The History of Latinos in Rhode Island

Julie's life in Providence

Pictured right: Julie Castellanos sitting in her home on Sackett Street in Providence.

Below is a small clock, a souvenir from Guatemala, that Julie keeps in her kitchen.
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Photo by Marta V. Martínez, February 2019

A New Life in Rhode Island

Eventually, I had to buy a car so I could to travel from Fall River to Providence because by then, I had found a job in Providence. I was proud of myself that I bought a Volkswagen, a brand-new, orange Volkswagen. It was the Volkswagen Beetle, and it looked like a ladybug.

After a while, I moved to Providence, where I bought my house! It was on Sackett Street, and that’s where I raised my daughter, Claudia. When I first moved here, there were mainly Black people living in that neighborhood, and also some elderly Irish-Americans. A few Asians lived on my street, but as far as Latinos, it was mostly Puerto Ricans, and many of them were my neighbors. I still live in that same house today.

To earn extra money, I would make traditional Guatemalan food: I made tamales — up to 150 or 200 tamales — and would sell them at soccer games, to other Guatemalan families. This was in the late ‘70s and early '80s, when the Guatemalan community was small, but starting to grow.

Guatemalans Businesses Slowly Start to Pop Up

At that time, I found a growing Guatemalan community in Providence, and the majority, if not all of them, lived on Manton Avenue; near Federal Hill, but further down the hill, closer to Santa Teresa Church.

The first Guatemalan business that opened then was on Manton Avenue in Providence — it was a bakery. But soon, I opened a convenience store, what you might refer to as a bodega, and called it Julie's Market. It was location at 72 Appleton Street. You could say that was the first Guatemalan market in that area!

During that time, many of the Guatemalan families came to shop in my store. But, I actually did not open the store for the Guatemalans, I picked that area because there were a lot of Spanish speaking people living in the neighborhood. There were a lot of Puerto Ricans there, more Puerto Ricans than Guatemalans, who were already established there.

What made me decide to open my own store? Well, because I just wanted to run a store, and because that way I could manage my hours and I didn't have to work for someone else. As you can tell, I am quite an independent person!

And then, maybe because I was ambitious, about a year later, I opened another store on Messer Street. It was called Messer Street Market, and it was bigger than Julie’s Market. But, that only lasted about two years because then it became a lot of work. My son, who had been helping with one of the stores, started a family and left, and so we sold the Messer Street Store, and soon afterwards, we sold Julie's Market. I believe those buildings are still there today, and the one on Appleton Street is still a market.

Guatemalans in Providence | The 1980s

To put it in context, in the early 80s, as far as I can recall, Guatemalans in Providence were scattered, they weren't concentrated in one area. There were a lot of Guatemalans in the North End. There were some Guatemalans in the West End. There were Guatemalans in Olneyville; you found more Guatemalans in Olneyville than anywhere, but generally, they were scattered throughout the City of Providence.

And, also, most of those earlier Guatemalans weren't the Indigenous Guatemalans. They were more of like the Mestizo Guatemalans who spoke Spanish, who had an easier time integrating into this economy. Later on, we started seeing more of the Indigenous people coming, those who spoke their native languages. And that's when it started to get concentrated. But when we first moved here, we were very scattered. We aren't concentrated at all. Not like now, not like in recent years.

What was happening in those days, in the 80s? Well, it was the massacres in Guatemala. That's what it was. That was the time of the Guatemalan Civil Wars, when many Guatemalans were being killed by their own government and the anti-communist para-militaries rose up. Many Guatemalans left, but they were not coming as refugees. Not then. But they did come in high numbers, and I guess they came to places like Providence where life was peaceful, and where they were welcomed by some of the churches.

The First Guatemalan Cultural Group is Born

During those early days, in the mid-1980s as the Guatemalan community was growing, two guys and myself, we decided we were going to form a cultural committee, a Guatemalan cultural committee. We called it Comité Guatemalteco. Today it is known as the Guatemalan American Association of Rhode Island, or GAARI. El Comité Guatemalteco was a precursor of GAARI, and I was one of the founders. The group later included people like Zoila Guerra, Olga Escobar (who is now Olga Noguera), and others. And among other things, we did folklore dance and introduced Marimba music; we mainly just wanted to share the Guatemalan culture with others.

With my own money, I bought my own traditional dresses, and also the ones that my daughter wore. They were quite elaborate and very expensive! I was also the one that started bringing the traditional dresses, the costumes of Guatemala to the State House. I was very active in that cultural group, back then and we were very busy sharing our Guatemalan culture in schools and other public events.

Also, in those days,and for many years, my husband, Carlos Castellanos, had a radio program where he played Marimba music. It was AM 1220 and his show was on the air every Sunday. He also wrote for a newspaper. It was a newspaper owned by Jaime Salazar. It was called Nuevos Horizontes, and it was on Dexter Street in Central Falls.

Note: Today in 2019, 'Nuevos Horizones' is still the longest-running Spanish-language newspaper in Rhode Island.
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One of the dresses worn by the female dancers in the Comité Guatemalteco was featured in Conexiones: A Través di Mi Historia, held at the Rhode Island Foundation Art Gallery in 2004, and co-curated by RILA's Executive Director.

Back to the Health Field

My next job after we closed our stores, was in the health field, and it was at that time that I met Juanita Sánchez. I was very happy to be back as a health care worker, which was my career and what brought me to the U.S.

I was lucky that I got a job at one of the Providence Health Centers as an interpreter. Within a week or two, they offered me a counseling job, because of my degree in Psychology. Soon I was promoted to coordinator of the department.

I believe I was the first Guatemalan, the first Latina, with a degree in Psychology and Sociology in Rhode Island. The health centers recognized my skills and knew how important it was to have a Latina serving the fast-growing Latino community, and that spearheaded my work for many years afterwards.

My life circled back to being a health care provider, and I once again felt satisfied and proud of my work. I stayed in the health centers for a few years, and then in 1988, I got a job at Women & Infants and I stayed there until I retired, in 2003.

Interview by Marta V. Martínez
January 3, 2019

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