Latinos in New England

Aqui Estamos

In very large measure, immigration to Rhode Island by Latinos (including migration by the Puerto Rican population) occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. However, earlier records of a Hispanic presence in Rhode Island can be traced as far back as 1834. For example, records found in customs passenger lists and custom house records list a family of six — ranging in age between one and 35 — who reportedly arrived in the Port of Providence after having boarded a ship from Matánzas, Cuba. Further, records of activists in the struggle for independence of Cuba and Puerto Rico from Spain show that in 1892, José Martí, known as the leader of the Cuban libertadores (freedom fighters), in an article in the Cuban newspaper Patria mentions a visit to the Club Cuba-Borrinquen in Boston during his second exile from Cuba. Later in the article, he writes about a quick trip south to meet with another such group in “a neighboring state.” While there is not factual information naming that neighboring state as Rhode Island, it leaves one with a strong sense that Cubans and Puerto Ricans were living in this area over one hundred years ago.

After this account, there are few details in mainstream archives or journals about a Latin-American presence in Rhode Island, although there is some evidence to suggest that there were small pockets of Spanish-speaking immigrants living in Rhode Island prior to this period. For example, the headline of a 1938 article in the
Providence Journal states: “There are about 15 Mexicans in Rhode Island.” The story goes on to say that “brisk business with that country” warranted the appointment of Edgar L. Burchell, of Scottish ancestry, as Mexican Consul in Rhode Island. Appointed in 1924, Burchell set up an office at 42 Westminster Street in Providence, where as the article states, he also served as “immigration officer, diplomat, tourist agent and tax collector.”
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Members of El Club Panamericano are presented a Governor's Citation by Gov. John Chaffee. Photo courtesy International Institute of Rhode Island archives. c1965
According to the article, this was the first Mexican consul in Rhode Island (the only other one in New England was then and still is located in Boston). By the mid-1930s there was no mention of a Mexican Consulate office in Providence, so it is assumed that Mr. Burchell no longer felt the need to keep it open. Research shows that to date, that has been the only Mexican consul in the Rhode Island.

The International Institute of Rhode Island (IIRI) was founded in 1921 with the mission of providing social services to Rhode Island’s fast-growing immigrant population. The archives of this organization reveal the existence of El Club Panamericano, a social club whose members represented various countries in The Americas. In 2020, individuals with personal stories came to light about a small enclave of professionals, mainly physicians, who came to Rhode Island from Spanish-speaking countries and El Club Panamericano at the IIRI became their second home.

Similarly, the archives of the Providence Catholic Diocese also show that Hispanics not only formed a number of Church-centered social clubs, but also received services through the Catholic Diocese, such as [English] language training and settlement assistance. The Diocese went further by opening
the first Hispanic community center and social service agency in the city of Providence in the 1970s. The agency hired a Latina as director, and the offices were set up on Harvard Street, off of Broad Street in South Providence.


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