Roberto González

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Roberto González

Roberto González moved to Rhode Island from New York City in 1969 with his brother, José. After being invited here to visit, their mother decided to bring the family (including a third brother) to raise them in what she felt was a safer environment. Roberto eventually became the first Latino Judge in Rhode Island - sworn into the Providence Housing Court in 2004.
My aunt on my father’s side, Tía Inocencia, was the first one in our family that came to Rhode Island in the mid-1960’s. And the way she came was through her husband, who was in the Navy; he got transferred to the Newport Naval Base. I remember that he and his entire family lived in the Newport Naval Projects, where the Navy men and their families were stationed.

During that time, we would come and visit occasionally. We noticed back then that there was a number of Hispanic, mostly Puerto Rican families living in Newport. We learned that some came through the Navy, and some through their association with the nursery owners or farmers, who would recruit Puerto Rican and bring them to Newport sometime around the 1950’s and 60’s to work in Middletown and Portsmouth.
So in school, I’ll never forget, my first experience was going into the cafeteria, and seeing that students sitting on one half of the cafeteria were White, and the other side they were Black … almost as if there was a line going down the middle.
So my aunt moved here with her family in the early 1960s, and there were about six or seven cousins, and we would come and visit. And coming from Brooklyn, NY - where we lived at the time - to Newport with its beaches, and it’s a very tranquil environment. It was very attractive to my family.

My Aunt bought a wonderful old, Victorian, triple-decker—it was on the corner of Messer and Wood St. in Providence. It was a huge house and it had an apartment, and my Aunt offered it to my mother. She said, “Why don’t you come? We have an apartment for you. There’s plenty of jobs in the textile industry…” which back then, was a pretty strong industry, along with the jewelry industry. So knowing there were jobs and good opportunities here [in Rhode Island], my family moved here.

Once we moved to Rhode Island, we joined three of my aunts [my mother’s sisters] who were already here, so it was nice to be reunited with all of them. One of the interesting things about one of my mother’s sister’s–that’s my aunt Delia—is that she was very active in New York with the Pentecostal Church. So when Delia moved here, she and her husband just about brought a whole congregation with them and established a church here in Rhode Island. This was some time in the mid-60’s so I do believe it was the first Hispanic church in Rhode Island. I don’t remember there being an earlier one than that one.

Our home, on Messer Street, was in the West End of Providence, on the Cranston St. side. At that time, the neighborhood was predominantly Irish. And on the West Minister side, it was predominantly Italian. So we were kind of right in the middle of the Italian and Irish communities. And not too far, a couple of more streets over, you have Elmwood Ave and Broad St., which were predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Black or White?

I remember, I’ll never forget my first day in school. Wow, what an experience that was! My brother, José, and I went to Central High School; I entered as a Senior and José was in 10th grade. And back during that era, there were race riots going on. There was the infamous riot at Hope High School the year before that. And there was still a lot of that percolating, if you will. So in school, I’ll never forget, my first experience was going into the cafeteria, and seeing that students sitting on one half of the cafeteria were White, and the other side they were Black … almost as if there was a line going down the middle.

And here is the dilemma I had: Where do I sit? And, the truth is, coming from New York I felt like I had more in common with the Black students. I just felt a comfort zone with the Black students there than with the White students, who I didn’t really know much about.

And I remember sitting there, and someone approached me and asked me, “Hey, who are you? Where you from? Are you Portuguese?” And I said, “Well, my name is Roberto González.” He says, “Oh, Gonsalves.” I said, “No, Gonzalez.” He says, “You mean ‘Gonsalves.’ That’s the way we say it around here.” And I later found out that there’s a huge Cape Verdean community in this area, and of course the Cape Verdean and the Portuguese communities do pronounce and spell the name “González” differently.

So then the next thing I found out was that there was going to be a huge fight after school, and students were trying to find out whose side we were going to be on: mainly, were we gonna be on the Black side or on the White side? And then I later find out that you have to be careful what door you even exit the school from: are you going to exit on the White side, or on the Black side? So that was my first experience in Rhode Island, it was essentially like a race riot type of scenario. A powder keg, if you will.
I was not in any way prepared … that was my first kind-of awkward experience. And we definitely didn’t fit in. I mean, the way we dressed, you could tell that we were different. And everything about us was just different. But we quickly made friends.

There were probably six Latinos at Central High School back then. Luis Del Rio was already there. Luis, of course, is now a policeman. Juan Francisco, who’s now a minister, was also at Central High School. And there were a couple of others who today are still quite active in Latino affairs.

One interesting thing I should say is: When I left New York, I was going to Stuyvesant High School, which is one of the top schools in New York City. There are probably three very well-known high schools for their academic rigor in New York: Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Tech. So I had a very solid academic background. And when I came to Central, I found out there were very few courses that I could take that were at that level.

So I ended up taking my classes at Classical, and graduating from Central. And the reason I had to graduate from Central and not Classical was because Classical had a Latin requirement, and I didn’t have Latin. Because I had transferred as a Senior. So I couldn’t graduate without that Latin requirement. I ended up taking math and science at Classical, and my other classes at Central, and graduating from Central.

So that was my year at Central; I don’t think there was one other Hispanic graduating with me. I was the only Hispanic that graduated 1969. So, from there I went to URI. I was accepted into the Talent Development (TD) Program.

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