Latinos in Rhode Island

Mexicans | Los Mexicanos

Mexicans in the U.S: 20th Century Migration

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The Mexican immigration to the U.S. between 1890 and 1965 has been called one of the most significant demographic phenomena in the history of the Americas. This Mexican migration took many forms and contributed greatly to the growth and development of the United States as a nation. The first movement to El Norte (the north) took place after the 1910 revolution in Mexico when farmhands, shepherds, miners and vaqueros [cowboys] felt a call to go north in search of better and higher paying work. Going northward was sought out by poor men and women who were unable to find decent work within their borders. They left Mexico looking for a land of milk and honey, where they could raise their children properly and prosperously.

Mexicans in Rhode Island

The earliest Rhode Island document that mentions the Mexican community is an article in the Pawtucket Times dated August 28, 1924: "Local Man is Named Mexican Consul" The first sentence reads: "Edgar L. Burchell, life-long resident of Pawtucket and a practicing attorney with offices in the Rhode Island Hospital Trust building, received today from Washington his appointment as Mexican Honorary Consul for the state of Rhode Island."

Of greater interest to us is a subsequent article, which appeared a year later on September 16, 1925 on the front page of the Pawtucket Times. Here is the article in its entirety:

PROVIDENCE, Sept. 16 (AP) – Miss Edith C. Johnson of this city has been appointed Mexican vice-consul to this city. For several years she has been secretary to Edgar L. Burchell, Mexican consul here, and is said to be the only woman in the Mexican consular service.

Fourteen years later, in 1938 a more detailed article appeared in the Providence Journal that reads as follows: "There were not more than 15 Mexicans in Rhode Island.” The story continues and says that “brisk business with that country” warranted the appointment of Edgar L. Burchell as Mexican consul in Rhode Island. Burchell, who was also a practicing attorney, transformed his law office at 42 Westminster Street in Providence into the Consulate Office. According to the article, he also served as “immigration officer, diplomat, tourist agent and tax collector.” The article further states that Burchell was the first Mexican Consul in Rhode Island.

The Mexican consulate in Providence covered Rhode Island and the city of Fall River, but had concurrent jurisdiction all over New England. Rather than make the trip to Boston, where the only other Mexican consulate in New England was located, many Mexicans or Americans looking to travel to Mexico, came to Burchell's office for whatever services they needed.

The article goes on to say: "It doesn't seem strange to Mr. Burchell that there are so few Mexicans in the state. What is strange to him is that there are any at all. There are large Mexican colonies in such cities as Detroit and Chicago, drawn by such well-advertised opportunities as the automobile in industry and the stockyards. "

Where other consulates, representing the interest of thousand of foreign born, are constantly besieged for advice and help, in 1938, Burchell reported that only five (5) Mexican nationals visited the Westminster Street consulate office that year. All were in trouble, seeking aid. The story states that "Mr. Burchell obtained hospitalization for one who needed it; got jobs for two others and the other two, homesick for their native land, he repatriated."

By the mid-1940s research shows no signs of a Mexican Consulate office in Providence, so it is assumed that Mr. Burchell and the US Government no longer felt the need to keep it open. Further research shows that to date, that has been the only Mexican consul in the state.

The Bracero Program

World War II fueled migration by Latinos to the United States. As defense industries grew and many workers went off to war, industries experienced acute labor shortages. Temporary workers were brought through Operation Bootstrap from Puerto Rico from Mexico through the Bracero Program, a 1942 labor agreement between the U.S. and Mexico.
Although the Bracero Program brought Mexicans to the United States to work primarily in agriculture, some workers were also employed in various industries.

Over 100,000 contracts were signed between 1943 and 1945 to recruit and transport Mexican workers to cities all around the United States for employment on the railroads.

A newspaper article in 1944 showed that Rhode Island got its share of Mexicans from the Bracero Program to work on the New Haven Railroad. In January of 1944 the Providence Journal-Bulletin notes: “60 importations from South of the Border settled down at a labor camp in East Greenwich … to help meet a labor shortage suffered by the railroad in this area.” By March of that same year, another 82 Mexicans arrived to alleviate the manpower shortage of railroad workers not only in Rhode Island but in neighboring states – 97 of the men were assigned to engine house duties in Providence, East Hartford, Springfield and New Haven, and the rest were put to work in East Greenwich “engaged in track maintenance work.”

Unlike other cities, where it was reported that Mexican laborers were found living in substandard conditions in box car camps, had little contact with the general population and limited access to healthcare, recreation, translators, or legal aid, a newspaper article notes that in Rhode Island laborers were given a six-month contract, lived 20 in a large dormitory, reportedly slept in comfortable “double-deck bunks” and were provided “a hearty meal” on a daily basis. On one occasion, they were entertained by El Club Panamericano members from the International Institute of Rhode Island, which was a volunteer group consisting of a handful of Spanish-speaking individuals from Providence.

During that time, a total of 1,658 Mexican workers had put in approximately 3,780 man hours for the Providence-New Haven railroad as the serious manpower shortage which existed during WWI progressed.

On December 28, 1945, the last eleven (11) workers left East Greenwich aboard a special train that took some to the Midwest while others went Northwest, where work on the railroads continued. All had originally been signed for six months, but most renewed their contracts and continued to work.

Agricultural Workers

In the 1940s, as men and women enlisted in WWII, and then through the 1950s, there was an abundance of jobs in meat-packing plants, utility companies, construction, trucking and eventually in agricultural trades such as sugar-beet fields in Michigan and tobacco, vegetable and fruit fields in New England. These jobs were the kind that did not require special skills or the ability to speak English.

Rhode Island had its share of agricultural farms in South County and Middletown during this time, and with it came a need for cheap labor and dedication. Mexican workers and other non-English-speaking immigrants, who were available to provide this labor were hired to do this work.

Research finds that farms in North Kingstown, Middletown and Portsmouth employed seasonal migrant field workers from Puerto Rico and México. Today that practice continues, but the workers hail mainly from Guatemala and other Central American countries.
VICTORIANO ASTORGA of Atotonilco, Durango and Lucas González of Jalisco, part of a group of 60 laborers from Mexico Cty and vicinity, are shown awaiting their turn for outfitting in warm reclaimed Army clothes at East Greenwich, yesterday. This morning the whole group will go to work for the New Haven Railrod as track and maintenance crews.
Providence Journal photo, January 1944
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