Latino Pioneers | Los Pioneros

Juán Francísco

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I came originally from the Dominican Republic [with my family], by way of New York City, and then to Rhode Island. We lived in New York for a year and a half, or so. My experience in New York went beyond what I want to refer to as “culture shock.” My family and I came from a relatively quiet type of setting [in the Dominican Republic] and what we found in New York was very disturbing: violence and drugs, and substandard housing and living conditions.

We moved to Providence after making the determination that we had to get out of New York. We had some very creative friends among our group that were very systematic about it and they just began to look at different states and to consider different pluses and negatives. Believe it or not, we found Rhode Island was closest to our experience in our native land. Primarily, it was the quietness, but also the pace of life, the beauty of the area, the vegetation, all that.

The first people in my family that came to Rhode Island – I'll call them "explorers" because they really did not know what they were getting into – were my older brother and a friend. They were rough guys, I mean in a sense, you know, they were not afraid to sleep in a parking lot in downtown Providence while they checked out the area. They stayed a few days and they came back to New York they reported such exciting things as the fact that cars actually stopped for pedestrians to cross the streets here!
More importantly, they told us that there was a church, a small Hispanic congregation in Rhode Island. My family is religious, my father was a pastor then, he’s been a pastor all his life. And so my father made contact with the leaders of this small congregation, and they offered to help us relocate.

We arrived in Providence, in about 1969, 1970, and what I quickly found was that people seemed so controlled in the city. What I mean by that is, for example, when the police saw three or four people [of color] standing together on a street corner talking, they would come over and tell us to “disperse!” which meant that we would have to go home on the spot. You couldn’t stay out too late at night or the police would come and bother you, and they’d force you to go home. We were the “newcomers,” as they called it, and they didn’t know quite what to expect from us, so they used that form of control.

During that particular time, the early 1970s, there was a notable exodus from some of the older neighborhoods in Providence, and we saw large numbers of whites begin to move to the suburbs. I noticed then that politics in the Hispanic community were pretty much nonexistent, that all the work in our community was more at the level of community organizations that developed either through the Catholic Church, or in silos, independent movements led by a handful of individuals, and I was one of them.

As Hispanic leaders, we wanted to do something to exert our rights, to advocate and to protect the community on a number of issues that we felt were very important. I was part of a group of Hispanics who met regularly to discuss and attempt to understand how politics worked in Rhode Island, and Providence in particular. Soon, those conversations evolved into a sincere and very genuine desire in me to really make a difference.

The way I did this was by enrolling at Rhode Island College and choosing Latin American Studies as my major, with a minor in political science. I felt a need to have an academic understanding of [community activism], and at the same time, to be directly involved in making change.
During my second year at RIC, I was offered the opportunity to do a work-study project as part of my studies, and I was allowed to do it off campus, in the community. They told me that I could can go into the community and identify some issue and needs within your community where I felt I could make a big difference, and that would serve as my project. This opportunity not only became a good re-entry into my work in the community, but it led to some exciting changes for Hispanics during that time, in which I played a key role.

I refer to my “re-entery” because while in high school, I witnessed the formation of the very first Hispanic organization in Rhode Island: the Latin American Community Center (LACC), which was located on Harvard Street [in South Providence]. It was there that it became clear what the needs were for our Hispanic people. There were very many different people involved at that time, but unfortunately for us, LACC did not last very long. And when I made that re-entry to work with the Hispanic community while at RIC, it was then that the Hispanic Coalition of Organizations came to be, from my perspective.
What we as a group concluded was that these funding agencies were playing games with the Latino community because they were always telling us that the reason that we didn’t get money was that we were always fighting each other.

A Community Organization Is Born

Here’s how it happened. The first thing I did was make an assessment of who was doing the work, what organizations were serving Latinos, and then I made a list. I was amazed at what I learned and what I saw. I found a number of Hispanics really trying to be smart about what they were doing to help their community and who understood the specific needs of each sector of our community. This was because they were already doing the work independently. Despite this, they were being turned away when they sought assistance and could not keep up with the lack of financial support for their work. For example, when they went to the city or to other funding sources to apply for grants, they were told that they shouldn’t come to them independently because they would not receive support that way, that the available funding was strictly for nonprofit organizations. This caused tension among individuals and instead of progress, it sometimes caused matters to stand still. But, more often it felt that we were moving backwards and never forwards.

I met often with leadership of organizations who provide funds for services and I finally concluded was that these funding agencies were playing games with the Latino community. They often brought up that the reason that we didn’t get money was that we were always fighting each other and that we needed to work together, as one voice.

At that point, I went back to the Hispanic leadership, I sat with them and told them what I had observed and learned. And soon, some people began to understand the situation. I suggested then that we collectively meet with funders, but before we do that we all had to be united and come up with the same agenda so we’re all in this together. I was willing to be the spokesperson but felt that if I went as an individual it would be viewed as suspicious, because I personally didn’t feel I spoke for everyone. After much discussion, I suggested that we form one organization to show that we are united, and that the organization be divided into areas or smaller organizations based on what were our needs.

What came out of that is the formation of an organization called Hispanos Unidos de Rhode Island, United Spanish-Speaking People of Rhode Island. I was elected President, the person who was dealing with directing the program, and I also became the coordinator. My job was to serve as a facilitator, to put together all those heads into one to conceive the idea of forming a coalition with the goal of seeking money for Hispanic programs.

Once this was accomplished, our next plan was to collectively approach funders, such as The United Way, the City of Providence, etc. But first, I began to meet with various Hispanic leaders and the boards of various organizations to gain their support, and they began to say, "we like what you’re saying." And we got together and had a meeting, and finally we agreed on the principle of working together, and formed the Hispanic Coalition of Organizations — Coalición Hispana or simply Coalición.

The minute that the United Way heard and the city learned about this group, they sat up in their seats and agreed to meet with us. It was then that we were told that if we continue to go this course that they would provide support to manage our operations as an umbrella organization.

Just like that… boom! Everything fell into place, it just happened at once. We suddenly received the funding we needed, we had space for a community center, we had money for programs, the United Way now was dealing with an organized body of strength and power, and in the end, the Hispanics began to be noticed and we felt that we finally had a place at the table, so to speak.


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