divided times and I think people are looking for leaders who aren’t going to fan the flames . . . but who are going to find common ground,” he said. “She’s able to talk to someone without making them feel small, even if she disagrees with them.”
For her part, Fernandes Anderson described the campaign trail as a lonely place, saying the stories she heard made her cry a lot for the first month. Knocking on doors and listening to the concerns of the working class was humbling.
“I’m really telling people I’m going to help them,” she said. “I have to honor those promises.”