Latinas | Pioneers

Julie Castellanos

Julie Castellanos

Julie Castellanos left her home in Guatemala City to travel to Massachusetts, where she had her first experience as an activist. Her daughter, Claudia, contacted us after attending a presentation on Latino history of Rhode Island, because she felt strongly that her mother had been one of the first Guatemalans in Rhode Island. While that did not turn out to be the case, Claudia was correct in sensing that her mother had an extraordinary life and deserved a special place in Rhode Island Latino history.

We sat down with Julie and discovered that she was, indeed, a mover and shaker, and that her experiences in the 1980s made a strong impact in the formative years of the early Guatemalan community of Rhode Island. She was a business woman, an entrepreneur and one of the first to raise awareness about Guatemalan folkloric dance, music and her beautiful handmade textile work to the broader Rhode Island community.

Read about Julie and her inspiring life in the United States.
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Above: Julie is surprised when a newspaper reporter in Fall River arrives to her work site to take her picture for a story in the local newspaper.
My name is Julieta Sánchez Castellanos. I came by plane from Guatemala City to the United States on November 15, 1965.

I trained as a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) at Roosevelt Hospital | Guatemala City in 1963, and was working there for about five months when I learned about an agency that was hiring CNAs to work in the United States. So, I went to that agency and after three months, I was ready to take the trip. I was hired to work as a CNA in a nursing home in Norton, Massachusetts, and that is when my life changed. I was 19 years old.

I left Guatemala, and when I landed in Boston, a staff person from the nursing home was there to pick me up at the airport. It was probably one of the assistant directors, and he was carrying a sign, you know, like the typical sign you see people holding at an airport. He was waiting for me. I was alone, so once we found each other, we drove to Attleboro.

I found my job to be an easy one because I had experience. For the most part, because of my nursing background, I didn’t need any translation because I knew how to do the work: how to give a sponge bath to patients, take their vitals, etc. I knew how to follow all the rules of the nursing home. Within six months, I picked up enough English to better understand the people around me.

At that time, there were three other nursing assistants: two were from Guatemala, and the other spoke English. We lived there, actually, and when the patients were taking naps, we were allowed to go and rest in the dormitory. So that was the only time we took breaks or to leave briefly, but then we were back again to do our job.

So all together we spent about eleven hours working. And there was no way that we could go out, leave the premises, because we had to work almost every shift. It was not easy, and I didn't like that.

Finally, it got to the point that I wasn't happy about it because I felt I didn't have a life. My non-work life consisted of maybe one hour when I would walk two or three blocks. I did that, and then would come back quickly because otherwise, I felt I would get lost. I could never find the time to learn more about the world outside the nursing home.
So, at that point, I think I became an activist, even though I didn't think to call myself an “activist” at the time. But what I did is after five months at the nursing home, I decided that I was going to leave. I said, ‘I'm fed up with this! I’m leaving tomorrow!'
Julie Castellanos

One day during one of my walks, I discovered a Newport Creamery nearby! I’ll never forgot that, because I was able to order a hamburger; I taught myself how to because I wanted to speak English. I became so proud that I could order a hamburger and an ice cream because that was, you know, the basic American food, and I could buy it with no help!

But I wasn't happy in the nursing home because the total loss of freedom, and also because I found many discrepancies in how we (the Guatemalan workers) were being paid, compared to the others, those who spoke English. At that point, there were another four Guatemalan workers, so with me, that was five. I discovered that we were doing more work and working up to eleven hours, but getting paid for nine, and also getting paid less than the others.

So, at that point, I think I became an activist, even though I didn't think to call myself an “activist” at the time. But ,what I did is I decided that I was going to leave. I said, ‘I'm fed up with this! I’m leaving tomorrow!' And this was only after five months at this nursing home. Some of the other girls told me that they also wanted to leave. And I said, ‘Everyone has to take responsibility on your own. I'm going first, and the rest of you must decide on your own, whether you're going to stay or leave.’

From there, I went directly to see the director of the nursing home, and I told him that I was leaving. And he said, 'You cannot leave because you haven't paid me. I paid for your flight here, and you still owe me!'

By then, I spoke a little bit of English, and I said, 'I'm leaving anyway. You're not going to hold me here!' And then he mocked me: he told me I was going to starve because I couldn't speak English and wouldn't be able to find a job.

So, there he was, this Irish White-man, the director, his face was turning red. And then he said: 'You cannot leave because you have a contract with me!' as he pointed to some documents. And I said, 'You're not going to keep me here, I can walk. I can leave. Do whatever you want to do. But nothing you can do will keep me here, because I don't like working eleven hours and getting paid only for nine hours!'

And as he pointed with his pen, he kept saying, ‘The book shows there ... ’ And I said, ‘Okay, you might have the proof there, but this here is the real proof!’ And then I took the pen, which was a black marker, defaced his papers and walked out.

I left the following day.

I moved into an apartment with one of the other girls who worked with me. And later, two other girls left the nursing home and moved in with us. We basically left the nursing home empty, with no staff. I did feel sad to leave my patients because I loved them, and I knew they loved me. But, I also felt strongly that if I did not leave, my work would suffer and so would I.

At that point, we all decided that we wanted to learn English, and personally I felt it was important for me to learn English. I bought a record player, and some records with an English course. Together, we started learning English and we tried to speak to each other as much as possible, and outside the apartment. I was so anxious to learn English that I got a job at a factory in Attleboro, which is a city right next to Norton, where I was surrounded by people who helped me learn English.

Puerto Ricanos in Attleboro | In Pursuit of An Education

Eventually I met someone who became my husband. He was Puerto Rican. When we first became friends, we went to a church in Attleboro and we met a few people there that spoke Spanish. I'm talking about, maybe six families who had been living in Attleboro for a while. There were the Aliceas, and also the Cottos, both of whom were part of the two founding Puerto Rican families in Attleboro. I spent a lot of time with them, and enjoyed speaking Spanish once in a while.

But, I quickly became restless and bored, and decided I wanted to go to college. My only education here was taking the English classes, but they were teaching us things I already knew, and I did not feel challenged.

I enrolled at the Bristol Community College and after two years, got an Associate Degree. I learned a lot of the regular math, Algebra, and all that. But, when they asked the questions and I was supposed to respond in English, it was difficult for me. I was able to read and write in English, but communicating in English was difficult. Despite that, I worked hard and passed all my classes.

From there, I enrolled at Southeastern Massachusetts University (SMU) and I really enjoyed the challenge there. In 978, at the age of 33, after a divorce, and while raising my young son, I graduated from SMU with a degree in Clinical Psychology.

While living in Massachusetts, I decided I was tired of renting and really wanted to buy my own home. I started to sell Tupperware and soon became manager in my extra days, like on Saturdays or Sundays. I started saving money, because I to buy a house.


Julie continues