The History of Latinos in Rhode Island

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

Advocating For Education

Victor Mendoza . . . cont.

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I remember one time there was an issue at Lexington School in Providence -- it used to be on Lexington Avenue, one corner before you get to Broad Street… one day suddenly in 1974, the principal of the school said that they had to send three or four Hispanic kids to be checked at the hospital because he felt that the kids were having trouble mentally. And you know what the problem was? That they couldn't speak English. They could not understand the language. And I felt they were made to feel like fools in the class! It was then that we started to fight for bilingual education, that was a beginning.

So a group of us got together and we went to talk to the superintendent of the schools at that time. And to have the superintendent to listen to us, that was a big thing. This was a very small group for him to pay attention to. We felt it was a big problem because the children were being mistreated, discriminated because of language barrier. Today, you know, the community has grown tremendously and things have changed, yet at the same time, there are a lot of things yet to be done.

You see, when you think about who are and what is a "Hispanic" you think about it only as a word or of a particular neighborhood [South Providence]. You’re not thinking about the people who may not live in that particular neighborhood, those who have established themselves outside of the south side of Providence. But, I tell you, those who do live [in that neighborhood] are people who worked hard to be there: they run their house, they live there. The early years [the 1970s] were a period where the majority -- mainly those who are not Hispanic -- thought that these [Hispanics] were only people who were into drugs, and this and that. In reality the majority of the people there were very decent people... they lived very well and worked hard. So part of what I and a group of community activists did was to remind others that not everybody who lived in the South Providence neighborhood was poor or needy. Then and today, there are many professionals living there too.

The best thing that I did, my best performance is when we founded the Coalition of Hispanic organizations because that was the agency that gave respect to the community. That was the agency that put the name Hispanic high in the state.
Victor Mendoza
Advocating For Basic Services

Well the best thing that I was part of is when [a group of us] founded the Coalition of Hispanic Organizations (CHO) because in the 1970s that became the agency that gave respect to the community. That was first the agency that put the word "Hispanic" high in the state. That was the agency that fought the police against brutality. That was the agency that confronted the mayor with all of the issues that were affecting the community at that time. And that was the agency that fought the hospital .... that we didn’t have any bilingual workers, that we didn’t have any interpreters in the hospital. And that was the agency that fought the school department to have some representation of Hispanic teachers in the system that could serve as role models for the students. I mean, I could tell you so many things that we did then that really affected change.

To make sure that change was made permanently, we felt it was so important to put somebody "inside the system" to take care what we felt were "the problems" and to put pressure on policy makers. Our job was also to ensure that people were not only hired, but that they would continue to be there to be the eyes and voice for Hispanics.

This was what we believed and fought for so that [Hispanics] would continue to have some kind of representation in areas where they had none in the past.

Political Empowerment

Let’s talk about politics…we have been talking about more social issues and not enough about politics!

Politics, you know, is something very interesting and I'd like to tell you how I got involved with politics. I was one of the founding members of the Hispanic Political Action Committee of Rhode Island, which was the first political organization in the 1980s. We did a lot, including registering [Hispanic] people to vote.

I think one of the best things that we did is that we tried to inform the Hispanic community that we shouldn’t ever be involved in a one-party system. There are two parties here [in the United States]: one is the Republican and one is the Democrat. And we felt that we didn’t have to be affiliated with the Democrat because, [in my opinion] the only thing they have done in the state of Rhode Island is taken advantage of the Latinos and the African-Americans. They take us for granted.

My colleague, Juán Francísco ran on the Republican ticket because that was the only offering he got. I ran his campaign, and of course it was difficult. You had this Latino running as a Republican. It was shocking, especially in the [Hispanic] community. But the good thing was that they knew Juán Francísco. So they were not thinking about Juán Francísco as a Republican, they were thinking ...look at Juán Francísco the Hispanic, a guy who was concerned with the community. He had some problems with that because there were some Democrats... there were some leaders who were involved with the Democratic Party that didn’t think Juán should be running on the Republican ticket. They [the Republican Party] were the only party that wanted him... because when he approached the Democratic Party they said no. I was present at the time. We tried and they told him he was not ready to run. They didn't want to give us that opportunity, they wanted to give it to someone else, not to a Latino. And as I said, [in my opinion] I feel that today they continue to take us for granted.

So the HPAC was made up of a lot of people, a diverse group of people. Besides me and Juán Francísco, there was Rosario Peña and people from Nicaragua, Colombia, Dominicans, Guatemalans. This was a very diverse group of people that composed the Hispanic Political Action Committee. I think that ultimately what we did is that we were educating [Hispanic] people so they would participate in the electoral process. But mainly, we took a chance when we realized that the Democratic Party wasn't minding us much and the Republican Party was calling us. We chose to support the candidate who that year was elected governor of the state of Rhode Island. And the records are there. You can see it; it’s a public record. 1985 to 1990, that was the period when the majority of Hispanics entered state government ... so many of them that if you compare the amount that entered in those five years with the following 15, you’re never going to get close to that number. How did we get those people there? We supported the governor [Edward DiPrete] at the time, and we were the only "Minority" group that was helping him in his campaign. We strongly felt that the Democratic Party was not paying attention to our needs... they were taking us for granted and we got these people [Republicans] saying to us "come on I’m going to work with you, we’re going to help you."

We put the whole community in favor of that movement there. And to be honest with you, that was fantastic and I believe the best thing we [as a community] ever did! ◼︎

Interview by Adam Lelyveld and Indira Stewart
March 17, 2000

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