Nuestras Raices | Rhode Island

The types of stories we tell about Latinos are important

Pictured Above: Tomás Avila, Victor Capellán, Patricia Martínez, Alida Balderra, Lydia Pérez, Norelys Consuegra, Delia Masjoan-Rodríguez, Marta V. Martínez, Mercedes “Betty” Bernal, Juán Pichardo. Photos by Salvatore Mancini • 2001
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Collecting our history is incredibly important for me because we, as Latinos, rarely are given the opportunity to share our history and to tell our story. My hope is for the younger generations to learn about all the successes that Latinx individuals have had in this country. However, Latinos must also talk about their struggles and push for programming or share stories that reflects our true history, stories about historical challenges or difficulties.
Marta V. Martínez, Founder of Nuestras Raíces and Community Oral Historian

The types of stories we share as Latinos are important

Every year beginning on September 15th, Rhode Island like other states around the country joins the month-long celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15). However, and in all transparency as the founder of Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration in Rhode Island (1988), I have another concern: in an effort to make it more palatable or commercially viable, the media too often focuses on uplifting and positive art-forms that make us feel good, while the stories of struggle, oppression, prejudice and injustice are whitewashed or ignored. It’s easy to do a feel-good story than to take the time to intentionally learn and then highlight the significant successes and historical contributions to the state by Latino Rhode Islanders.

The U.S. public education system does such a poor job of teaching Latino history in this country, and often Hispanic Heritage Month is the only opportunity for many students to learn about it, and that is a real shame. Why not highlight programming or write stories that reflects our true history, stories about historical challenges or difficulties? You cannot assume that Latinos already know about the lynchings in South Texas in the 1910s, the Zoot Suit Riots, about Mendez v. Westminster; the Chicano-led high school walkouts of the 1960s that permanently changed higher education enrollment for Latino students or the school segregation of Latino kids right here in Rhode Island.

Approached in the right way, even these stories can be ultimately seen as uplifting because the historic struggles of Chicanos, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans and other Latinos are uplifting stories. For only through those struggles have we been able to achieve more social justice in this country.

Today and moving forward, as we think about Hispanic Heritage Month in Rhode Island, I am proposing that Latinos push for the observance during the month of September as Latino History Month as a way to provide a deliberate opportunity to reflect on the common humanity underlying all people, and to raise awareness and foster respect for the heritage and contributions of people of Latin-American and Caribbean descent.

Here are some facts: American Hispanic/Latino history is rich, diverse and long, with immigrants, refugees and Spanish-speaking or Indigenous people living in the United States since long before the nation was established. Latino Americans bring with them traditions and culture from Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other Latin American and Iberian nations. America’s Hispanic population continues to grow, reaching a record 62.5 million in 2020, or 18.7 percent of the U.S. population.
Between 2010 and 2022, the Hispanic/Latino population had the most growth increasing by 59,897 from 132,083 in 2010 to 191,980 in 2022, which means 17.6 percent of residents here are people of color who identify as Latino/Latina/Latinx or Hispanic heritage, including several racial and ethnic groups. More than 14% of Rhode Island’s workforce is Latino, 48% are Providence residents and almost half of Latino children live in a home where English is not the first language. The Rhode Island Latino population is mainly of Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage, followed by Guatemalan, Mexican, and Colombian. Not only that, but every single Central and Latin American (plus Spain and Brazil) country is represented in our state. These statistics are significant, but they don’t describe the true stories that go behind those numbers.

Rhode Island Latino Americans have fought in every war since the World War II. They are business owners and veterans and teachers and public servants, and they form part of the fabric of America. We have participated in every aspect of America's effort to secure, protect, and advance the cause of freedom and civil rights, and have stories that are an inspiration to all citizens, that reflect the triumph of the human spirit, and that offer the hopes of everyday people to rise above both prejudice and circumstance and to build lives of dignity.

In 1988 Heritage Month Celebration Committee (now Rhode Island Latino Arts), launched the first statewide recognition and celebration of “National Hispanic Heritage Week.” Since then, the State of Rhode Island and its residents have recognized Hispanic Heritage Month, and in doing so subconsciously, have continued to celebrate the Latin American ethnic and racial diversity that enriches and strengthens our nation.

Too often the focus of contributions by Latinos is on the musical, culinary, dances or other art-forms that make us feel good, and less emphasis is placed on programming that reflects our history. As an educator and former teacher, I see a U.S. public education system that does not do enough to teach Latino history in this country, and often Hispanic Heritage Month is the only opportunity for any student to learn about Latino history. The people of Latin-American descent or Latin-American Americans have made measurable differences in Rhode Island, in their communities and respective industries and I encourage all Latino American Rhode Islanders to share their own stories, because if we don’t tell our own stories, someone else will.

~ Marta V. Martínez, Community Oral Historian
Nuestras Raices, Founder & Project Director
Nuestras Raíces: The Latino Oral History Project of Rhode Island began in 1991 when I met and recorded the memories of Josefina Rosario who had been co-owner (with her husband, Tony) of Fefa’s Market, the first bodega in Rhode Island. Later, I met with and recorded the voices of many other Latino pioneers, among them factory workers, community activists, social service providers, artists, elected officials, educators and others.

As the project moved forward, I chose to focus on the four largest Latino groups, based on the 1990 Census: Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians and Guatemalans. Twenty years later, the 2010 Census showed that these four groups were still the largest and fastest-growing in the state, and that the overall growth of the Hispanic population was significant compared to the greater population of Rhode Island.

The Spanish word “raíces” means “roots” in English, and this word explains what this project is all about: It is about the history — the beginnings and growth — of the Latino community of Rhode Island. It is about the first Dominican families; the first Colombian mill workers; the first Guatemalan jewelry workers who came to Rhode Island. It is about the first Hispanic physicians to open a health clinic on Broad Street; the first Latino students who enrolled in the public schools; and the first Hispanic police officer in the state. The most important observation I discovered through this project is that until the mid-1950s there was no evidence of significant numbers of Latinos anywhere in the state of Rhode Island!

The life of a long-ago immigrant or a recent arrival to America is a particularly rich topic for exploration through oral history. It is not easy to trace the personal lives of those who first made their way to America as far back as the turn-of-the 20th century, when America and Rhode Island first began receiving countless immigrants from Europe. However, as I set out to do this project, I found it relatively easy to find individuals who came to Rhode Island from Latin-America, and that was because Latinos began arriving and settling here as recently as the 1950s. Today, there are countless Latinos still living in Rhode Island with vivid memories of their first arrival to this state during those early years.

While just a decade ago Rhode Island’s Latino population stood at around 12% of the state. The 2020 Census now shows there are more than 180,000 Latinos or Hispanics in Rhode Island, up more than 50,000 from 2010. The growth in the Latino population is critical for the state’s economic future as its workforce ages, much as it did in the 1960s at the advent of the arrival of waves of Dominicans, Colombians, Guatemalans, and others. History is being repeated in 2022 as we see a graying population with a lot of people going into retirement, especially in the trade.

The Latino community’s continued growth also underscores the importance of investing in Latino youth. We are seeing a Latino population that is younger and while that’s a positive thing, it's critical that the baton passes to them to continue collecting this history, so that we continue to learn from their ancestral stories.

Nuestras Raíces communicates and presents the history of Latinos. But most importantly, will guide the future of Latinos. The stories I've collected showcase the successes and the struggles of the Latino community. I would like to see young people read and remember these stories and have role models they can look up to. This is why I hope to encourage and teach others to continue collecting many more.

Would you like to add your story to this collection? Do you know someone whose story should be in this collection? Fill out the
online form and I'll contact you right away.

- Marta V. Martínez
Community Oral Historian
Nuestras Raices, Founder & Project Director
© All Rights Reserved | Nuestras Raíces: Latino History of RI © | When using materials from this website, please acknowledge by stating the name of the URL of the webpage on which it is displayed. Citations should include full bibliographic information as follows: Courtesy of the Latino Oral History Project of Rhode Island, Central Falls, RI.