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The History of Latino Community Social Activism And Political Growth in Rhode Island

When Latin Americans first began to arrive in Providence in the 1950s and 1960s, the very small community was met with minimal recognition on the part of the bureaucracy. They did not have access to basic social services, and without knowing how the system operated, there was no way for them to attain access. There were, however, specific dedicated Latinas, such as Josefina Rosario (in the 1950s and 60s) and Juanita Sánchez (in the 1970s 80s and 90s), who worked to make the transition to life in America as easy as possible. These individuals cultivated a community that did its best to support its members, by creating informal support systems. These networks were community based and completely isolated from government or bureaucracy.
“My mom was at the hospital for 32 days... and my family at that time here was my uncle and his wife. And they were working both two shifts, so they couldn’t even…they’d go and see her once in while on the weekend. But every single day the person who went to see her, and translate for her, and make sure she had her medicine, was Juanita Sánchez. So that was the kind of work that she did. She was the CHisPA, herself. She was an institution.”
Victor Capellán, 2000


In an interview conducted for this project, Josefina Rosario, known affectionately as Doña Fefa is quoted as saying, “I strongly believe that my family and I were the first Dominican family to live in Providence, and maybe Rhode Island.” She arrived with her husband Tony (who was from Puerto Rico) in 1956 and eventually opened Fefa’s Market, the first Latino market in Rhode Island. She later added a restaurant to this location that served the favorite dishes of the fast-growing Dominican and Latino communities of the time. Fefa and Tony began to sponsor immigrants arriving from the Dominican Republic, and these newcomers would stay with them until they found a job and subsequently a place of their own. According to Doña Fefa, Dominicans started coming to Providence in the early 1960s in order to escape Rafael Trujillo’s extreme dictatorship. One important fact that the Rosario family never realized at the time was that they not only opened the first Latino market and and later a small eatery in Rhode Island, but they also established the first central place for Hispanics to gather and receive important information--like an informal community and social service center. Fefa and Tony, by way of Fefa’s Market, provided a place where newly-arrived Dominicans could read news from their homelands through the Dominican newspapers that were delivered there; receive translation services (through the Rosario’s three daughters, who were fluent in English); get directions to City Hall or to the Employment Office; not to mention eat and drink their favorite foods from back home, listen to Latin music, play Dominos and comfortably speak Spanish among each other.

Today, Doña Fefa continues to enjoy her place in RI Latino history with many honors bestowed upon her by her extended Latino family.
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Juanita Sánchez, who was also a native of the Dominican Republic became a strong driving force in the informal organization of the Latino community during the 1970s and 80s. Before her untimely death in 1992, she was a health care outreach worker at the Allen Berry Health Center in Providence, and she personally saw to it that new Hispanic immigrants received the health care they required and that Latino children were in school and receiving a good education. In his oral history, one narrator recounts a personal anecdote about Sánchez’s affect on his own family. When his mother arrived in providence from the Dominican Republic in 1981, she had serious health problems, but being undocumented she had no access to care. When his mother went to the Allen Berry Health Center, Sánchez saw to it that she received treatment right away. She was given a bed at the hospital and operated on immediately. Sánchez’s extraordinary dedication is illustrated clearly in this excerpt:

“My mom was at the hospital for 32 days... and my family at that time here was my uncle and his wife. And they were working both two shifts, so they couldn’t even…they’d go and see her once in while on the weekend. But every single day the person who went to see her, and translate for her, and make sure she had her medicine, was Juanita Sánchez. So that was the kind of work that she did. She was the CHisPA, herself. She was an institution.” (Victor Capellán, 2000)

After her death, a building (located at 421 Elmwood Avenue in Providence) was acquired with the help of Marta V. Martínez, Luis Aponte and Michael Van Leeston, and it was named in her honor. The CHisPA offices moved in to manage the property and the goal of the Juanita Sánchez Multi-Services Center was to provide offices for Latino organizations that were serving the community in different arenas. Sánchez's picture hung on the wall of the offices of CHisPA before it closed in 2013 to remind visitors of Juanita and her dream opening a center to serve Latinos.

In 1993, with the help of her surviving family and close friends The Juanita Sánchez Community Fund, the first community endowed fund for Latinos in the state was set up at the Rhode Island Foundation, and in 2004 a school building - The Juanita Sánchez Educational Complex on Thurbers Avenue in Providence - was named after her.

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