Latinos in Rhode Island

GUATEMALANS | Los Guatemaltecos

Guatemalans: Refugees from Central America

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One cannot talk about the history of the Guatemalan community without mentioning the Guatemalan Mayans who have been trapped in the middle of a civil war since the 1950s. The civil war started when the United States helped overthrow the Socialist government of Jacóbo Arbenz Guzmán. Arbenz’s government was taking land away from the United Fruit Company, a U.S. owned export company, to distribute it to the poor peasants of Guatemala. The government which was put into place with U.S. support was opposed by many local people. The new government death squads killed thousands of people for supporting the “guerrilla forces” or for refusing to support the local government.

Because of the violence and economic problems caused by the civil war, approximately 250,000 people fled Guatemala in the 1980s in search of a more stable place to live. For many, the United States was a place to gain economic security and safety. People fled their homes vowing to return after the civil was ended or after they gained financial security. Popular destinations were Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, and a popular destination for many Mayans has turned out to be Indiantown, Florida, a community of industrial textile workers.

Many refugees were taken in by the Catholic Church, which gave them sanctuary within its walls. The sanctuary movement was started at the border between Texas and Mexico in the 1980s in an effort to raise awareness about the political situation in Central America. It quickly spread northward and made its way to New England.

Guatemalans in Rhode Island

For many Guatemalans, Rhode Island became a passing point on the way to political asylum in Canada — simply a temporary stop-over. In the 1980s and 90s, the Guatemalan community became more visible, settling in places like Providence, Central Falls and Woonsocket. Guatemalans are also found in large numbers in Aquidneck Island (primarily Portsmouth and Middletown) working in nurseries and running their own lawn care businesses.

When Guatemalans first began to settle in Rhode Island, one of the biggest attractions for them was that it was a peaceful place, especially compared to cities like New York and Los Angeles. Many of the first Guatemalans to reach Rhode Island were from small farming communities, and the rural feeling of Rhode Island made them feel very much at home.

The Early Years

The first reported Guatemalans began to arrive in New England in the early to mid-1960s. Those were the years of the U.S. civil rights movement, and many women and African Americans were moving out of jobs as domestic workers into better-paying ones. There was a need to fill these abandoned positions, and employment agencies in Boston reached out as far as Guatemala searching for domestic workers. By the late 1960s and early 70s, many of these women eventually found their way to Providence when city life in Boston became too overwhelming for them and their families. At that time, the Guatemalans who arrived in Rhode Island found very few Hispanics living here. The only support services that were available to them were limited ones offered by the Catholic Church.

Many Guatemalans felt isolated from their people as they sought places to speak their language or for the familiar foods that they needed to cook their native dishes. The only Hispanic business where they found a bit of comfort was a place called Fefa’s Market, a bodega in South Providence (owned by Josefina Rosario), which sold Latin-American staples. In the 1960s the small number of Guatemalans looking for the culinary comforts of home ended up at the Broad Street entrance to Roger Williams Park, in the Washington Park neighborhood of Providence, where an entrepreneurial family of Guatemalans set up a food cart once a week to sell tamales and tortillas.

One Guatemalan woman interviewed for this project, who considers herself and her family to be one of the first to arrive in Rhode Island in 1965, expressed her feelings of isolation during her childhood. Because of her undocumented status when she and her family reached Rhode Island, she remembers very little about her life in Providence, where she and her family lived quietly and in the shadows in the home of a friend for almost two years. Even at the age of eight, she recalls living in fear that they would be found by authorities, and the loneliness sometimes led her to wish she could return to her country just so she could walk outside and breathe the fresh air of her familiar world. During her interview, she commented on the irony of hearing her parents talk about coming to America to find a more stable place to live, a place where they could gain economic security and safety, and to be free to walk the streets without fear of government oppression. At that time, there were three such families from Guatemala who had been brought to Rhode Island through the Catholic Church, an entity that at the time was not readily prepared to give them the appropriate services needed to become contributing citizens of the U.S.

The 1980s was the time of the Guatemalan Civil War, when many Guatemalans were being killed by their own government and the anti-communist para-militaries rose up. Many Guatemalans left, and although they fled in high numbers to places like Providence where life was peaceful, they were not considered "Refugees."

Most of the Guatemalans who came in those early days weren't the Indigenous Guatemalans. They were the Mestizo Guatemalans, who spoke Spanish, who had an easier time integrating into this economy. Later more of the Indigenous people came, those who spoke their native languages, and that's when the community became quite concentrated and harder to reach.
During that time, the Guatemalans in Providence were scattered and not concentrated in one area. There were many in the North End and in the West End. The majority lived in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence — on Westminster Street and in the vicinity of Saint Teresa’s Catholic Church, where a Spanish mass held every Sunday made them feel at home. In 1986, Julie's Market, a Latin-American market, opened on Appleton Street and it catered to Guatemalans and Puerto Ricans living in the neighborhood at the time.

Today, the areas around Broadway Street in Providence, just east of Olneyville, are also heavily populated with Guatemalans. There are also pockets of this community in northern Rhode Island, in places like Central Falls and Woonsocket. Remarkably, in North Providence, a small community developed in the 1990s, one that includes Quiché-speaking Mayans, an interesting phenomena that raised a new set of social barriers.

Generally speaking, the future looks very promising for Latinos in Rhode Island, and Guatemalans are rising up to join other Latinos to take their place in Rhode Island Latino political history. On the contrary, a great influx in Guatemalan Nationals who recently immigrated to Rhode Island find themselves in the midst of emotional and political upheaval.
In 2014, there was great promise when Jorge Elorza, a Providence resident who is of Guatemalan heritage, and who was first appointed as a Housing Judge in Providence was elected as Mayor of Providence and reelected in 2018.

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Guatemalans Today

In recent history, the greatest influx of immigrants from Guatemala to Rhode Island and the U.S. as a whole, occurred between 2016-2018. According to a study by the International Organization for Migration, 91 percent of Guatemalans have emigrated for economic reasons and family reunification. In 2019, Central American immigrants, which includes a large number of Guatemalans, have walked through deserts, heading towards U.S. border cities to escape violence and poverty. In Spring 2019, the White House tried to halt the arrival of these undocumented migrants by beefing up border security, limiting who qualifies for asylum and, for a while, separating migrant children from their parents at the border. However, figures released in June suggest that those measures are failing to deter tens of thousands of migrants from journeying over land to the United States, many of whom are find their way to Rhode Island.

Today, the largest number of Guatemalans in Rhode Island, the majority unaccompanied minors, can be found in the City of Central Falls and in Providence, in that order.

As we continue to collect and record the unfolding history of Latinos in Rhode Island, we are seeking individuals from Guatemala who have a story to tell – if you know anyone, please contact us. Individuals who choose to be interviewed for this project will be asked to sign a release form and as such, their names and identities will be held in strict confidence if a narrator or family member/guardian requests. ◼︎

Click here to hear the story of a young Guatemalan immigrant
who graduated from Central Falls High School in 2018.

Read an interview of
Astrid [Morales] Toledo and
also about
Julieta Castellanos, owner of Julie's Market.

The Cubans

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