Olga Escobar

Olga [Escobar] Noguera

I was born in Guatemala, in Puerto Barrios. It is located at the mouth of Lake Isabal and the state by the same name. After a year I moved to a place called Zacápa, where my grandparents come from, and that’s the place where I grew up. had two children when I lived [in Guatemala]. I worked for the labor department and one of things that I noticed when I was working there was that there was a company in Guatemala that came to establish a kind of contract business, and the only place that you can have a contract with Guatemala was through the labor department. [While I was there] this friend showed me a letter from a family in Wayland, Massachusetts that said they needed someone to take care of a two-month old baby. So when she decided not to take the job, I was like kidding when I said ‘If you don’t go I’ll go.’ So then I decided to go and talk to my grandmother, my mother and aunts and uncles. My grandmother said ‘You go and fly if you think that that is the best for you and your kids.’ So when I had the support of my family, I decided to go. And I do not think that I am a specific case, I think that we are thousands and thousands of immigrants who do that, who leave the children behind. Particularly the people who have to save lives, they will leave the children behind, they will not expose the children to the frontiers or whatever. That is the reason why I came because I had the support of my family. I had someone to take care of my kids.

So, I came [to work for] the family [in Wayland], the Sherman family. We wrote in English. I had a friend named Stella at the place where I used to teach short hand and typing. Stella spoke English fluently and she used to write the letters for me. So I sent a letter saying that so-and-so decided not to come, and she asked me if I wanted to do it and I said yes, that I was willing to come and work for her. And it’s funny when you are not familiar with English names because I didn’t translate the names and I knew that there was a Lawrence and a Catherine, and I didn’t know which one was Lawrence and which one was Catherine – if Catherine was a female or male and if Lawrence was a female or male. I used to write to Lawrence Sherman and I used to say madam, [laugh] I didn’t know that Lawrence was a man, Lawrence was Lorenzo, and Catherine was Catarina. So that was a piece that was funny.

The other piece that is funny was that when I came here, it was August of 1967 when I came to Logan, when at Logan Airport you had to walk to the plane, and it was so hot in the middle of August and I had a coat on. I didn’t know English, but I remember that Mrs. Sherman asked me ‘Oh! Is it cold in Guatemala?’ and I said ‘Yes, it is cold in Guatemala.’ Because my friend told me that it was [usually] very cold in Boston! And so that is how much I knew about Boston! So that is the reason why I came here and how I came here.

I worked for this family for a while, then left and I began to work in a factory. I worked there days and nights, cleaning buildings, I worked there for a very long time. I used to sell Avon, I used to do a lot of things. I realized that working and working would not take me anywhere, so I decided that I needed to go back to school. So I quit my job in the evening and went to school at night.

A friend of mine that was Cuban said to me one day that there were programs where you could work part time and the state would pay the difference making the same amount of money as if you were working full time while you went to school. I went and applied, I was lucky to get a job in this packing place, actually they packed jewelry, they sold a lot of jewelry that came from Rhode Island, and it was interesting that the first place that I saw the name Rhode Island was in the packing company. I graduated from that school. The school opened another center and I began as the secretary, I was hired as the secretary of the principal of that school. And I think that was for me the opportunity to be active. Even though I had been here from 1967-1969, I went to school for two years, I advanced with English a lot faster, I was in school for seven hours…that was a big, big break for me. I began to do a lot of advocacy for the students, it was a vocational school in South Boston.

Rhode Island

I met my second husband there. He was Colombian, and we came to visit his brother in Rhode Island, and my brother-in-law helped my husband get a job where he was working. So we decided to move [from Wayland] to Boston and we married there, in Cambridge Massachusetts. My daughter was born there on July 24th, and then I came to work for a cable company in Pawtucket, Carol Cable was the name of the company.

My husband and I eventually separated, and at that time I was already in the process of bringing my sons from Guatemala. It took a lot of for me to bring my kids here because I was receiving public assistance. I was glad that I had a good relationship with the place that I worked, because they said that I could continue working there. That helped me a lot to bring my kids from Guatemala. So my kids came.

When I was in Rhode Island, I began to interpret for many people at employment offices, hospitals so people paid me. I met this physician and his wife is from Honduras and he said ‘Why don’t you do some cleaning?’ So I decided to do some of those things and that is what I did. And then I decided that I was going to go to school. I had a good friend, Carol Shelton, wife of Henry Shelton. I used to baby-sit her two children once in a while because she was going to Boston to finish her Master’s Degree and she needed help. One day she said to me, ‘Olga, why don’t you go back to school?’ So I decided to go back to school and I received my Associates Degree in education and social services. But before that I became active in the Columbian community, in [a group called] Acción Hispana in Central Falls, and that is how I begun my activism in Rhode Island in 1978-79.

Later I went to work for one of the health service centers here in Rhode Island, and one of the things that I noticed was that there weren’t many Hispanics coming to the [health] center, even though there were [many of them] in the community. So I talked to the director about it and she said she also was surprised that a lot didn’t come to the clinic for services. I remember asking ‘Why don’t you let me go to the bus, to the church?’ One of the things that I began to do was work with Acción Hispana (what is now Progresso Latino) and I began to do a lot of things. I would go to the churches and call friends and ask them: ‘Why don’t you come to the center?’—it was a health center in the Pawtucket area. There were two, we had one on Lonsdale [Avenue], and one on Newport Avenue. I used to work in the one on Lonsdale. I called [Colombian] people that I knew didn’t have insurance, and I would say ‘You know they have special services that will check your blood pressure and sugar level, you should check it out.’ People soon began to use the center. I think I was the first Hispanic to work there.

From there I went to work for the New England Farm Workers Council. I worked with a lot people who came to work in the farms, that came to Exeter, Newport, Jamestown. I provided clothes and food they were entitled to, food stamps, I took them to the food stamp office and that is how I began to get involved. From there I also worked at the Blackstone Valley Community Action. That’s how I got active [in the community]. But I think that my activism was mainly related to the way that I was treated as a single parent, when there were many places that didn’t want to rent to me because I had two boys and a baby girl; or they were teenagers or I was a woman living alone or on public assistance. There were some people that were very impolite. There was a woman who threw the door in my face.

There are things that I never forgot. So I began to be very active with Acción Hispana and Blackstone Valley, and that is when we started the Hispanic Social Services Committee, in Providence [HSSC].

The Hispanic Social Services Association is Born

The reason why this group [HSSC] was formed was because there were many Spanish speaking, bilingual people who work in an English only environment. We were the only ones that deal with the non-English-speaking persons. So we would get together to support each other and to support this community. So we invited the gas company, we invited a lot of companies and asked why they didn’t have anyone who spoke Spanish in their companies. They said ‘Well we don’t need anybody, we don’t have anyone that comes and asks for services.’ We said the opposite, ‘Well if you don’t have anybody that speaks the language then nobody will come.’ And I think we did a good job, and that is why the gas company and the electric company have bilingual people working there.

A year later, in 1980 the Hispanic Social Services Committee became the Hispanic Social Services Association (HSSA) and under the leadership of board members, Cynthia García-Col and Ralph Rodríguez, we incorporated, we created by-laws, became of 401(c)(3) and hired our first Program Director. In 1988, when Juanita Sánchez was our Board Chair, Marta V. Martínez became the first Executive Director, and she led the organization until it became CHisPA (Center for Hispanic Policy & Advocacy). I remember the first project that we did was to develop a relationship with schools and Beatrice Ortíz was the coordinator of that project. It was very successful, and the percentage of [Hispanic] parents in schools increased from nothing to 80%. The other project that we did was we began to do the education on AIDS, health issues but mainly on AIDS.

I think that we have done so much with the Hispanic community that people who come now should be very proud of the people who opened roles. There is still a lot of work to do because of discriminations and racism, but I think that we made a lot of strides and I think that we need to encourage young persons to participate in the Hispanic community, and I think that we have a large segment of the population that are young, that are very, very much interested in improving this situation in Rhode Island.

The Guatemalan community [when it first began to grow in the 1980’s] in Rhode Island was a very quiet community, and people didn’t know how many Guatemalans were here. I don’t know if it is part of the culture or it is part of the oppression that we lived under that we were not encouraged to participate in any gatherings. I think I mentioned earlier that the only gatherings were in the church and with family. But in the eighties I think we began to see a big influx of Guatemalans that came into Rhode Island. The reasons why in the eighties—even though in the late '60s and '70s many people came from Guatemala—was because there was a large portion of people that moved outside of Guatemala, they moved into Mexico. I think in the United States we have close to one million Guatemalans that live here. But in Rhode Island, I think that the reason why a lot of people moved here was because of the jewelry district and through the churches—we have some ministers that are from Guatemala and I think that is why so many people moved here. But the reasons for the movement in the '80s was because Lucas García, who was the president of Guatemala, did a golpe de estado (a coupe). This was the most oppressive government that we had. People were persecuted for all kinds reasons—students, social workers, churches, Mayan people almost everybody. It was because of the war.

Today, the Guatemalan community is still very isolated. There are pockets of populations that are active in the churches, like they did in Guatemala, but active, active members, there are very few Guatemalans active in the community. Right now we have Juan García who is working with the amnesty at St. Theresa’s Church. David Quiroa is working in Newport, also began to do the work in the church. Even though they do a lot of work in the community, they continue to work out of the church. We have a lot of Guatemalatecos in Guatemaltecos Unidos en Acción (GUA), which began to do some work by starting a petition educating the Guatemalan community about their rights. GUA did a lot of work in that part of education from 1982-1988, we did a lot of education. We were able to have the cooperation between the churches, the social catholic services to do the education in the churches because that was the only way people would go to the meeting or to the schools. It would have to be a neutral place. But we have people from Guatemala like Astrid Toledo, who is worked for the Rhode Island Foundation. And we have others organizations, I think that we have GAARI, (Guatemalans American Association of Rhode Island), that is another organization. Mainly business people belong to GAARI, and I see the name in there (points to open project on Rhode Island’s Guatemalans). I think that the person who started that organization passed away, Don Carlos Toro. I think that it is a good sign that Guatemalans are getting together and being active in the capacity that they have to be.

I think that one of the things that we have to do as a community is understand each other, but also I think that we need to respect each other. I think that we will be able to cross the boundaries that we have as a Hispanic, all the differences between the Dominican, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Peruvians… you know there has to be a time when we come together as a unit without forgetting the other people’s values, and reasons for being here. That is what should happen in the Guatemalan community.

Interview by Mónica Lucéro
July 13, 2000