The History of Latinos in Rhode Island


Valentin Rios

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My name is Valentin Rios and I moved to Rhode Island in the early 1960s. I was one of the first Colombians brought to Rhode Island by Jay Giuttari, who brought three of us on March 8, 1965: it was myself, Gustavo Carreño and Horacio Gil, who was also my boss in Colombia.

I had just turned 24 years old on February 12, before I came to Rhode Island. I was not married at that time, I was single. I met my wife later, in Rhode Island.

I have a copy of my passport, which shows that I arrived by way of Miami. Actually, I came to Rhode Island on the 9th. We landed on March 8th in Miami at 7 o’clock [in the evening], and by the time we arrived to Rhode Island it was the 9th. Jay met us at the airport around 2 o’clock in the morning and we spent the night in a motel in Rhode Island. The next day he came and picked us up, and gave us some coats because it was cold. From there he took us to a restaurant to eat breakfast, and then he drove us to Central Falls, to Lyon Fabrics, the company that his father owned and where we would begin our life in the United States.

When we arrived, Jay (who we called "Mr. Jay") took us around the company to meet the other people who worked there, and then we started working the next day. Yes, we went right to work! You see, I felt obligated to get to work right away and not to take any time off because when I left my country I was fulfilling a dream, I was ready to start a new life. I knew I was ready to go right to work as soon as I arrived.

There Are No Four Seasons in Colombia

Colombia where I come from is the coast, and the temperatures are usually in the 90s that time of year, so I wasn’t used to this cold weather and it was something we just didn’t expect. We were grateful to Jay for thinking of that and for giving us coats the moment we arrived. And, wouldn’t you know, I saw snow within a couple of weeks after we arrived! Yeah, I was very cold … it was very difficult to adapt to that change of climate compared to Colombia. Colombia has areas where it is a bit cooler, but from where I’m from in the coast, it’s very hot almost every single day. And it doesn’t rain a lot There’s a rainy season from October to November and that’s what we call “winter.” So winter here is so different from winter there ... really there are no four seasons in Colombia.

I was born in Barranquilla, Colombia. We were very poor and, I didn’t have the luxury of traveling around so I never really saw much outside of Barranquilla. Really I was still young and was just starting to make my life over there. I didn’t start working until I was around 20 years old, and I was just doing odd jobs and things like that. In1962, I got a job as a weaver in one of the local mills.

After a while, I became very unhappy and was looking for a better opportunity and that’s when I saw a notice in the newspaper in Colombia that there was a company in the United States that was interested in hiring weavers. Because I was a new weaver at the time, with two or three years experience, I wrote to that company, and within a couple of days Jay came, he stopped at my house. I remember he was driving a Jeep and he pulled up in front of my house and came in to talk with me; I was sitting just inside, with my door open. After he introduced himself, he said: “You answered my ad in the paper, and you wrote to me so I’d like to interview you.” So he gave me a card and invited me to his business; he used to own a company in Colombia. The very next day, I went to that company and Jay and an associate of his interviewed me, and he explained that his father owned a textile mill in Rhode Island. He also said that wanted to send a Colombian or two to Rhode Island because they couldn’t find any workers to fill the jobs; no one wanted to work in the textile business in Rhode Island, they were moving into other kinds of jobs. And so I said I would like to go, and then he asked me if I knew anybody else whom I could recommend. I told him about Gustavo Carreño, and after I got home, I told Gustavo to write to Jay. And that’s what he did.

We ended up getting hired by Jay, then we started all the paperwork: we got a passport and our visa, and that took a long time. And then when we got everything ready, they helped us with airfare to fly to the United States. And that’s where I started my story, the day we arrived in Boston on March 9, 1965.

For about seven months, we were the only Hispanics or Colombians in Rhode Island, just the three of us, until other groups of Colombians started to arrive, the follow Fall.
Valentin Rios
My plan was to stay in the United States for about five years and then to go back to Colombia. But, my plans changed because I met my wife, and you know … and in those five years I also had planned to work and help my family back in Colombia. I left behind my father and four siblings. One of my brothers is ill, he’s an epileptic, and we weren’t able to help him with medications. So when I first came here I sent them money often to help with that (I still do!)

After a little while, I spoke to Jay and asked him if he could bring my other brother, Gustavo Ríos, and he said yeah. Then Jay drew up a contract and brought my brother to work for his Dad in June of 1966. My brother, Gustavo, worked for Jay for a short while and I worked for Jay for five years. But then in 1970 I left Lyon Fabric because I wanted to learn to become a machinist and I went to Cumberland Engineering, on the border of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, about a 15-minute drive north of Central Falls. Then later on my brother came to work for that company too. Three years later in 1978, heard that the Boeing company was recruiting people to work for them, so I wrote to them just like I did years before in Colombia, and I got hired. It was then that I packed up and moved my family from to Rhode Island to Washington State, to Seattle. I worked at Boeing from 1978 to 2003 – I retired when I was 62 years old to take care of my wife, who was ill.

So many people have told me that this sounds like a successful story and I agree, because I feel I accomplished a lot and was able to retire with a good pension. I'm lucky. This never would have happened if I hadn't met Jay, and had he not brought me here.

Picking Tomatoes

When I arrived in 1965, it was only the three [men I've mentioned] who were Spanish speaking, but we later met a Puertorriqueño, who obviously spoke Spanish. Gustavo brought his wife but not until later, so really, we saw no other Latinos at that time other than that Puerto Rican man.

When my brother and I first worked for Boeing they closed for one week in July for vacation. And my brother and I did not qualify for unemployment pay because we were so new, so the Puerto Rican man took us to a farm to pick tomatoes. I lost touch with him soon after, and I think his name was Alberto, but I’m not positive. I do remember that he was a very nice man.

I don’t remember where exactly in Rhode Island we picked tomatoes, because we didn’t have a car and didn’t really know much about the area. This man picked us up and took us to a big field; that was his job, to pick tomatoes. So, he recruited us and took us to a farm for just one week, from Monday to Friday, while we were waiting for Boeing to reopen. It was such a long time ago, and for such a short time that I really don’t remember many details about that.

For about seven months after we arrived, we were the only Hispanics or Colombians in Rhode Island, just the three of us, until other groups of Colombians started coming. Jay brought more weavers because the Colombians were doing pretty good work for him, and none of the Americans wanted the weaving jobs because they were not interested in that trade. So I guess we were such good workers and soon, another textile mill (Cadillac Mills) also started bringing Colombians to work for them.

What was it like in Central Falls at that time? There were many Portuguese living there; many of us became friendly with the Portuguese workers who also worked at Lyon. But we didn’t really understand each other because our languages are so different. I was happy when within 6-8 months after I arrived many more Colombians began to arrive … first 10, then another five to make15, and that’s how things happened and the others began to arrive.

Pedro Cano and the Spaniards

When I arrived in 1965, it was only the three [men I've mentioned] who were Spanish speaking, but we later met a Pedro Cano and The Spaniards

One day, one of the Colombians who arrived later in the fall of 1965 -- his name was Pedro Cano -- he got to know a family living in Central Falls who was from Spain. They lived on Cowden Street. Their last name was Ramos, and one day, Pedro told me at work how he had met this family and they seemed very, very nice, and he wanted to introduce me to them. So I said, “yes, yes I’d like to meet them.”

Pedro Cano was also one of the first Colombians to arrive, but not as early as I did … he came a few months later, in the fall. Around that time, beginning in the early fall of 1965, many other Colombians arrived. Fidel Alberto Villas, for example, he came first then his wife and children. Jay has told me that Fidel’s kids were the first Colombian children to enroll in an elementary school in Rhode Island, in Central Falls. So, after Horacio, Gustavo and myself, Fidel came next, then after him it was Pedro Cano and the others.

So it was Pedro that told me about that Spanish family, and I went to meet them. The address was 17 Cowden Street in Central Falls, right off Broad Street. Mrs. Ramos seemed to like me and then told me: “We have three apartments here that you can rent if you need one, so you won’t live alone.” Pedro rented one and I took the other. It was not very clean, but I scrubbed it until it shined, and that made Mrs. Ramos very happy. They rented it out to me for about $10 a week! I lived there from early 1966 until 1969, when my daughter was born (She was born in St Joseph Hospital, my son was born at Memorial.)

Food • Comida

As for food, Jay had to show us some new things. In Colombia we didn’t even have a refrigerator. In those days in Colombia, we would buy things like fresh meat and fresh chicken and cook it that same day; we didn’t put it in a refrigerator. It was very different here, and Jay had to show us how you could buy canned goods, T.V. dinners and things like that. I worried because some of the Colombians didn’t know better and sometimes would buy canned dog food [because they couldn’t read the label], and Jay and I had to stop them from eating it!

But, we learned quickly and we learned we had to buy and get used to the food here. We always found things like rice and meat with potatoes, but we couldn’t find the beans that we were used to – habichuelas. We would shop at a regular store because we could not find a “Hispanic Market” anywhere. It was difficult at first trying to communicate when we bought food because we couldn’t understand English, and [Rhode Islanders] didn’t understand us and didn’t know exactly what we wanted to eat. There was a Chinese restaurant near our house, where I could walk, and there they made a bistec-like dish, just like we were used to in Colombia. I went there often after payday because it was so good and so similar to what we ate in Colombia.

When more people started coming, especially more women (wives of the workers), then it became difficult for them because they wanted to start cooking the food we were used to. Because I was single, it didn’t matter to me what I cooked or ate, and I went out to eat more often. But for the women, it was a difficult adjustment.

A 1953 Pontiac, a New Job and Onward to Seattle

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I bought my first car when the Ramos offered to help me find a car. The oldest son taught me how to drive in 1966 and then I went out and bought my first car: it was a 1953 Pontiac. I learned then to drive for the first time in my life — I was already 25 years old. The car I bought cost just over $100 and it was a car with gears, so it was a bit more difficult, but I adjusted quickly.

When Gustavo and Horacio and I first arrived, we shared a very small apartment with a foldout couch. Because Horacio was older, we let him have the bed. We bought a television at Sears (a black and white TV) and among the three of us, we shared things that needed to be done: food shopping, cooking, cleaning etc. Then Horacio moved, he found another apartment and bought a car. He knew his wife would be coming and he wanted to be ready for her when she arrived, so he found another apartment.

Gustavo and I stayed together, then his wife arrived and I was left alone in the apartment until I met the Españoles, the Ramos family, who rented me the apartment. Gustavo had five children and Jay helped him bring his family. Jay helped a great deal! He helped everyone and reunited a lot of families from Colombia. Gustavo’s wife arrived first without the children. But she really missed them and became very sad, and soon after a few months, they all came and everyone was together again.

Gustavo eventually went to work at Cadillac Mills, and he took me with him. But, I soon became disillusioned and called Jay to see if my job was still available at Lyon, and he said, “Yes, of course, we have plenty of work.” So I returned to work for Jay.

Then later I married a woman that I met when I was taking ESL classes at Tollman High School, when I had first arrived in RI. She did not speak Spanish; she was a Rhode Island resident. We eventually moved to East Providence and bought a house there; then we moved to Connecticut, right on the border near Putnam, CT.

Once I moved to Seattle and started my new job and new life, I really didn’t stay in touch with too many people in Rhode Island. The only person I never lost touch with from the early days is my brother, Gustavo. And now, I’ve been reunited with Jay Giuttari, who called me this year (2014), and it’s been so wonderful reminiscing with him. Thank you for making that possible.

Interviewed by Marta V. Martínez
April 28, 2014

Pedro Cano...

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