The History of Latinos in Rhode Island

Rhode Island's First Social Service Agencies

The beginnings of community organizing in Providence obviously did not solely consist of the work of these two women alone (Rosario and Sánchez). Their stories, however, provide a clear example of the support systems that were being put into place in the early days, and the amazing opportunities that became possible as the community began to familiarize itself with a foreign landscape.
Politics were, for us, at that time, very non-existent and it was more at the level of community organizations that evolved through the Catholic Church and independent movements that we concentrated our efforts. Not necessarily directly involved in the political arena, because we felt that we were not wanted there. We felt like outsiders. But at the same time we also felt that we needed to do something to exert our rights, to advocate and to protect the community on a number of issues that we felt were very important.”
Juan Francísco interview, 2000
In the early 1970s, the Latino community began to come together to organize in an attempt to gain access to social services. The work of pioneers such as Doña Fefa and Juanita Sánchez laid a foundation, but individuals can only do so much, and soon people began to realize the need to form organizations. In 1970, this need was answered in the form of the Latin American Community Center (LACC), which was financially supported and encouraged by the Providence Catholic Diocese.

Located at 3 Harvard Avenue, LACC opened its doors on October 25, 1970 with the help of Board President Arturo Liz and the Rev. Raymond Tetreault, Director of the Latin America Apostolate of Rhode Island. Mercedes Messier was appointed as its first Executive Director. Much like Fefa’s Market in the early 1960s, the center acted as a problem-solving agency, and its main purpose was to help Latinos adjust to life in America. Many of the new immigrants could not speak English, so they had no way of finding out how to fulfill their basic needs. The center provided a place where they could come and explain their difficulties, and the staff would refer them to the appropriate city or state agency for service. LACC’s staff also helped find jobs for newcomers and offered English language classes for both adults and children. Apart from these crucial social services, a 1970 Providence Journal article describes the center as a means for bringing together people from different Spanish-speaking countries, “including Honduras, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Bolivia, Colombia, Uruguay and Venezuela.” Unlike many other cities in the United States, the Providence Latino community is a relatively cohesive group, and early efforts such as this community center are a possible explanation for this.

By providing a physical space for people to congregate, contacts were formed, which then led to the creation of alliances and social service organizations. These organizations were community-based and not political.

After a successful beginning and much activity, unfortunately, due to financial difficulties, LACC was forced to close its doors in 1974. It was then that the task of mobilizing the community fell upon the shoulders of a small group of Latinos who had worked hard to gain access and understanding.

People Come Together To Help Their Fellow Latinos

Juan Francísco (who was quoted above) was one of a group of pioneers who led these community mobilization efforts. Other members included Olga Escobar, Rosario Peña, Victor Mendóza, José González, Roberto González, Manuel Jiménez and José Alemán, to name a few. Through the work of these pioneers, three central organizations were created.

The first was Club Juvenil, a youth group that focused on education and also arranged social gatherings, such as sporting events.

The second was Orientación Hispana, of which Manuel Jiménez was president, worked with the elderly.

The third, Acción Hispana, was chaired by Juan Francisco. Acción was the product of efforts by the Catholic Church after LACC closed, and its first location was in the basement of St. Michael’s Church, on Oxford Street in South Providence. It was an issue-oriented group that provided general social services. Members of the community could bring their specific problems to the organization and have them solved on an individual basis.

These three organizations created a base of services, and among them, attempted to cover and provide access for the entire Latino community.

Other organizations, such as Proyecto Persona, developed from this base. Much like the Latin American Community Center, Persona was a United Way-funded agency, which acted as a “cultural haven for people trying to adjust smoothly to a new way of life in the United States.” (Providence Journal, 1974). Persona was under the roof of the Providence Public Library system and its initial goal was to give Latinos a safe and familiar environment in which to learn English. It quickly expanded, however, and was soon providing educational workshops, training for high school equivalency tests and recreational activities. It also arranged support groups for Hispanic mothers, who often had a harder time acculturating to American ways and meeting people because they were not at school or at work.

In the 1980s, Proyecto Persona became part of the International Institute of Rhode Island and moved under its roof at the Trinity Church, located at 393 Broad Street.

As these organizations began to emerge, the demand for the services that they provided also continued to increase. As members of the Latino community became aware of their rights, they also began to desire to be political participants, a desire that these non-profit institutions were unable to fulfill. The organizations did nonetheless made important steps in the development of a cohesive communal identity, and provided the space both physically and institutionally for the evolution of a growing political consciousness.

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