Cubans in Rhode Island

El Club Cubano

PHOTO ABOVE: Assisting the nearly 300 Cuban refugees living in Rhode Island is the purpose of the newly formed Cuban Club. Discussing future plans are (l-r) Mrs. Felipe Eiras, treasurer; Mrs. Virginia Salabert; Dr. Eduardo Salabert, president, and Mr. Raul Sanchez. - Providence Journal-Bulletin 1962

The First Cuban Club of Rhode Island

A 1964 article in the Providence Visitor noted that there were 100 Cubans in Rhode Island in 1964, all being settled by St. Vincent DePaul Society. The article featured Luis & Blanca Fernández, who had just arrived in the Fall of 1964, becoming the 99th & 100th Cuban, respectively, in Rhode Island.

By 1967, another article in the Providence Journal notes that "there were close to 300” Cubans living in Rhode Island—all refugees from the Castro regime." Some came to Rhode Island from Cuba aboard the Freedom Flights, sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Others escaped aboard fishing boats and skiffs and traveled dangerous waters to reach freedom in the United States. To help the refugees who came to Rhode Island, a Cuban Club (El Club Cubano) was established; it was founded in June of 1962 by Cubans who had all escaped from their homeland in the 1959 and early 1960s, after Batista was ousted by Fidel Castro. All had chosen to live in Rhode Island for various reasons ranging from job opportunities to friends calling them here, and some who were waiting to be reunited with family members elsewhere in the country.

According to archives of the International Institute of Rhode Island (IIRI), the purpose of El Club Cubano was to assist fellow Cubans, primarily by creating a revolving fund to help the new arrivals begin afresh. Like the story of Doña Fefa, and almost about the same time she was settling Dominicans and Puerto Ricans in Rhode Island, the Cubans banded together to help new arrivals find jobs and apartments, providing them with furniture and clothing, and giving them moral support. Most important to the newcomers who did not speak English, was providing translation and interpretation, and introducing them to other Cubans in the community.

Felipe Eiras and his wife were among the first group of Cubans to leave after Castro seized control. Both were architects and in 1959 they were working at the top level of the Cuban government designing buildings for what they referred to as “one of Castro’s pet projects."

The Eirases were working on the design for a building that would hold up to 25,000 children before the couple left Cuba in 1960. According to Felipe Eiras, “local ‘peasants’ were used for their labor to get the buildings up." The building was to be where children would live after parents were convinced by Castro's people that they were needed to help Cuba become strong again, following Batista's reign. Once the couple realized what they were working on, they decided they had to leave Cuba, and found a way to do so.

The couple first lived in New York and then moved to Rhode Island in 1964. The Eirases formed their own company of architectural consultants, and along with the Dr. Eduardo Salabert and his wife, Virginia, they founded El Club Cubano.

Taking a Census

According to Raymond E. O’Dowd, Executive Director of the IIRI in 1964, there was an organization prior to El Club Cubano called The Cuban Advisory Committee (CAC), and it was formed with the help of the International Institute of Rhode Island in 1962, when there were less than 100 Cubans living in the state. From 1962-1964, CAC was the official clearing house for all Cuban refugees in the state, putting together a “roster” or a census of Cubans, much like the early custom records taken at ports of arrival around the country. Every time a Cuban individual or family arrived in RI, the IIRI would put them in touch with the CAC, and data was collected mainly so Cubans would be able to make the necessary connections as long as they lived in Rhode Island.

The local Cuban community became a tight group because they all equally disliked Fidel Castro, and each had a similar story of how they came to this country. They were dedicated to focusing on the positive things about their lives in the U.S., yet they were determined never to forget their previous lives in Cuba.

Tessie Salabert, daughter of Dr. Salabert, who was interviewed by the Latino Oral History Project of RI, remembers the closeness of the Cubans in the early days:

"One of the things I remember most about my childhood and the Cubans here is that we would celebrate events together; family was a big thing. So being in the Cuban Club was always a family affair when we would celebrate events, like holidays that we would have been celebrating in Cuba: Cuban Independence Day or Columbus Day, which was a big deal. It was all these different holidays that would help us keep our Cuban traditions alive. I felt that the Cuban Club was a place for people to join and just spend time together, as one big family, because we felt we didn't all have our families here, so we became each other's family."

By 1967, the number of Cubans fluctuated around 300, as Cuban families came to and left Rhode Island for various reasons: many left for warmer weather, others found work elsewhere, and still others had family calling for them from other parts of the U.S.

Officers of El Club Cubano included Dr. Eduardo Salabert, president; Ismael Torres, vice president; Dr. Alfredo Incera, secretary and Mr. Felipe Eiras, treasurer. Mrs. Gladys Rivera was elected to head the house committee.

The 1980s and the Mariel Boat Lift

In 1980, records show that Rhode Island had registered 300 “Mariel Cubans” but by 1986, only 104 showed up to register at the International Institute of Rhode Island under the Mariel Cuban Adjustment Program so they could get permanent status in the U.S. An officer at the local Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) surmised that most had probably moved south to warmer weather, or perhaps to live with family members elsewhere in the U.S. who had petitioned for them so they could become U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

By November of 1986, the riots by Cubans held in detention centers around the country made national news, and Rhode Island Cubans, such as Alfredo C. Incera, gave reacted with horror. The riots were caused by an agreement between Fidel Castro and the U.S. government that would reopen relationship between the two countries, but that would also send the prisoners at the detention center back to Cuba. Incera pointed out that life in Cuba was so bad that even the prisoners did not want to go back.

A newspaper article noted that “Rhode Island’s Cuban community is very small—some estimate its size as only 100 or so…”

NOTE: If you can add to the history of Cubans in Rhode Island, contact us via this link

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Funds for the Cuban Stories oral histories have been made possible with a grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.

And also with a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation, ADDD Fund.
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