Latinos in New England

In very large measure immigration to Rhode Island by Latinos (including migration by the Puerto Rican population) occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, earlier records of a Hispanic presence in Rhode Island can be traced as far back as 1834. For example, records found in customs passenger lists and custom house records list a family of six--ranging from ages one to 35--who reportedly arrived in the Port of Providence after having boarded a ship from Matánzas, Cuba. Further, records of activists in the struggle for independence of Cuba and Puerto Rico from Spain show that in 1892, José Martí, known as the leader of the Cuban libertadores (freedom fighters), in an article in the Cuban newspaper Patria mentions a visit to the independence club Cuba-Borrinquen in Boston during his second exile from Cuba. Later in the article, he writes about a quick trip south to meet with another such group in “a neighboring state,” leaving one with a sense that there Cubans and Puerto Ricans living in this area over one hundred years ago.

After this account, there is little known about the Latino community’s presence in Rhode Island until the mid-1950s, although there is some evidence to suggest that there were small pockets of Spanish-speaking immigrants living in Rhode Island prior to this period. For example, the headline of a 1938 article in the Providence Journal states that there were “not more than 15 Mexicans in Rhode Island.” The story goes on to say that “brisk business with that country” warranted the appointment of Edgar L. Burchell as Mexican consul in Rhode Island. Having been appointed in 1924, Burchell set up an office at 42 Westminster Street in Providence, where he also served as “immigration officer, diplomat, tourist agent and tax collector.” According to the article, this was the first Mexican consul in Rhode Island (the only other one in New England was then and still is located in Boston). By the mid-1930s there is no mention of a Mexican Consulate office in Providence, so it is assumed that Mr. Burchell no longer felt the need to keep it open. Research shows that to date, that has been the only Mexican consul in the state.

The International Institute of Rhode Island was founded in 1921 with the mission of providing social services to Rhode Island’s fast-growing immigrant population. The archives of this organization record the existence of a number of Latin-American social clubs, events and a list of Spanish-speaking individuals who sought services at the agency during the first part of the 20th century. For example, these archives reveal the existence of El Club Panamericano, a social club whose members (all of whom were women) represented various countries in the Americas. According to a Providence Journal article dated November 8, 1941 this club was headed by Cecilia Rodríguez, a native of Argentina. Similarly, the archives of the Providence Catholic Diocese also show that Hispanics not only formed a number of Church-run social clubs, but also received services through the Catholic church, such as [English] language training and settlement assistance. The Diocese went further by opening the first Hispanic social service agency in the city of Providence in the 1970s. The agency had a Latino director and the offices were set up in the Olneyville section of Providence.

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