Rev. Juan Francisco

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Juan Francisco
Early Community Activist and political pioneer

A Community Organization Is Born

There were very many different people involved at that time. The way that the Hispanic Coalition of Organizations came to be from my perspective was that I was in my second year of studies at Rhode Island College, when I was offered the opportunity to do a work-study program, and they allowed me to do it in the community. They told me, you can go into the community and identify some issue and needs within your community where you think you can make a big difference, and that will serve as your project. So I went in to look at the situation. Of course I had been involved, I had had that in my blood for some reason, even in high school I had been involved in the community. I participated in the organization of the very first Hispanic organization, I remember, which was the Latin American [Community] Center, which was located on Harvard Street [in Providence].

I think that our experience was that we saw a need in our own group that we needed to deal with; there was a need to get involved. There was just the reality of not being able to vote by a great sector of the community that was very real to them.
Juan Francisco
So when I came in and I started looking around, before I decided to concentrate on my project, I found a number of organizations that were doing things. One of them was Acción Hispana, which was the product of efforts by the Catholic Church. Another one was independent of, maybe an offshoot of that, and they were working with the elderly. They were really trying to be smart, because they were being told by the funding agencies that shouldn’t come [to them] with applications or records because they would not be funded. So people began to form organizations based on the demand that the sources had [not based their own needs]. So you had one that was working with the youth, uh, I forget the name of that one. One that was working for the elderly, one that was working in general services, that was Acción Hispana. I began to study the situation, the whole thing, and I would go to this group and ask them what money they had to accomplish their objectives. Their response: ‘Well, you know, every time we go for money this and that happens, they tell us this and that...’ and I realized then what they were saying. So what I finally concluded was that these funding agencies were playing games with the Latinos because they were always telling us that the reason that we didn’t get money was that we were always fighting each other. So I began to go, once I learned enough, I went back to the [Hispanic] leadership and I sat with them, and I said to them: “If they’re saying that you’re fighting and you’re duplicating and you’re not together, why don’t we just get this whole thing together, and go back to them and let’s show all our faces there and see what they have to say?” And people began to buy that idea. So, I said, this is what’s happening, and this is what I plan to do, but before we go there we have to go to the same level, so to speak, because if I go as an individual then they’re going to be suspicious, I don’t have the clout. Why don’t we form an organization that will deal with them at the same level and that organization will have a specific focus or need that is not being covered by any of them.” So we decided that we would focus on education. and formed an organization and called it Hispanos Unidos de Rhode Island, United Spanish-Speaking People of Rhode Island. I was elected President, the person who was dealing with directing the program, and I also became the negotiator, like a coordinator. So my task was to go and serve as a catalyst, to put together all those heads into one to conceive the idea of forming a coalition to get money for [Hispanic] programs.

We approached The United Way, the city [of Providence]... and I made it look as independent as possible, and people knew that I was honest, that I wasn’t really trying to take anybody for a ride, that was one of the major reasons this worked. But first, I began to meet with [various Hispanic leaders] and the boards of various organizations and they began to say, "we like what you’re saying." And we got together, all the representatives of the boards, and we had a meeting, this was all happening quietly, and finally we agreed on the principle of working together, and formed a coalition.

The minute that the United Way heard that, and the city, the city immediately sent people from the agency that provided the assistance then for those types of efforts, and they said if you continue to go the way you’re going then we will provide you with overhead money. Almost guaranteed. And after that, we went to the United Way; everything fell into place and ... boom! It just happened. We suddenly had space for a community center, we had money for programs, the United Way now was dealing with an organized body of strength and power.

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Advocating for Political Empowerment

So that’s how our whole experience began, and that’s how we got to be in touch with the political system and realize that we needed to protect ourselves. And so we began to, sort of, stick our head out, so to speak, into the political landscape and as we were trying to provide services, and as we were dealing with the power structure which inevitably, whether you say they are non-profit or not, they are always involved in politics anyway, and we began to see and confront the very sobering experience of dealing with the political structure, that is very hopeless unless you have the power. And we said, we need the power and we don’t have it and it’s going to take some time until we get it but we’ve got to start to protect what we have we need to do that and to make headway into a system that is closed right now but could provide a lot of benefit to us. That’s how we started. So we founded the first, well let me backtrack a little bit. I want to be honest on this. We had been getting involved with the idea of getting a political group together to work in politics, but there already a group that was making headway and that was formed by the Puerto Rican community--they had the PRPAC they called it. We were not always working together because there were suspicions, you know, this group here, but we were working together at the beginning in the coalition. That was the other group that I was trying to remember, that was missing, among the coalition. There was a Puerto Rican representation that was also sort of working on their own agenda of social issues and whatnot. And so once we got the money they decided to continue working on their own and that created some distance between us, it’s history, I’m not saying, 1’m not passing judgment, just saying what happened. They worked for similar things, but they considered themselves to be a unique group, and separate from the Latino experience because, and in a lot of way they have a lot of reasons to feel that way, because they are Americans and they had what immigrants at that time didn’t have, which was political clout. A certain level of political clout, which we didn’t have then. So we needed to get political clout and so we founded a Political Action Committee. But we wanted it to be all-inclusive of all Latin groups, not just one, and it worked because people saw and people said, yeah, this is the way it should be, it should be all-inclusive, ail of us there. And sometimes we had good representation, sometimes we didn’t, you know the nature and the dynamics are never exactly the way ideally you would like it to work, but the concept I think was right, and we began to develop political strategies. The issues were one, to educate the community about the importance of becoming a citizen and two, once you were a citizen, don’t waste your vote, get involved, and learn the process. So education in both areas, and action, getting people involved. We became very well known. People knew that we were serious, that we meant business, so people probably looked at us like, you know, like a bunch of immigrants trying to make it in the political system, however, we knew that, I think we knew that that was a process that needed to be started, and we started it, we got going, we created awareness in the community. We began to debate issues and then the Hispanic newspapers began to also help out in the process, and I think that things started to happen. A lot of good things happened.

I think that our experience was that we saw a need in our own group that we needed to deal with; there was a need to get involved. There was just the reality of not being able to vote by a great sector of the community that was very real to them.

Those were very, very exciting times. We were so much passionately involved with developing our organizations. Sometimes we’d go to bed at three in the morning, we’d come home at three in the morning, and it was like a calling, you know. You were there at the right time for a certain purpose and we understood, and so we took it very seriously. It was a very passionate thing and people would just, they would do anything, you know, work for nothing, like I said, go to sleep debating issues and trying to solve problems at any time. It was our baby and we wanted to take care of it.

I think that when you look now at what had happened, it’s easy to forget the roots, but you have to build before you can see structure and we did a lot of building. We were very inexperienced and made mistakes, but I think the heart was in the right place, and so what we had, we gave all we had to that cause, and I think we are much better off right now as a community because of that. No question about it. No question. When I see now the growth of the community, you know, I’ve been able to see what happened to the city. We’re not completely blind. When you see a mayor who appoints a minority to the School Board that tells you a lot. When you have a Latino Superintendent, that tells a lot. I mean, people come here after and that’s all right, we’re not jealous or anything we’re just very happy and glad that what we did created the environment for that to happen. And if we were to do it right and if the rest of Latinos [who came here years later] felt that there was no attention to problems and there were not people willing to defend rights and provide access and opportunity for them, they would not have come here. So the fact that people felt comfortable coming continuously, it just, in a way mirrors the experience of the Church, you know. The Church is attentive to the needs of its members. It’s a happy Church; it’s a Church that is really working progressively to get things done. People are going to say to other people, you know, and they’re going to come, it’s like an organization, a business, it’s all the same. So I think that’s what happened here. I think that people who subsequently came said to themselves, Rhode Island is where it’s that. It’s a small state, you know, but there are a lot of other people like ourselves there and they have grocery stores, and we have this, and we have that. All that was created by hard work.

Continued ...

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