Latinos in Rhode Island

CUBANS | Nerino Sánchez

City Life Cuban native's hard-work ethic wins

Providence Journal – October 15, 1984 • by Robert Chiappinelli
The Tropical Food Market is a modest place, a tired red brick building in which stacks of cardboard cartons line windows overlooking Elmwood Avenue.

It seems a strange shelter for the American Dream.

Inside, Nerino Sánchez, 52, works away, as he has nearly every day since he arrived here from Cuba, in 1969.

"I work for almost 15 years," he said, sweeping his hand across that span of time. "I never, no vacation."

He is a trim man, brown-eyed with wavy gray hair trained neatly into place. He speaks softly and gestures occasionally to hurdle the obstacles English has placed in the way of his Spanish-speaking heritage.

"My best interest is my daughters," he said. "I want to make something." He made a fist as he does periodically. His fists speak not of power but of perseverance.

Sánchez opens his market seven days a week, 52 weeks a year - from 9 to 4 Sundays and from 9 to 8 Mondays through Saturdays. Sometimes holidays, too.

"I work hard all the time," he said. A fist.

Spanish comic books rest hard by TV Guide, pizza strips beside Choco Chips, tropical juices by custom iron cookware.

"Very hard," he said. "No easy life."

Yet Sánchez feels that life here has been good. He arrived penniless in Miami in 1969, fed up with the rationing and communism of Castro's Cuba. Soon he joined relatives in Providence.

He worked 80-hour weeks in a factory for more than a year, then opened a small store on Douglas Avenue. Five years ago he sought a better store and bought his present operation.

His girls, Lidia and Vivian, helped in his old store as they grew up. But he and his wife always hoped for something better for them. He held his hand below his waist to show how small they were when he and Nerida started having them take piano lessons.

Last year, he said, Lidia - a graduate of the New England School of Law - became the state's first female Hispanic lawyer.

"That must have been a wonderful time for you," I said. He bowed his head. "Yeah, good time," he said softly.

"The other one is finished next year the medical school," he added. Vivian was due home last night from the Dominican Republic to interview for a hospital residency.

I asked him about the expense of helping his daughters through St. Mary's School, the University of Rhode Island and law and medical school.
"I put all the money I make really," he said but then shyly waved away the question.

"Five good students," Sánchez said, by way of quietly boasting of Vivian's academic standing. "She one."

Nerida speaks little English, but her maternal pride leaped the language barrier as her husband spoke of their children. "My daughters very good estudiante, estudiante," she said. She, too, made a fist.

She told of Vivian's recent words of gratitude: "Mommy, me finish, no more work, you and father vacation."

When I spoke to Lidia later, she said her parents should retire. But she knows her father is too much of a workaholic for that.

"Maybe someday," Sánchez said when I asked him about slowing down.

Now, with the second of their daughters about to make her way in this country, he and Nerida share the unending days in their store.

Cartons cram its aisles, and it looks not at all like the brightly lighted caverns of its modern counterparts. But Sánchez feels that there is a special closeness.

"The people come, and you feel maybe it's family," he said. "It's the same people. I Christian. I love everybody."

In the background, an English-speaking customer tried to explain what she wanted to Mrs. Sánchez. "Razor blades," she said. "You shave with them."

The message got through. The day went on. The Sánchez' love endured.

They lived near each other in Cuba, went to school together. T hey wed 29 years ago, and Mrs. Sánchez cherishes the day.

"I love my husband," she said. "He husband for me."

He spoke of the blessings of his life, his family and a constitution that has allowed him to go years without a sick day.

"I thank God, you know," Sánchez said. "He gave me good health."

A century ago, waves of Italian and Irish immigrants made their way up the ladder here. Now newer people occupy the rungs. But they still ascend on 80-hour weeks and dreams of better things, a new army, with fists of perserverance, making the American dream their own.

As Nerino Sánchez says: "Is my country now." ◼︎
Chiappinelli, Robert. "City Life Cuban native's hard-work ethic wins opportunity for daughters." Providence Journal (RI), ALL ed., sec. NEWS, 15 Oct. 1984, pp. C-01.
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