Nuestras Historias

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Our Project Director and her new book featured in the Providence Journal!


Marta V. Martínez, head of Rhode Island Latino Arts, has written "Latino History in Rhode Island: Nuestras Raices," which grew out of an oral history project she started in 1991.

Stories of R.I.’s Latino pioneers told in book, oral history project

Journal Staff Writer

As a girl, Marta V. Martínez would run the couple of blocks to her grandmother’s house, eager to hear her weave stories of her life, family and history.

Martínez grew up in El Paso, Texas, hard against the Mexican border. In those days, she recalls, the border was open and people crossing over would walk through her family’s backyard.

The Martínez family — Marta, her older sister and parents — lived in this border city to Mexico and as a child, in the early 1960s she felt close to her maternal grandmother.

Martínez’s grandmother had lived quite a life. Abigail — Mamá Abi to the grandchildren — had run away from home to be a flapper when she was young and had traveled from Mexico to El Paso to Chicago and back to El Paso. She was a businesswoman, working long hours running four restaurants.

And in
Mamá Abi’s house, Marta would sit at the kitchen table as her grandmother smoked, looked out the window and talked, telling tales about Marta’s great-grandfather and great- grandmother and sharing stories of their family history.

“I knew that she liked telling stories,” says Martínez. “I knew which questions to ask her and then she would just talk.”

“I guess that’s where all this started.”

More than 40 years later, Marta V. Martínez is still collecting stories. And now she is telling them.

Martínez, head of
Rhode Island Latino Arts, has written “Latino History in Rhode Island: Nuestras Raices,” published in August by History Press.

There may be few better to tell that story than Martínez, a central figure in the state’s Hispanic community for more than 25 years. She’s been executive director of the Hispanic Social Services Association and of the Center of Hispanic Policy & Advocacy (CHisPA); cofounder of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs; and founder of the Hispanic Heritage Committee (now
RI Latino Arts), which in 1988 started the state’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15).

In 1991, she started the
Latino Oral History Project of Rhode Island, collecting stories of the pioneers in the Latino communities. The project has conducted 126 interviews since starting, Martínez says.

The importance of the oral histories, which are a large part of her book, struck Martínez from the very first interview of Josefina “Doña Fefa” Rosario, whom Martínez had been introduced to by Hispanic Social Services chairwoman
Juanita Sánchez.

Doña Fefa, who came to the United States in 1949 from the Dominican Republic, and her husband, Tony, owned the first Hispanic market in Rhode Island and sponsored many Dominicans to come to the country. At a time when there were few or no government resources, the Rosarios were a personal social services agency for new arrivals — providing or finding lodging, helping locate jobs, even serving as interpreters.

When Martínez sat down to interview Doña Fefa in 1991, she was fascinated by the “dynamics of the room.” Family filled the room as the matriarch told her story. “That’s one thing when you work with Latinos,” Martínez says with a chuckle — “you have to work with the entire family.”

“So Fefa’s talking and one of her daughters is translating, and the room was dead quiet,” says Martínez. “The kids were just amazed.

“And I’m watching the body language. The kids’ jaws dropped and the daughter was crying. She had heard the stories, but there were certain details that she hadn’t heard.”

Over the years, Martínez used her skills as a journalist (she has a master’s degree from George Washington University) to expand the project, eventually training others to conduct interviews. She also got more structured, checking U.S. Census Bureau data to focus on the four largest Latino groups in the state: Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians and Guatemalans.

The project has since created a website ( to publish the stories. Having read the stories online, people came up to Martínez and encouraged her to write a book, she says, sitting in her Latino Arts office at the Southside Cultural Center on Broad Street in Providence.

The office is decorated with colorful posters for
Latino Arts and has the clutter of a busy workplace. A box on a side conference table is filled with cassette tapes of recorded oral histories. There are plans to digitize the tapes and create an online audio library, Martínez says.

“It was more [about] collecting of the stories,” says Martínez. “I never wanted to write a book. That was never my plan.”

Latino History in Rhode Island tells the story of the arrival of different Hispanic groups, what fueled their emigration from their native countries and their migration to Rhode Island (mostly jobs or to join family). The second half of the book is the oral histories of “The Pioneers,” profiles that also add intimate detail to the overall history.

Before the 1950s, Martínez writes, there was “no evidence of significant numbers of Latinos” anywhere in the state. Some groups started to arrive in the ’60s, but things picked up significantly by the ’80s. The 1970 U.S. Census recorded 7,596 persons of Hispanic background in the state, according to a 2011 Journal story. That grew to 130,655 by 2010, or 12.4 percent of the state’s population.

But Martínez also chronicles the growth of
the Hispanic community as a political power, starting with grassroots social services organizations and progressing to political awareness, and then to electing candidates.

“This project is very important because this is history that no one knows,” says Martínez. “I guess I knew what was happening but I didn’t realize the depth of it.”

But her research was difficult. There was little source material, save for some texts and newspaper archives. At the Rhode Island Historical Society, where she was director of publications, she found little.

“I started to use my journalistic training,” she says. “It was a lot of detective work. When I found something, I tried to find two or three others sources [to verify it].”

But here again, the oral histories showed their importance. The profiles provided an on-the-ground view of the larger story of the arrival of different groups.

“That’s how we [Latinos] share our history,” she says.

Some of her favorite stories from
RI Latino History are the ones that were new to her:

One is the story of the
immigration of Colombians to Central Falls in the 1960s — such as Valentin Ríos and Don Pedro Cano Sr. Both were among workers recruited by Jay Giuttari for his father’s Central Falls textile mill, Lyon Fabrics, which was having trouble finding local labor. The influx helped build Central Falls’ Colombian community.

“I told [Giuttari] you built a community, just as Fefa did,” Martínez says.

Another is the story of the
Operación Pedro Pan flights from Cuba in the early 1960s. More than 14,000 children were taken to the United States amid rumors Fidel Castro’s government planned to take children from their parents and place them in military schools or Soviet camps. About 35 states, including Rhode Island, took in the young children, placing them with relatives, friends or in group homes.

Martínez, who first came to Rhode Island in 1975 to attend Providence College, has worked on many issues in the Hispanic community over the years. Today, she sees many of the same concerns greeting new arrivals — access to services, the need for interpreters in hospitals and courthouses, education issues such as the state’s new high school diploma regulations.

“I think one of the things that I’ve noticed is that history repeats itself,” she says.

The new immigrants arrive and they see a need for change and desire something better for their children, just like those who came before them.

“It’s that sense we bring as immigrants,” she says, “because we want something different.”

“When I talk to some of the pioneers,” she says, “we talk about, ‘Gosh, back in the ’70s, if they only knew what it was like back then.’ I remind them, ‘You had your place in history, you did what you needed to do.

“ ‘And it was because of you that we have the community that exists today, and now it’s their turn to make change.’ ”

Proceeds from copies of Latino History in Rhode Island sold by Marta V. Martínez or by Twice Told Tales, 2145 Broad St., Cranston, will be donated to the Juanita Sánchez Community Fund at the Rhode Island Foundation.

NOTE: Copies are $20 and can be purchased online by clicking here ➤

Marta V. Martínez will discuss her book,
Latino History in Rhode Island, on Saturday at 2 p.m. in the auditorium of the Pawtucket Public Library, 13 Summer St. The discussion will be in English. She will also hold a book talk and signing Thursday, Oct. 23, from 6:30 to 8:15 p.m. in the third-floor meeting room of the Providence Public Library, 150 Empire St.

Hispanic Heritage Month
Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and the Department of Art, Culture and Tourism will host a reception on Tuesday, October 15, 2014 in the Gallery at City Hall to highlight its new exhibit: “SerLieve” by Providence artist Rebecca Flores. The event — at City Hall, 25 Dorrance St., from 5:30 to 8 p.m. — is the closing event of Hispanic Heritage Month.

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December 2014: There will be a book discussion by the author on Wednesday, December 10, 2014 at the Rhode Island Foundation, One Union Station in Providence. The event is FREE and open to the public. Registration and Lunch will begin at 11:30am. The presentation will run from 12:00-1:30pm. Order and pay for an advance copy of the book and pick up at this event, or sign up today and pay in person. Books are $20 and proceeds from the sale at this event will go towards the Juanita Sánchez Fund at the RI Foundation.

Click here for more information ➤