Guatemalans: Refugees from Central America

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One cannot talk about the history of the Guatemalan community without mentioning the Guatemalan Mayans who have been trapped in the middle of a civil war since the 1950s. The civil war started when the United States helped overthrow the Socialist government of Jacóbo Arbenz Guzmán. Arbenz’s government was taking land away from the United Fruit Company, a U.S. owned export company, to distribute it to the poor peasants of Guatemala. The government which was put into place with U.S. support was opposed by many local people. The new government death squads killed thousands of people for supporting the “guerrilla forces” or for refusing to support the local government. Because of the violence and economic problems caused by the civil war, approximately 250,000 people fled Guatemala in the 1980s in search of a more stable place to live. For many, the United States was a place to gain economic security and safety. People fled their homes vowing to return after the civil was ended or after they gained financial security. Popular destinations were Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, and a popular destination for many Mayans has turned out to be Indiantown, Florida, a community of industrial textile workers.

Many refugees were taken in by the Catholic Church, which gave them sanctuary within its walls. The sanctuary movement was started at the border between Texas and Mexico in the 1980s in an effort to raise awareness about the political situation in Central America. It quickly spread northward and made its way to New England.

Guatemalans in Rhode Island

For many Guatemalans, Rhode Island became a passing point on the way to political asylum in Canada--simply a temporary stop-over. In the 1980s and 90s, the Guatemalan community became more visible, settling in places like Providence, Central Falls and Woonsocket. Today, Guatemalans can also be found in large numbers in Aquidneck Island (primarily Portsmouth and Middletown) working in nurseries and running their own lawn care businesses.

When Guatemalans first began to settle in Rhode Island, one of the biggest attractions for them was that it was a peaceful place, especially compared to cities like New York and Los Angeles. Many of the first Guatemalans to reach Rhode Island were from small
farming communities, and the rural feeling of Rhode Island--and particularly Aquidneck Island--made them feel very much at home.

The Early Years

The first reported Guatemalans began to arrive in New England in the early to mid-1960s. Those were the years of the civil rights movement, and many women and African Americans were moving out of jobs as domestic workers into better-paying ones. There was a need to fill these abandoned positions, and employment agencies in Boston reached out as far as Guatemala searching for domestic workers. By the late 1960s and early 70s, many of these women eventually found their way to Providence when city life in Boston became too overwhelming for them and their families. At that time, the Guatemalans who arrived in Rhode Island found very few Hispanics living here. The only services that were available to them were limited ones offered by the Catholic Church. Many Guatemalans felt isolated from their people as they sought places to speak their language or for the familiar foods that they needed to cook their native dishes. The only Hispanic business where they found a bit of comfort was a place called Fefa’s Market, a restaurant and market in South Providence (owned by Josefina Rosario), which sold many Latin American staples. Eventually Guatemalans looking for food that reminded them of home ended up at Roger Williams Park, where a Guatemalan family pulled up their truck once a week to sell tortillas.

Feelings of isolation were often expressed by many Hispanics in Rhode Island, including one Guatemalan woman interviewed for this project, who considers herself and her family to be one of the first to arrive in Rhode Island in 1965. Because of her undocumented status when she and her family reached Rhode Island, she remembers very little about her life in the West End of Providence, where she and her family lived in hiding in the home of a friend for almost two years. Even at the age of eight, she recalls living in fear that they would be found by authorities, and the loneliness sometimes led her to wish she could return to her country just so she could walk outside and breathe the fresh air of her familiar world. During her interview, she commented on the irony of hearing her parents talk about coming to America to find a more stable place to live, a place where they could gain economic security and safety, and to be free to walk the streets without fear of government oppression. At that time, there were three such families from Guatemala who had been brought to Rhode Island through the Catholic Church, an entity that at the time was not readily prepared to give them the appropriate services needed to become contributing citizens of the U.S.

Formal records show that during the 1970s and 80s Guatemalans began to settle in high numbers in the West End neighborhood of Providence, and also in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence--on Westminster Street and in the vicinity of Saint Teresa’s Catholic Church, where a Spanish mass held every Sunday made them feel at home. The areas around Broadway Street in Providence, just east of Olneyville, are also heavily populated with Guatemalans. There are also pockets of Guatemalans in northern Rhode Island, in places like Central Falls and Woonsocket. Remarkably, in North Providence, a small community developed in the 1990s, one that includes Quiché-speaking Mayans, an interesting phenomena that raised a new set of social barriers for this community.

Overall, the Guatemalan community today lives quietly in Rhode Island, and still relies on some assistance from the Catholic Church and other social service agencies, yet they have formed two organizations in an effort to educate their community about issues of amnesty and immigration reform. A number of restaurant and markets that sell Guatemalan foods are now serving the large number of Guatemalans who live in Providence and Central Falls.

According to one Guatemalan who has lived in Rhode Island since the 1960s, the Guatemalan community today is still somewhat isolated. Many individuals hesitate about getting involved in political advocacy or find it hard to access state social services for which they qualify primarily because they are accustomed to fearing anything public or government sponsored. There is however promise in one individual of Guatemalan heritage, who was first appointed a Housing Judge in Providence and then threw his hat in the race for Mayor of Providence in 2014. The future looks very promising for Latinos in RI in general, and Guatemalans are rising up to join other Latinos to take their place in RI Latino political history.


Interview: Astrid [Morales] Toledo


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