Latino Pioneers | Los Pioneros

Juán Francísco

I came originally from the Dominican Republic [with my family], by way of Puerto Rico, to New York, to Rhode Island. I lived in New York for a year and a half or so. My experience in New York went beyond what I want to refer to as “culture shock.” We just had an awful experience there, in a way, because New York also has some good things happening there, but, you know, we came to the poorest of the neighborhoods, we came from a relatively quiet type of setting in our youth, you know I was quite young then, and what we found in New York was very disturbing. At least in that particular part of town... Violence and drugs, primarily… dilapidated housing and deplorable living conditions.
We moved to Providence after making the determination that we had to get out of New York. We had some very creative friends among our group that were very systematic about it and they just began to look at different states and to consider different pluses and negatives. Believe it or not, we found Rhode Island was closest to our experience in our native land, in terms of the housing, little did we know, but it was the housing primarily, the quietness, the pace of life, the beauty of the area, the vegetation, all that.
I never made the mistake of describing my community as the “Dominican community”, but instead I was Hispanic or Latino. I felt that the Latino community was at a real disadvantage if people felt that way. We made sure that there was a philosophical understanding of working together.
The first people in my family that came to Rhode Island -- I'll call them "explorers" because they really did not know what they were getting gin to -- were my older brother and a friend. They were rough guys, I mean in a sense, you know, they were not afraid to sleep in a parking lot in downtown Providence and they came back to report that people actually stopped for you to cross the streets here so we said: “Wow!” Then, they also brought the report that there was a Church, we were in a Church then, and we’ve always been in Church I guess. My family is religious. My father’s a pastor; he’s been a pastor all his life. And so they made contact with the only Pentecostal Church in the [Rhode Island], and they agreed that if we wanted to relocate they would help us out. And they did.

When we first arrived in Providence, it was interesting, the time that we came, which was about 1969, 1970. {We found that] people were still so controlled in the city, particularly [people of] color, so that when the police saw three or four people standing on a corner talking they would stop by and say “disperse,” and so we’d have to go home. And you couldn’t stay out too late at night or the police would come and bother you, and they’d force you to go home. We were the “newcomers” as they called it and they didn’t know ‘quite what to expect.

One thing that was for sure at that particular time was the exodus from the neighborhoods here, whites going to the suburbs. We noticed that, so that politics were, for us, at that time, very nonexistent and it was more at the level of community organizations that evolved through the Catholic Church and independent movement that we concentrated our efforts. We 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. [During that time], we would come into contact with the political structure here and there, and that sort of began to develop in us a certain contact, an interest. And we came to the realization that for us to ignore the political process would have been a very serious mistake for at that time. So people like myself and other folks began to really try to understand how politics worked in the city and the state. But it began and soon evolved in a sincere and very genuine need to really make a difference and help.

The way I did this was that, first I decided to focus on [politics] in my studies in school. I studied Latin American Studies, with a minor in political science. I felt that I needed to have an academic understanding of [community activism] and at the same time get directly involved in it. We realized then that to be able to have a voice you have to be able to vote. We realized that we were at the level of non-profit community involvement that when we came in contact with the politicians who really wanted to make you feel bad, they would say to you, “Yeah well you don’t even vote. Why are you coming in here and pushing demands on me? You’re not going to make a difference to me come the election time. This group votes.” That’s what they did. Pitting one group against the other and we knew that even though it was an attempt to minimize our worth in the community, that it was a necessity to do that. So I was one of the first people who began to promote in the Hispanic community the importance of voter registration. I remember we had a lot of people who felt the same way as I did and the politicians soon began to pay attention to us. And so a little bit of recognition and political influence [for the Hispanic community] began to evolve as a result.

I never made the mistake of describing my community as the “Dominican community,” but instead I referred to myself and others in my community as "Hispanic" or "Latino." I felt that the Latino community was at a real disadvantage if people felt that way. We made sure that there was a philosophical understanding of working together. That this was understood, even in writing; that this was not something that limited us. The majority at that time were Puerto Ricans and Colombians. The Colombians were concentrated in the city of Central Falls, and then the Puerto Rican community concentrated here [in Providence] and in Pawtucket.

The Issues Never Change

Exercising Some Political Muscle

There were a lot of issues with immigration; there was a lot of issues with police brutality, and a lot of issues with housing. You know, we knew that we had a lot of people who were living in very substandard conditions and they were being exploited by individuals who were here and began to move out to pay their bigger mortgage in the suburbs. And they were very racist... Yeah, they were very racist, and didn’t care and so we felt that we needed to have some protection and work with agencies that would promote better housing conditions not only for our community, but our larger neighborhood. At that time we were getting involved in all sorts of things.

And then there was education--that was my most important issue. We felt that the educational system was just not providing adequate education to our community, so we began to promote bilingual education, ESL, and also tried to expose the inconsistency of the system towards minorities, and particularly in this case, of Latinos. We began to conceive the idea of providing English as a second language right in the community at that time. And we did. And in promoting education, that opens doors to the community in different ways, such as training, etc, so we had a whole department in our community organizations that dealt with that. Many issues that had to deal with education.
It was a strategic move based on the observations that I told you before where we came to realize that being a community organization was like being a turtle without a shell, you know, without protection, if you did not have political involvement. So, at the same time we recognized that the system wanted us to be helpful, by the fact that this system was willing to provide us assistance in community and non-profit organizations savings, but with the understanding that we were not to get involved in politics. So we said okay, fine, the community organization itself can do that, but we could form an organization specifically separate and apart from this and nothing can stop that. So we had some encounters with some politicians that brought us to conclude that even the community organization, the non-profit community organization by itself, was in grave danger if we did not exercise some political muscle, and that was how the whole idea of a strategy developed--it was consistent, it was intended, it was planned. It was not something that happened by accident, you know. Our plan was to organize and develop a community organization, and at the same time, we would develop a political strategy that would serve the purpose of protecting what we have. So we began to do that and it began to work.


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