Colombian History in Rhode Island

Jay Giuttari

Joseph "Jay" Giuttari went to South America with a former classmate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1961, with the idea to start a business in Latin America. While there, the two were planning to visit several countries, they never got past Barranquilla, the first city they visited on the northern coast of Colombia. In January of 2016, Jay sat with Marta V. Martínez, Community Oral Historian and Project Director of Nuestras Raíces, and told her his story.
After I graduated from MIT, I went to work for a company that made textile machinery in Massachusetts, and they did a lot of business in Colombia. I ended up traveling to Colombia, and while there I found myself working closely with people in the textile industry, even though that wasn't my business there. But my father was in the textile business, so I understood textiles. I knew where there were weavers and loom fixers in Colombia, and I also knew from my father's end, that he personally couldn't find young people to work in that industry.

At one time in Rhode Island, the textiles business was booming. From the turn of the next to last century, during the time when waves of immigrants were coming here, the majority of the population worked in textiles. However, by the early 1960s there was a scarcity of weavers and textile mechanics in Rhode Island. My father, who owned Lyon Silk Works, Inc, had all these aging workers in their 60s, and a few nearing 70. It was rare that you saw a 20-year-old weaver. I knew that my father was having a problem, just like all other textile mills in Rhode Island, in attracting young people to work in textiles, as opposed to a lot of other alternatives they had.

You see, weaving and loom fixing and working in the textile mills is a very tough job. And if you can work in McDonald's as a teenager, you would work there, as opposed to working in a textile mill. It wasn't the case then that the textile business itself was on the decline. The mill owners themselves were hurting. They couldn't get enough labor. There was not a labor shortage, but a shortage of people who would work in textile. You simply couldn't attract people to come into that industry.

On the other hand, here I was in Colombia, where some of the people who were working in the textiles most of the time, may have started there when they were 15 or 16 years old. The textile industry was the biggest manufacturing industry in Colombia. In the 1960s, Colombia had a very well developed, maybe the best-developed textile business outside of the United States. I saw people working on the same looms there that my father had, doing the same type of work and getting paid maybe 15 dollars a month.

So, while in Colombia, I found myself working right across the street from a textile mill in Barranquilla, a decent-sized mill. Now, Barranquilla was not the center of the textile industry in Colombia, the center was in Medellín, Antioquia. But, I was in a unique position to understand the situation with the Colombian worker and the situation in my father's mill. Since I was across from this mill – I literally walked across the street – I inquired, and was then put in contact with some of the people there who helped me recruit three people to work with my father. Of these three people, two of them were weavers: Gustavo Carreño and Valentín Ríos. They were young kids; they were in their early 20’s. The third one was Horacio Gil, who was one of the supervisors, a shift supervisor. He wasn't really a weaver or a loom fixer, which were the two skills we were looking for. However, because he was a supervisor, Horacio knew the workers in the mill well and helped me select people – he chose Gustavo and Valentin because he knew they were highly skilled workers. As a result, I put his name in to get a visa and he became one of the first three Colombian workers to come with me to Central Falls. Now, Horacio came, but not with the intention of working for me. However, when he arrived, he needed to earn money so he worked for a while for Lyon. After about a year, more or less, he moved to California. I visited him once in California, but then lost track of him. He was a nice guy. [NOTE: Records show that Horacio passed away in 1996 in Los Angeles, CA]

So, Gustavo, Valentin and Horacio were the first group. They went into a little third-floor apartment in Central Falls that I rented for them, and they lived together there until their families came.

Once they were in Rhode Island and working, the three of them maintained contact with their co-workers in Colombia, and they helped me recruit others, like Pedro Cano. Pedro came because these guys knew him, and they all had worked in that same mill. Horacio told me he was probably the best fixer they had, and the others confirmed it. So that's how Pedro came.

Others came much later, like Bernardo Chamorro, who came in 1967 and says that he remembers a good friend of his, who he knew in Colombia, picked him up at the airport in Boston and drove him straight to Central Falls. Chamorro did not work for Lyon, he went straight to Cadillac Mill, just on the border of Central Falls and Cumberland, because his old friend Fidel Díaz from Barranquilla, worked there and had recruited him. Also, by that time, Gustavo also had left Lyon and was working at Cadillac.
Very shortly after I first brought the three Colombian workers, a friend of mine who owned a textile mill, a spinning mill in Pawtucket, told me that he was having the same problem as my father, that he couldn't get people to work for him. I said: ‘You know, in Medellín, there are big spinning mills, much bigger than here. Do you want me to take you to Medellín?’ And he said, ‘All right, let's try it.’ So, we went to Medellín together.

Before we left, we decided to put an ad in the paper in Medellín that read: ‘Needed: Textile workers to work in the United States with "this" experience... and we put down the machine skills that were needed. The ad asked that people show up at 9 o'clock the next morning, at this particular hotel.

Well, we arrived in Medellín and checked into our hotel. When we got up the next morning we first went out and walked a little bit, went to breakfast. And, when we come back to the hotel what we saw was amazing: there was this line out of the door, around the corner and leading into the front door of the hotel! It seemed as if the entire textile industry in Medellín was waiting for us!

We spent all day long interviewing people, and it was amazing finding people who were all trained on exactly the machines that we needed.

For me, it was so easy to find people in the mills and ask, ‘Would you like to come to the U.S.?’ Word had already gotten around that the mills in the U.S. were looking for Colombian workers.

The other part was that the immigration laws were more relaxed. All you needed was a letter of invitation from someone like myself, and within maybe six weeks, four to six weeks, the visa was granted. They, like many to follow, were permitted to immigrate to the U.S. permanently because they had guaranteed jobs.

At the time, I knew there was this kind of demand for people to get out of Colombia. And I don't blame them, because they were getting paid next to nothing for working in those mills. And they had the experience that they were able to transfer immediately into a U.S. job. This was incredible because normally it would take a year to train a weaver, and these guys would come in and within a day or two they were busy running them.

When other Blackstone Valley companies, like Pontiac Weaving and Cadillac Textiles, discovered the quality of these weavers and loom fixers, they also went to Colombia to recruit, especially to Medellín, the textile center of the country.

And that started the migration and growth of the Colombian community in Central Falls.

Planting the Seed

When Jay went to South America back in 1961, he had no idea that he was going to be the cause of an international migration from Colombia to Rhode Island. By the 1980s, Census figures showed 1,769 Colombians in the city, making up 25 percent of population and more than 99 percent of the Hispanic residents. Jay tells us that he could probably name 1,700 Colombians that he knew personally at the time. While there were still jobs to fill, at that point, he was also reuniting Colombians in Rhode Island with the families they left behind in Colombia. However, Jay remains humble and insists that what he did was not so phenomenal.

During this interview, Jay is quick to announce that he would never take any credit for what he refers to as “inventing the idea of bringing Latin Americans here.” But then, he becomes wistful and admits that what makes him feel really good is realizing that one never knows what might have happened to the many people who came here if instead they would have stayed in Colombia. He wonders whether the vast majority of them might have lived a life of poverty, because they were already living in “poverty,” even though they were working. The vast majority would have had very different lives, would never have owned a car, never would have had the opportunity to attend or send their kids to college. When he sees these children of the pioneers, the next generation of Colombians, all doing great things, he smiles.

As he puts it: “There's a whole bunch of young people out there who are living the ‘second dream,’ becoming lawyers, engineers, bankers, college administrators or involved in politics – it's unlimited what they can do. And that, more than anything, is what makes me feel good.”

Was It Destiny?

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Jay's daughter, Lori Giuttari, who sat in on this interview, said afterwards that her father’s story “gives her the chills” adding:

“My Dad, won't accept this responsibility. But I believe it was all just so natural because my Dad is a ‘connector,’ it was just meant to be.

“And the other thing is the timing. So, in the bigger scheme of things, in terms of history, the timing allowed it to happen. By the time the '70s came around, immigration laws had changed, and people couldn't get an invitation letter and just hop over to the United States and get a job.

“My Dad was in Colombia at the perfect time; I think he was placed there on purpose. His Dad owned a business. The way things were in Colombia, it was so easy to get people to come with him. Workers were needed. They, the workers, were in a tough place. People were ready to shift and change at the same point in time. All this, in just a five-year period. And my Dad was right there, in the middle of all that.”

Truly amazing!
ADDENDUM: Between the late 1960s-to-mid-70s, many Colombians who were working in Rhode Island mills were drawn to jobs in Greenville, South Carolina and quickly began to move there. Most, worn out by the severe winters in New England, were ready for warmer weather. Others were offered the opportunity of higher pay with permanent work in the thriving mills there. And others, who lost work when mills in Rhode Island closed, followed advice from those who were already in South Carolina, where jobs were in abundance. Many left families behind in Rhode Island so they could settle in, but quickly families were reunited once again and settled in Greenville, where today they are considered to be part of the oldest Hispanic community in South Carolina.

A FINAL NOTE: Find oral histories here from some of the Colombians who moved to South Carolina.
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