Latinos in Rhode Island

Hidden Stories Pre-1960s

In the early stages of this project,

the information we had documented — as noted on our historical timeline — reveals the growth of the Spanish-speaking people who immigrated first to cities, like Providence and Central Falls. The story we've been telling begins in the early 1960s and weaves its way through the 1970s and 80s, when the largest Latin-American migration patterns were recorded in census data, local newspapers and some scholarly journals.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as people were isolated in their homes and perhaps looking for something to do, 2020 proved a good time to start researching family histories. Soon after everyone went into quarantine, in May of 2020, Marta V. Martínez, the Director of Nuestras Raíces, suddenly began to receive E-Mails from people, Latinos, who were searching this website. What she learned is that, as many individuals were losing family members to COVID-19, there was an urgency to learn more about their family histories.

One person who once lived in Pawtucket relayed how, after an elder relative had just passed, he found a box of old documents that he had once taken for granted. After sifting through them, he was suddenly left with so many questions about his own Latinx heritage. As he began to to talk with other family members, they were all reminded of the stories that their parents had shared throughout the years, or memories they themselves had of “growing up Latino” in Rhode Island. These stories had suddenly become more relevant, especially after the sudden death of a loved one, and they felt compelled to tell their family story.

As we responded to this inquiry and to many others, what we learned provided us with much more information than we ever imagined – significant information that has allowed us to grow our collection and that answers many of our own questions about Latino history in Rhode Island.

First, much to our surprise (and delight), we discovered stories of individuals from Latin America who came as early as the 1930s. The other surprise was that the stories we were hearing came from professionals, mostly doctors or others in the medical field, who came to Rhode Island to do an internship, and after a few years, either returned to their countries or moved to other states in the U.S. A few were names of individuals who kept popping up in our own research and had made Rhode Island their home, raised families and lived here well into their 90s.

We heard stories of struggle, fear and isolation and also strength, survival and success. What stood out is how these stories mirrored those that we heard from Latinos who made their way to Rhode Island in the 1970s and beyond.

The oral histories found in later pages of this website play an important role in bringing each of the profiled Latino/Latinx groups to life. They provide us with insight into the minds of the individuals who we consider to be the pioneros (pioneers), those who made history through their dedication and hard work as members of the ever-growing Latin-American population of Rhode Island.

If anything resonates after reading this, we encourage you to contact Marta V. Martínez if you have a story to share, have a lead where we can find one or if you know anyone who should be mentioned in this website. ✪

The Settlement House Movement

Settlement houses were organizations established in the late 19th century that provided support services to the urban poor and European immigrants. Their purpose was twofold: first, to meet the immediate needs of a neighborhood through a daily program of direct services, mostly through educational and recreational programs and, secondly, to bring about more basic social reforms.

These settlement houses became "homes" to well-to-do individuals seeking to use their wealth to make change. They chose to "settle" in urban neighborhood, referred to at that time as "slums," as an effort to learn first-hand about poverty. The Settlement Workers would gain added insights into the causes of poverty, and this knowledge helped them formulate clear arguments for solutions. The approach used by these Settlers replaced the attitude of typical 19th-century charity workers, who often carried an air of superiority; the Settlers instead chose to empower victims of poverty to make change in their own neighborhoods.

By the 1920s, hundreds of settlement houses were established in American cities. Services often included education, healthcare, childcare, and employment resources. Many settlement houses established during this period are still thriving today.

The the International Institute of Rhode Island

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The International Institute of Rhode Island (IIRI) was a settlement house founded in 1921. Like traditional settlement houses, the mission of the IIRI was to empower immigrants to come together to provide solutions that would encourage others who followed to complete the multi-step process of becoming citizens. In addition to offering the resources mentioned above, social clubs were formed that offered the opportunity for cultural exchange.

The archives of this organization show the existence of a few Latin-American social clubs and data found in annual reports shows a number of Spanish-speaking individuals who sought services at the agency during the first part of the 20th century.
A Providence Journal article dated November 8, 1941 reveals the existence of El Club Panamericano, a social club in the International Institute whose members (led by a group of women) represented various countries in The Americas. According to the story, this club was headed by Cecilia Rodríguez [Saglio] pictured above, a native of Argentina who we later discovered came to live in Providence in 1939.

Hidden Stories of the 1940s and 50s

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Cecilia [Rodríguez] Saglio from
Lanús, Buenos Aires, Argentina to Providence, RI 1939
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Darío and Blanca Herrera from Buenos Aires to Providence, RI 1954
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Zanoni and Estela Ortega from Mérida, Yucatan, México to Providence, RI 1949
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Funds for our projects have been made possible with support in part from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities (RICH) and the Herman Rose Fund at the Rhode Island Foundation.
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© All Rights Reserved 2021 | 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.