Nuestras Raices | Rhode Island

| Political Organizing

The political arm of the Latino community was also being strengthened through Coalition activity. In the late 1970s, ties to the bureaucracy and service institutions of the state were soon supplemented with ties to the elected officials who appointed bureaucratic leaders and made policy. In keeping with the clientele-focused atmosphere of urban politics, political consciousness took on a certain savvy. Bonds were formed with elected officials on the part of a select group of leaders while votes were promised in exchange for concrete benefits and temporary empowerment. Latino politicians had situated themselves at the periphery of the political arena as power brokers, conduits of power between that arena and the community itself.
“So that’s how our whole experience began, and that Coalición was how we got to be in touch with the political system and realize that we needed to protect ourselves. And so we began to …stick our head out, so to speak, into the political landscape…”
Juan Francisco interview, 2000

The political landscape of the 1970s was on the most local level, the patronage based on the context of Democratic ward politics. Lloyd Griffin, who was one of two ward councilmen in that area, dominated the ward encompassing much of the Latino community. His political machine both limited access and provided a strong model for the ins and outs of political execution. The value of a nascent Latino voting bloc as the building blocks of political power were often exchanged for token gestures of limited representation and access.

But something was lacking with this arrangement. True political empowerment meant direct access to services and not indirect benefits through a tenuous patron-client relationship. The evolving and hungry Latin American political community wanted independent, sustainable power within the political arena – not just outside of it. Institutional representation meant using not just political savvy, but also clout to secure substantive appointments within the public-service institutions.

Vincent “Buddy” Cianci first successfully ran for mayor of Providence in 1975 on the Republic ticket and had managed to co-opt the Democratic machine. Despite opposition from the existing black politicians, the bond between Mayor Cianci and the Latino coalition leadership yielded the community’s first political appointment, that of Roberto González to the Providence School Board in 1978. Unfortunately, the strength of the Coalition was to be dismantled only a year later. From most accounts, the demise of the Coalition was a matter of ego, both organizational and individual. The semi-independent structure lent itself quite easily to intra-organization competition within the central board of the coalition. The election of Manuel Jiménez as director of the entire coalition caused resentment on the parts of those who felt underrepresented. According to some, a certain political immaturity and inexperience with the democratic consensus decision making of a committee only worsened matters.

The dismantling of the Coalition meant the fragmentation of the organized Latino political community. Orientación Hispana and Club Juvenil were the fist casualties of the break-up. Co-founders and Colombian community organizers took the services of Acción Hipana to Central Falls in the late 1970s, where it eventually incorporated and made the transformation in 1977 into Progreso Latino. This fragmentation and subsequent retreat caused an organizational vacuum of sorts. By early 1980, Coalición Hispana ceased to exist, and that same year, the Hispanic Social Services Committee (HSSA) was formed.
Not everyone felt that the closing of the Coalition was a total loss. According to another early activist, it was the beginning of what he felt was "destiny:"
The consolidation of Latino political consciousness and gains in access in the late 1980s, however, were not to be lost so early. The State Senatorial campaign of Charles Walton against Lloyd Griffin possessed heavy Latino involvement. People were registered to vote and informed of the issues as Walton was introduced to the community. The increased activity of HSSA managed to secure a position for newly-arrived Dr. Pablo Rodríguez within the Rhode Island Department of Health. Overall, pressure for access and representation-services and jobs within the bureaucracy was maintained.

The campaigns of J.Joseph Garrahy and Richard Licht for Governor and Lieutenant Governor respectively, secured the appointment of Margarita Baez (one of the founders of HSSA) to a state level position. For many years she was the only Latina with access to the state house. When the leaders wanted to be appraised of what bill was on the floor and who needed to be lobbied, the information was communicated through Margarita. Later appointments of Olga Noguéra to the Rhode Island Department of Human Services, Victor Mendóza to the Personnel Department and Juan Francísco to the Providence School Board further strengthened the institutional representation of Latinos in the political arena.
"When [Coalición] finally closed down it almost splintered. When I 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. One group went to a building on Niagara Street in Providence and established themselves as a Puerto Ricans organization. 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."
Roberto González, 2007
NOTE: The story does not end here. We will continue to delve more into the history of activism and political participation among Latinos in Rhode Island from the 1960s to the present. If you know anyone who can be considered a "Pioneer" and has a story to share from that era, please contact us via this link.

Excerpts taken from oral histories conducted by Kristin Bergantz,
Peter Kim, Adam Lelyveld, Mónica Lúcero, Indira Stewart
and Elizabeth-Ann Tierney.
Edited by Marta V. Martínez

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