Nuestras Raices | Rhode Island

Roberto González ... continued

Photo Above: The first Latin American Student Organization (LASO) at Rhode Island College was formed in 1972 by brothers Roberto and José González
At URI, I felt totally alienated. Back then, the only Hispanics at URI were kids that were recruited for sports from New York City: mainly basketball. My roommate was a basketball player, he was a Puerto Rican, from New York. And then, I had another Puerto Rican friend who was recruited onto the track team. So, yeah, but other than that, there were no other Hispanics that I can remember.

There were a number of Rhode Islanders that went into the Talent Development Program, which was in its second year. TD was almost like an affirmative action program for the university. This was the time when Martin Luther King had just been killed, and the whole Civil Rights Movement had begun to see some of its - the results of the struggle. So there was a heightened awareness, if you will, of inclusiveness into the universities and things like that. Except that institutions weren’t ready. It was as if society was saying, “Well, you gotta include,” but the institutions weren’t ready. So I went to URI and it was like I was in another world.

For example, there was the cafeteria, where the only thing they served were your traditional macaroni and cheese, and things like that. So I had a strong desire to come home and eat [food I was familiar with]. And I wasn’t allowed to go off campus, so it was an immediate conflict right there.

While I did well academically but I think I suffered emotionally and in other ways, and I ended up leaving URI after my 3rd semester. Back in those days, there was, of course, the end of the Vietnam War. I was also fearful of having to go and fight in a war that I was philosophically opposed to, so I remember, after I left URI, one of the things I was attracted to was some kind of community service.

In order to avoid the draft, and to do some community service, I joined the Vista Volunteer Service, which was a program like the Peace Corps that trained you, and once you were trained, you were placed with a community agency to work for the community. And I got lucky, and so did José, because José had almost the same trajectory that I had. We were placed to work at an agency down on Cranston Street with a gentleman by the name of Charlie Fortes. Charlie Fortes was an old, Cape Verdean, merchant marine and a community organizer.

And if you get to find out something about Charlie Fortes, it’s that he was probably one of the best community organizers that Rhode Island has ever seen. He was from the old Saul Alinsky school of community organizing, the “in-your-face” type: picketing, raising a closed fist that was meant to embarrass the corporations, the institutions that we felt were discriminating ... and things like that. Charlie had worked with the Martin Luther King movement and he had a wealth of experience and knowledge. So he took us under his tutelage, you could say, and trained us to work on behalf of the Hispanic community. He was very astute because he saw that the Hispanic community was a growing community, even back then when there were few of us. And he knew that it would be important to include the Hispanic community in the whole Civil Rights Movement. So, he got us going. And we did that for two years.

Early Community Organizing

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Roberto (pictured above-left) as a VISTA Volunteer and Coordinator of Upward Bound at Rhode Island College, with Emilio Matos.
My early involvement with the Hispanic community was with a group out of Central Falls called Acción Hispana, and we would meet in a church basement. And the format we used was quite simple: People were invited, if they had a problem, to come and to state their problem. So every week, they would have this meeting and there would be between 5 - 10 people sitting at the table. And these people had different contacts. Some of them may have worked in a government office. Some of them may have worked in the areas of unemployment, or social services, etc.

And the person would come and say, for example: “Well, my child, I can’t get him into the school,” and the group would, right away, have a discussion, and come up with some kind of an action plan. It was all action-orientated: you identify the problem, and solve it immediately.

Then there was another group meeting in Providence [in 1970], and they eventually got some funding and started the Latin American Community Center, which was located over on Harvard Street. The group hired a director and they had a physical office where people could come and get some help. And the way they worked is, that they would try to get government agencies to have a representative there at certain hours of the week. So if, for example, somebody came in and said, “Hey, look, I’m having trouble finding a job,” they would say, “Well, come back on Thursday in the afternoon, the unemployment representative for the state will be here.” Or if people had a problem with social services, there’d be a social service person available to help. And that was the way that organization worked.

I was stationed there to help with community organizing and things like that: getting the word out, trying to do whatever I could and whatever was needed. But, eventually the funding dried up and the Latin American Community Center closed.

After that, we formed the Coalition of Hispanic Organizations, or as we called it “Coalición.” We had representatives from Pawtucket, Central Falls area, and also different groups representing different interests. For example, there were groups that just were interested in doing sports programs for the community—the soccer leagues, the baseball leagues, for example. There were groups that just wanted to do beauty pageants. There were groups that just wanted to do a parade.
Then there were individuals who wanted to get into the political end of things, which is what I was interested in: community and political issues. So under one umbrella, we managed to bring everyone together, mainly for the purposes of getting some funding. And then we got a location over on Broad Street, a storefront. That was the first office of Coalición and it lasted for three or four years.
What happened [when some of the thriving organizations run by Hispanics closed], was what naturally happens when funders don’t understand a community and attempt to dictate what they believe is best for them: things just fell apart.
And when that organization finally closed down – I wanna say that was in about 1979 – it almost splintered. Actually, whenI think of it, the Coalition may have ended, but the different groups started to take on lives of their own, like children growing up and developing. So, one group went to the Casa Puerto Rico building on Niagara Streeet in Providence and established themselves there. Another group went to work with the Dominican community. Another group started doing the parade, etc. So, in essence, Coalición didn’t actually die, but I think what happened was that everything became what they were destined to be. I mean, what funders like the United Way wanted at the time was to put all of these groups under one umbrella, to unify them under one purpose. But, as I saw it, it was just not feasible; it doesn’t work that way. And I think what happened was what naturally happens when funders don’t understand a community and attempt to dictate what they believe is best for them: things just fell apart.
So that’s how some of the organizations that still exist today were created. Because I remember, from that came Progreso Latino. And the Hispanic Social Services Committee (HSSC) went off on its own, and then later became HSSA CHisPA. And other groups were formed, like Casa Puerto Rico, too. Yes, so the individual people that were involved early on with the Coalition stayed involved in other efforts and endeavors.

So all that movement among Hispanics goes up to right about 1979. And back then, one of the biggest concerns was getting representation at the government level: getting people to get into important jobs, getting people on commissions, getting people elected. So that was a big, big spinoff from the Coalition. And in fact, a lot of the people that were involved with the Coalition ended up getting politically involved in one way or another.

Political action groups formed, such as the Hispanic Political Action Committee, and there was the Puerto Rican Political Action Committee: Jorgie Sánchez, Tito Matos, Lydia Rivera and others. I remember the group eventually went from getting people out to vote, and getting involved in candidates’ campaigns, to actually doing more of the: “Well, we wanna meet with all the candidates, and get their positions, and tell them what we need,” and such. And towards its later years, that’s what was happening. They were having meetings where they were bringing the candidates and having community forums. And I remember going to some of these forums where they would get a dozen cases of beer to attract people, get some food out, and then they would invite the candidates to come and talk to the group. The room would be packed with Hispanics and the candidates took notice.

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