Roberto González ... continued

Now that’s a different picture than I remember from when I first moved to Rhode Island in the late 1960s. Back when it was just my family and my brother. And then I saw the community grow and take shape. From my perspective, I saw the biggest growth in the 80’s and early 90’s.
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The González brothers, Roberto and José, and their business partner and friend, Michael Reyes were running what they say was the first restaurant the served strictly Caribbean food in Rhode Island: Antillas Restaurant. Along with relatives and a friend, in 1978 the González brothers purchased and transformed an existing restaurant located at 736 Broad St. in Providence to serve Puerto Rican and Dominican food. It was difficult to find all the ingredients they needed in wholesale bulk, but they managed to keep their kitchen stocked. … Read more and listen to an audio story

White Flight

One of the things that we haven’t talked about is that the Hispanic community was growing at almost like a phenomenal rate in the 1980’s.

At that time, there was still a pretty thriving textile and jewelry industry in Rhode Island, so there were lots of jobs in the 80’s. You have great housing stock here, cheap, affordable housing; I remember you could get an apartment for $75. So, people began to move here, telling their aunts, their uncles, their cousins: “Hey, there’s jobs, I can get you a job where I work. There’s an apartment right down the street here.” And a desolate neighborhood like South Providence, all of a sudden – what used to be closed, abandoned shops and boarded up windows – all of a sudden those things start to come down. And fresh paint starts to appear, and the neighborhood starts to lift itself up.

And, all of a sudden you have a huge Puerto Rican Day Parade, and there were thousands of Hispanics on the street, celebrating and showing their pride. And then, a few years later the Dominicans also decide to have a parade and festival. And again, we see thousands of people coming out. And then you have the Guatemalan community and the Colombian community, all which continue to grow at a slower pace, but they were already pretty much established communities. So all of this is happening in late 1970’s, through the 80’s, and into early 90’s.

And then suddenly we begin see that there is resentment when the Latinos started to move in to some of those neighborhoods, like Washington Park, that were traditionally known as the”Irish neighborhood” or “the Black neighborhood.”

What’s happening during this time is what sociologists have coined “White Flight.” There were a lot of middle class or lower-middle class families just leaving the city. Not because of the Hispanic community, but I think because they had were now at a different socio-economic level, and were able to afford better homes and a better lifestyle. So they began moving out to the suburbs. And, gas was cheap then, so the commute to Providence was no problem if they had to drive to Providence to work. All that opened up a lot of housing opportunities for the Hispanic community, it almost created a vacuum.

As the Irish community left their neighborhoods, some of the local business (like the pubs) had no clientele, so in comes the Hispanic community. Of course, the Hispanic community tends to be very entrepreneurial. So, they see opportunity: “Let’s buy this pub. Let’s buy the hardware, let’s buy the storefront here and make a different store.” And businesses started to pop up, almost in every corner: on Broad St, on Cranston St, on Elmwood Ave. And then came the clothing stores, then came the hardware stores, the bars. And the liquor stores, and bigger markets, the restaurants, and as the saying goes: wherever you have a grocery store, there comes a community.
NOTE: We will continue to delve more into the political growth of Latinos in Rhode Island from the 1980s to the present. If you know anyone who has a story to share from that era, please contact us via this link.

Excerpts taken from an interview conducted by Marta V. Martínez, August of 2007

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