Latino Pioneers | Los Pioneros

Victor Mendoza

I first came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1969. I didn’t come here with my family, I came alone. I was 18 years of age and I was looking for something new I could do in my life. I took English classes in the Dominican Republic and I wanted to practice what I had learned, so I traveled to New York. But when I got to New York, I found that New York was, especially in the place where I ended up living, which is 142nd street in upper Manhattan, I found that there was a large Hispanic population there and they all were living together in one part of the city, like a Hispanic city. I knew I had to get out of there because I didn’t come to live in a Hispanic city, I came to live in a place where I could practice my English. So a friend of mine, and one of the few Hispanics who used to live in Rhode Island in the early 1970s, invited me over for the weekend to visit him and his family. I came and saw Providence in 1971, and I really liked it.

At that time, the first thing that I saw was that there were not that many Hispanics, and I liked that because I didn’t want to live in a “Spanish town,” or in a “Spanish neighborhood.” I wanted to live, as I said, in a place where I could practice the English language that I had acquired in the Dominican Republic. So I found Providence to be exactly the place I was looking for: a kind-of American town, small town, not with the high rise buildings and the noise and all of that, like in New York City. So I found that to be very nice, and so I decided to move.

I went back to New York that weekend and then it took me about six or seven months to move and get ready; I had to leave my job and give notice to my apartment landlord, to get ready to move And that’s how I came to Providence. Today, I feel that I have watched the community grow from a group of people to a large Hispanic population, and I participated in that growth.

When I first moved here, I was told that there were some families from Puerto Rico and also from the Dominican Republic—just a few families. They came to Providence attracted by the jewelry industry, and the jewelry industry was very attractive to these people. But, you see, the main thing is that people follow family, that’s the way communities grows, through family reunification. So you follow your cousin and you follow your brother and you follow your compadre, you know, your godfather and stuff like that. And that’s the way that the community has grown in Rhode Island. It's not because they wanted to come to Rhode Island because it's a beautiful place. No, they came because they knew someone here.

Organizing the Community

When I first arrived to Rhode Island, I found a small group of Latinos in Rhode Island who were starting to organize the community back in 1974, and I got involved because I have always enjoyed being involved in community organizing. See, many Latin Americans come from countries where there is conflict, revolutions, protests and dictatorships, so when you come to this country, you come with that mind. Of course, you don’t come here to fight the system, but when you see the injustices around you, you learn that you need to work within the system to fight for your constitutional rights.

By 1976, we organized the first coalition of Hispanic coalition. At that time there were three organizations serving Hispanics. There was a youth organization, called Club Juvenil and Orientación Hispana, which focused on taking care of the elderly population. And the third was Acción Hispana, which was an advocacy group with social workers on call to help Hispanics maneuver the system. Eventually, these three smaller organizations became joined together to become a coalition. This was mainly because we were confronting problems with funding and we could not keep up with the growing needs. When we tried to apply for grants, funding sources made us believe that we were competing with each other for funding, and point-blank told us that they were not going to provide funding until we [Hispanics] organized.

So, we organized and put together a coalition and called it Coalición Hispana, or Coalition of Hispanic Organizations. Coalición became a very strong organization, and I strongly believe that we have not been able to have an organization like that even today, in the year 2000. What made is especially strong is that we had some very dedicated leaders running it, who also represented the diversity in the Hispanic community. There were people like Roberto González, who is now a judge now; Manuel Jiménez, who is now the owner of one of the largest real estate companies in Providence; José González, who is with the Providence school department; and José Alemán, who today is working as an administrator in a high school; and Juán Francísco, who co-founded the coalition and is now a top official at the University of Rhode Island now. Look at the titles of these guys today! These are people who started off as students when we formed Coalición, and look at where they are now!

One thing that stands out for me about that time is that we put aside any differences in our nationality, our Hispanic heritage. I won’t say there was never any friction over that, but we all agreed when it came to forming this coalition that we had to put that aside and work united. One thing I am all about even today is diversity. This is something that I would like people to remember about me, as part of the work that has been done in the Latino community: that I was one individual who has always fought for diversity and for equal opportunity for all.

First Latin American Festival in Rhode Island

I organized the first Latino festival in the state in 1979, it was called the Latin American Festival of Music. It became very well-known not just in Rhode Island, but in the region. We brought out 20,000 people to Roger Williams Park to enjoy Latin-American culture through music, dance, and food. I was the founder and chair at the time of the Hispanic Cultural Arts Committee. Neither group is active today, and we no longer organize the Latin American Festival.

Another cultural organization that now (in 2000) focuses on the promotion of Latin-American literature in Rhode Island is the Annual Latin American Writers Conference, which is a spin-off of the original Hispanic Cultural Arts Committee. I am no longer involved in these committees, but I'm proud to have been the first to bring the cultural arts to the forefront in the late 1970s and early 80s to the state.


Stacks Image 2517