Colombian Immigration to the U.S.

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Like most Hispanic immigrants, Colombians coming to the United States did not start to appear in significant numbers until recent decades. In 1960, fewer than 3,000 Colombians immigrated to the United States, but by 1965, that number had grown to 11,000. Another 65,000 came during the late-1960s, followed by the peak years of Colombian immigration in the 1970s when up to 78,000 made their way to the U.S. In the 1980s, this wave started to taper off, and today a slow but steady stream of immigrant peoples still moves from Colombia to the United States.

While Colombian immigration today may be caused by the recent years of political turmoil and social unrest, the majority of Colombian immigrants came to the U.S. before the so-called “drug wars.” Colombians have a deeply-rooted perception about economic and political opportunities in the United States, which is found to be an important factor for immigration here, more so than war or unemployment back home. Colombians have immigrated to traditional Hispanic destinations such as New York City, Florida and New Jersey, but also to peripheral areas such as Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Colombians in Rhode Island

In this study of the Colombian community of Rhode Island, the City of Central Falls plays a very important role. For it is here that active recruitment of labor by local factories was influential in bringing the large Colombian population to the state. Research on this community shows that this migration to Rhode Island by the Colombians began in 1965, and the history of Colombians in Rhode Island is connected to factories and textile mills in Central Falls.

Central Falls is located north of the City of Providence. It is an area often recognized as the birthplace of the American Revolution, where textiles and factories began to spring up in the 1700s. The first person to bring industry to the region was Samuel Slater, who in 1790 opened the first American cotton-spinning mill in nearby Pawtucket. It was because of Slater’s innovative thinking that countless of future immigrants to this country found themselves quickly settling into life as mill workers in the Blackstone Valley of Rhode Island.

Remarkably enough, almost all of the Colombians who live in Central Falls today come from one of two regions in Colombia: the Antioquia Province, in the central mountainous region, and Baranquilla, located on the Atlantic coast. Antioquia, of which the capital is Medellín, has historically been one of the most developed and industrialized areas of Colombia. As far back as the 1920s, textiles were the biggest manufacturing industry there, besides coffee processing.

The Colombian population in Rhode Island owes its beginnings to one gentleman who, in the early 1960s, had an insightful and innovative idea: Jay Giuttari, whose father owned Lyon Fabrics, a textile mill in Central Falls, was aware that his father, like other mill owners at that time were having a hard time attracting young people to work in textiles. At the turn of the century there were many textile mills and an abundance of workers in the textile business in Rhode Island, but by the early 1960s that was changing. Many of the workers at the mills in Central Falls were aging into their 60s and 70s, and it was rare to see a 20-year-old weaver. Weaving and loom fixing and working in the textile mill were very difficult jobs, and young people preferred jobs that were not so physically demanding.

In the early 1960s, Giuttari was living and working in Colombia and it was then that he saw first-hand the highly skilled work of the textile workers in Barranquilla. Because he understood his father’s predicament and because he understood textiles, he knew where to find weavers and loom fixers in Colombia. He visited one of the mills across from his job site in Barranquilla and recruited three men to work in his father’s mill back in Central Falls. The three men were Gustavo Carreño, Valentín Ríos both in their 20s, and factory supervisor Horacio Gil. All three arrived in Rhode Island in March of 1965. Because these men were already skilled workers who had been working in the textile industry in Colombia, they proved to be excellent workers. According to Giuttari, the idea quickly caught on and many other mills in Central Falls and the Blackstone Valley began to recruit Colombian workers to fill the labor shortage in Rhode Island. In the years that followed, business owners from other mills, such as Pontiac and Cadillac traveled to Medellín and Barranquilla to recruit more workers. It was these men and other workers who followed that stopped the textile business in Rhode Island from fading away in the 1960s.

By the mid-70s, the textile factories stopped recruiting Colombian labor. However, a steady flow of family and friends from Colombia continued to make their way to Rhode Island for the next ten years. Many Colombians began to come to Rhode Island from New York in search of the proverbial peaceful life. Employment opportunities here were good and the promise of a good education, the opportunity to start a business and reunification with family were many reasons for coming to Rhode Island. The promise of jobs were always available to the Colombians who came to Central Falls, and many of the mills employed generations of families because they proved to be hard working and dedicated workers.

In the mid-1980s, however, all that changed when most of the mills and factories began to slow production and the owners were forced to lay off hundreds of workers as they prepared for the businesses to shut down for good. This posed an especially difficult problem for Colombians employed at these factories. Many workers began moving to North and South Carolina, where it was rumored that the textile mills there were looking for workers. It was especially difficult for those who had come in the early years, because they did not feel like uprooting their families for a second time. Another issue they faced was the fact that despite having lived in America for almost 15 years before the factories began closing down, they still had not had the opportunity, nor did they feel it necessary to learn English. One of the first men who came to work at Lyon was Bernardo Chamorro who said that he had spent so much time with other Colombians at work, at home, and socializing that he never felt the need to learn English. Anyone who walked through the mills on any given day could hear the buzzing of the Spanish language as the workers busied themselves with their daily tasks.

Many families did not, however, believe that their lives were over when the mills began to close down. Instead, they saw this as an opportunity to seek new skills, including the learning of the English language. Many of today's Colombian families who grew up in Central Falls saw this as an opportunity to enroll in a school of higher learning, and to seek better opportunities for themselves and their families.

In the 1980s and 90s, the Colombian community of Rhode Island continued to grow steadily, with Central Falls remaining as their destination whether it be directly from Colombia, or from places like Florida, where a number of Colombians who were living there felt it was time to be reunited with families in Rhode Island. Businesses grew to the point where one could walk down Dexter or Broad Streets in Central Falls and find Spanish-language signs boasting Colombian-owned markets, restaurants, bakeries, record stores, beauty salons, and even a social service agency founded by Colombians. Cultural organizations such as the Colombo-American Association were formed, and the local Catholic and Episcopal churches began holding religious services entirely in Spanish.

The development of the Colombian community in Central Falls has brought a large increase in their numbers. While the early Colombian settlers came to Central Falls to make a living, they did not plan to establish an enclave. Today, however, the Colombians are very much an established part of Central Falls, and the children and grandchildren of the first families in the city are in a better position to organize their community and to promote their culture while seeking a greater presence in the larger American society. In the Fall of 2001, Latinos in Central Falls were instrumental in the election of the first Latino Councilman in City Hall, and again in 2012 history was made when residents elected the first Latino mayor in Central Falls. This is indeed a message to the greater community of Rhode Island that Latinos have voting power and are definitely here to stay.

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