The History of Latinos in Rhode Island

Osvaldo "Ozzie" Castillo

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My name is Osvaldo Castillo and I am one of 11 kids in my family. I came to Rhode Island in 1968. One of the reasons that I came here was because my father decided that because he had a big family, he was going to move to the Mainland of the U.S. He was working at the time for a company called Caribe Nitrogen, which is in the Juanica side of Puerto Rico. He was a veteran from the Korean War, and when he was drafted, he did not speak English and he found that to be a very difficult thing.

Because of that experience, he didn’t want us to be drafted to any war. So the company that he was working for had an office here in Rhode Island, and he asked for a transfer. He came first, and the rest of the family came right after him. It was in 1967, I was 17 years old and we found a house in the south side of Providence. I went right to work in the same company where my father worked, which was in Johnston, making chemical formulas for colors. I never went to school here.

When we first moved here, we found only around five or six Puerto Ricans in Rhode Island. Even though we came from different cities in Puerto Rico, we created a little neighborhood, if you want to call it that, of Puerto Ricans. This was in the South Side of Providence, around the Broad Street area.

I remember then that there was only one market that had Hispanic food, it was right across from Roger Williams Park. It was called Fefa’s Market, and that is where I bought most of my food.
Today, the community has changed a lot because it is larger. I see more bilingual people working in government offices, and back in the early days there was none of that. I also speak better English, but I still feel bad for the people who are just arriving to this country because they still have to go through what I went through.
Ozzie Castillo

Later, more and more Puerto Ricans started coming to Rhode Island, mostly from New York, Connecticut or Massachusetts, and they found jobs in the manufacturing industry. Many of us used to get together and go to different houses, to visit other Puerto Rican families, just so we could stay connected.

At the time, we listened to Beatles music, it was really cool at the time. And later, we listened to disco music. We also used to go to Central Falls to a club called the Batista Club, it was a Cape Verdean club—it had the only music that was close to the sound of Latin music. Quite a few of us often went there. It was cool.

Sometimes we would have some problems, racial tensions in South Providence. This was just before the racial riots, but it was never that violent. It was just that some of the people who lived there then didn’t identify with people who did not speak English. It was hard for us because many of the Puerto Rican people could not communicate in English. So mainly, we stuck together and took care of each other.

You see, in Puerto Rico, I feel we don’t see colors, like people her do. Back home, I felt we were more united and hung around together, we all felt equal. Black, White and Brown Puerto Ricans, we got along well down there. So when we came to Rhode Island, especially in the south side of Providence, we found ourselves in the middle of some tension. Some of us stayed quiet and others fought back. I tried to stay in the middle because I felt we could all work together.

There were also other things that were very different here that took some getting used to. The weather, for one, was a big change. And the people, too. You see, in Puerto Rico, we were used to helping our neighbors, looking out for each other. If you see that your neighbors need coffee, you open the door, you give them coffee. We liked to be together; everybody stood around on the streets and we would walk home together with our friends. When I came to Rhode Island, I felt that people didn’t trust each other. It took a while to have friendships. People weren’t friendly until they got to know you better. When I came here, I began to feel inferior and felt I had to change, to become somebody who I really wasn’t. It made me bit angry, but also empowered me to do something about it, to make sure others like me didn't have to go through this.

First Hispanic Police Officer

In 1974, I became a police officer for the City of Providence. I was the only Hispanic police officer in Rhode Island in those days. At the time, I was working for a company called American Cards when one of the workers there said to me: “What are you doing here? You should be doing something else.” He showed me an ad in the newspaper where I saw that the City of Providence was recruiting police officers. So I applied, went for a few interviews and a few tests. I attended and graduated from the Police Academy, and I was sworn in as a Providence police officer on June 28, 1974.

In 1976, I remember the country of Guatemala had an earthquake, and I noticed that even though there were very few Guatemalans in Rhode Island, those who were here and were affected did not have any kind of assistance from anyone: from the news media, the local government, no one was really helping them. So, because we spoke the same language, I decided to get involved and I started helping them out. I went to Mayor Cianci, who was mayor at the time, and he assigned me to work directly with the Guatemalan community on behalf of the city. With this support, I was able give them news [in Spanish] about what was going on in Guatemala, I helped them raise funds to send home, and things like that.

Later on, in the 1980’s, after 10 years on the police force, I became disabled and retired. By then, there were many more Latinos here, and it was then that I became more involved in community advocacy, not just with the Puerto Ricans, but with other Spanish-speaking communities.

Right after that, in 1984, I helped bring Puerto Ricans together and we organized the first Puerto Rican Parade. It was such a great success and it became the event that brought everyone together every year since that time.

Also that same year, I was one of the founders of Casa Puerto Rico, which was the first Hispanic Multi-Service Center for the community. In April of 1984, after raising $12,000 in six months for the down payment and closing costs, I was proud to see the Puerto Rican community unite with other Hispanic groups to open the center. It was located at 100 Niagara St. in the Elmwood neighborhood, between Elmwood Avenue and Broad Street. My dream was to involve Hispanics in voter registration drives, create more social and recreation programs and to help find solutions our community needs for more social services, housing, jobs and other things like that.

Casa Puerto Rico fulfilled a great need not just for Puerto Ricans, but for the entire Spanish-speaking community: the elderly who needed care, and youth, who needed recreational activities. We all felt there was especially a great need for more culturally competent services. I saw older people that were here, they needed to [stay in touch with] their culture and to have others who understand their needs and cultural differences. And that's why I had it in my mind to open up a multi-service center for our community.

That same year, we [Puerto Ricans] re-named a street from "Bishop Street" in South Providence to "Borinquen Street" because some people had a problem pronouncing that word. In Spanish, the word Bicho is a bad name, and so we renamed it Borinquen. During a special ceremony on December 3, 1984, we had a quiet but proud ceremony when about 30 residents, the majority of them Puerto Rican, sat in folding chairs or stood on the road while I and and others dedicated a black-and-white Borinquen Street sign, nailed high on a telephone pole. The mayor and Councilman Tom O’Connor helped us make that change. I don't know how many people are aware of that.

Today, the community has changed a lot. First of all, it is larger and we're spread out all over the state. I also see more bilingual people working in government offices, compared to the early days, when there were no bilingual services of any kind. I also speak better English and I can better advocate for Latino families. But what I still feel bad about, are the people who are just arriving to this country because they have to go through what I went through. The positive side is that, because the community is larger, they really don’t have to worry so much because we are here for them and the services for them have improved.

I think that the Puerto Ricans have worked hard to make our neighborhood a better place since the old days, but the Dominicans also deserve a lot of recognition. There are quite a few of them in the City of Providence. The 1990 Census shows that in the City of Providence, the majority [of Hispanics] are Dominicans, but not by much. And they're doing quite well and opening quite a few small businesses. They're working very hard, and they deserve any credit that they get, with the mayor or whoever is giving them the credit.

Working together is progress for everyone, not just Hispanics, but everybody benefits. If you were to have seen the neighborhood years ago, in the 1970’s, how bad Broad Street and the Elmwood section were, you would not recognize them. But today, the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are working together to make the place better, and that benefits everybody. ▪︎


Interview by Tyler Katz, Angel Quiñones and Laura Lee
May 1998

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