The History of Latinos in Rhode Island

A collection of the voices of Rhode Island's Latino pioneers

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 United States. 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 [my brothers and sisters] came right after him—it was in 1967, I was 17 years old and we lived in the south side of Providence. I went right to work in the same company where my father worked, which was in Johnston, and we made chemical formulas for colors. I never went to school here.
At the time, 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 Connecticut or Massachusetts. 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. 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 by the name of Batista Club, it was a Cape Verdean club—it had the only music that was close to Latin music at the time. Quite a few of us used to go there all the time. 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 at the time didn’t identify with people who did not speak the language, English. It was hard because many people could not communicate in English. You see, in Puerto Rico, we don’t see colors—it’s mostly the middle class people that hang around together, and they are all very similar. Black, White and Brown Puerto Ricans, we get 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.

There were also other things that were very different here, when I first came to Rhode Island. The weather, for one, was a big change. And the people…down in Puerto Rico, I remember we used to help out our neighbors. So if your neighbors need coffee, you open the door, give them coffee, and everybody stands around on the streets, you could walk home with your friends. When I came to Rhode Island, I felt that people didn’t trust each other, they weren’t friendly until they got to know you better. Here I began to feel more inferior and felt I had to become somebody who I really wasn’t.

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 have to go through what I went through. But, now because the community is larger, they really don’t have to worry so much because there are better services for them.

In the 1970’s, 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, in the City of Providence they were looking for police officers. So I applied, went for a few interviews and a few tests, and I became a police officer on June 28, 1974.

In 1976, I remember the country of Guatemala had an earthquake and I noticed that there were some Guatemalans in Rhode Island, but they did not have any kind of assistance from anyone, from the news media, from the government, no one was really helping them. So, because we spoke the same language, that’s when I really got involved with the Hispanic community, became motivated and I started helping them out. Mayor Cianci, who was mayor at the time, assigned me to work directly with the Guatemalan community, helping to bring the news to them, take up collections for them, and things like that.

Later on, in the 1980’s, I became disabled and left the police force, so I became more involved in the Puerto Rican and Latino communities. I was the founder of the Puerto Rican parade in 1984, and also that same year was one of the founders of Casa Puerto Rico, which was a multi-service center for the community. At that time, there was a great need for the community for all kinds of services. Casa Puerto Rico was located right in the heart of Providence--it was between Elmwood Avenue and Broad Street. It fulfilled a great need for the community. The elderly needed to be fed, kids needed to have a place where to go, there was also a "cultural" need. Older people that were here, they needed to [stay in touch with] their culture, and that's why I had it in my mind to open up a multi-service center for the community.

That same year, in 1984, 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, that is a bad name, the word Bicho and so we renamed it Borinquen. I don't know if you are aware of that. But the mayor at that time helped us, and Councilman O’Connor, Tom O’Connor.

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 census, the 1990 census, shows that in the City of Providence, the majority [of Hispanics] are Dominicans. Not by much, though. 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. 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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