The History of Latinos in Rhode Island

| Building Coalitions

After LACC closed in 1974, the emergence of a functioning Coalition of Hispanic Organizations in 1976 led to better organized services and also indicated the first signs of politicization of the existing organizational framework and the Latino community in general.
Juan Francísco was one of a group of pioneers who led these community mobilization efforts. Other members included Olga Escobar, Rosario Peña, Victor Mendóza, José González, Roberto González, Manuel Jiménez and José Alemán, to name just a few. Through the work of these individuals, three central organizations were created.

The first was Club Juvenil, a youth group that focused on education and also arranged social gatherings, such as sporting events. Juán López, was hired to coordinate youth services

The second was Orientación Hispana, led by Manuel Jiménez, worked with the elderly.

The third, Acción Hispana, was chaired by Juan Francisco. Acción was the product of efforts by the Catholic Church after LACC closed, and its first location was in the basement of St. Michael’s Church, on Oxford Street in South Providence. It was an issue-oriented group that provided general social services. Members of the community could bring their specific problems to the organization and have them solved on an individual basis.

These three organizations created a base of services, and among them, attempted to cover and provide access for the entire Latino community.

Other organizations, such as Proyecto Persona, developed from this base. Much like the Latin American Community Center, Persona was a United Way-funded agency, which acted as a “cultural haven for people trying to adjust smoothly to a new way of life in the United States.” (Providence Journal, 1974). Persona was under the roof of the Providence Public Library system and its initial goal was to give Latinos a safe and familiar environment in which to learn English. It quickly expanded, however, and was soon providing educational workshops, training for high school equivalency tests and recreational activities. It also arranged support groups for Hispanic mothers, who often had a harder time acculturating to American ways and meeting people because they were isolated at home, not at school or at work.

In the 1980s, Proyecto Persona became part of the International Institute of Rhode Island and moved under its roof at the Trinity Church, located at 393 Broad Street.

As these organizations began to emerge, the demand for the services that they provided also continued to increase. As members of the Latino community became aware of their rights, they also began to desire to be political participants, a desire that these non-profit institutions were unable to fulfill. The organizations did nonetheless take important steps in the development of a cohesive communal identity, and provided the space both physically and institutionally for the evolution of a growing political consciousness.
We fought very hard…Coalición was the agency that gave respect to the community. That was the agency that fought the police against brutality. That was the agency that informed the majority of all the issues that were affecting the Latino community at that time. That was the agency that fought the hospital that did not have any bilingual workers. That was the agency who fought the school department to have some representation of teacher
Victor Mendoza interview, 2000
The incorporation of three existing Latino organizations into a coalition meant governmental funding and a newly-found unity and legitimacy for the Latino political pioneers. Social services previously provided by individual organizations were subsumed partially within programs of the coalition. More distinctly, the first sustainable bridge was formed between the Latino community and the political arena. The appearance of advocacy as an oversight, external monitor and challenge to the public service institutions heralded the beginnings of a Latino political consciousness. No longer would the Latino community solely bear the responsibility of support (at least in principle). Bilingual services in health, education, housing, employment, and basic public utilities were a right that the political arena was obligated to perform. Advocacy meant forcing those in power to acknowledge those obligations.

The Coalition’s first contacts with the government were through the Providence Community Action Program (PROCAP), a Providence-based municipal agency in charge of funding community organizations. The Latino community already had “political capital” with the presence of María Matias and Alma Green, the latter being the funding coordinator of PROCAP and an organizing force. Green was an active and central participant in Acción Hispana, which worked out of Central Falls.

In the context of federally funded anti-poverty dollars, the Coalition also received funding from a VISTA program in the form of compensated employees. In this manner, the coordinators of the various programs existing within the coalition were funded by the federal government. Just as young, rising Hispanic leaders like Roberto González and his brother, José had entered the Latin American Community Center as VISTA volunteers, others were now brought in and encouraged to help organize the community.
While some felt such demands were discriminatory, others hoped to use the opportunity to form an “independent” organization with “no baggage.”
Juan Francísco oral history
The organizational structure of Coalición was similar to a loose confederation of the pre-existing organizations. The actual reason for the Coalition’s existence was one, abstractly, of idealism and practically, of funding. Each organization had been competing for what little existed of foundation and government operating grants, thus fragmenting the organized arm of the community. The United Way began to pressure existing Hispanic organizations by threatening to withhold funding from distinct Latino organizations, and it was this act that gave impetus to claims for unification.

In addition to providing services to the community, according to one of the organizers, the Coalition began to “confront the very sobering experience of dealing with the political structure.” The role of advocate meant constant communication with the political arena, often in the domain of bilingual access and representation. Further with on-going advocacy, the Coalition pressed for permanent institutional representatives to be present within the community. In a similar vein or political activism, a network of support internal to the political and professional arena evolved. For those within the system, the Coalition also advocated on an individual level in much the same manner as the Hispanic Social Services Association (the predecessor to CHisPA) would do throughout the eighties and early nineties.
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