Latino History of Rhode Island

A collection of the voices of Rhode Island's Latino pioneers

Victor Mendoza

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Victor Mendoza
Early Community Activist and political pioneer
I first came to the United States in 1969. I didn’t come here with my family, I came alone. I was 18 years of age when I left home, and I was looking for something new I could do in my life. I had studied English in the Dominican Republic and I wanted to practice the English that I’d learned, so I traveled to New York. But when I got to New York, I found that New York was, especially in the place where I ended up living, which is 142nd street in upper Manhattan, I found that there was a large Hispanic population there and they all were living in like, a city, like a Hispanic city. I knew I had to get out of there because I didn’t come to live in a Hispanic city, I came to live in a place where I could practice my English. So a friend of mine, and one of those few Hispanics who used to live in Rhode Island, invited me over for the weekend to visit the family. I came and saw Providence in 1971, and I really liked it.

The best thing that I did, my best performance is when we founded the Coalition of Hispanic organizations because that was the agency that gave respect to the community. That was the agency that put the name Hispanic high in the state.
Victor Mendoza
The first thing that I saw in Rhode Island was that there were not that many Hispanics, and I liked that because I didn’t want to live in a “Spanish town,” or in a “Spanish neighborhood.” I wanted to live, as I said, in a place where I could practice the English language that I had acquired in the Dominican Republic. So I found Providence to be exactly the place I was looking for: a kind-of American town, small town, not with the high rises and the noise and all of that, like in New York City. So I found that to be very nice, and then I decided to move.

I went back to New York that weekend and then it took me about six or seven months to move and get ready and leave jobs and apartments and everything that comes with that. And that’s how I came to Providence. I feel that I have watched the community grow from a group of people to a large Hispanic population, and I participated in that growth.

When I first moved here, I was told that there were some families from Puerto Rico and also from the Dominican Republic—just a few families, you know. They came to Providence attracted by the jewelry industry, and the jewelry industry was very attractive to these people. But, you see, the main thing is that people follow family, that’s the way communities grows, through family reunification. So you follow your cousin and you follow your brother and you follow your compadre, you know, your godfather and stuff like that. And that’s the way that the community has grown in Rhode Island. It's not because they wanted to come to Rhode Island because it's a beautiful place. No, they came because they knew someone here.

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Organizing the Community

We first started to organize the community back in 1974. I got involved as soon as I came to Rhode Island; I got involved with the community very soon, because I enjoy that very much. See, we come from countries where we have fighting, and revolution and protests and dictatorships, so when you come to this country, you come with that mind. Of course you don’t come here to fight the system, but when you see the injustices around you, you learn that you need to work within the system in order to get what is right. In terms of organization, we organized the first coalition of Hispanic activism in the state in 1976. At that time there were two or three organizations for Hispanics: there was a youth organization, it was Alianza Hispana or something like that. And then you had the other organization called Orientación Hispana that used to take care of the elderly population. Then you had another organization taking care of social issues. So what we essentially did is that we got involved and put together all of these into one coalition because they were confronting problems with funding, they were competing with each other for funding. And the foundations and agencies that were providing funding at that time said they were not going to provide funding until we [Hispanics] organized. So we organized and put together the coalition of Hispanic organizations. That was the strongest organization we could find. It was so strong that we have not been able to have an organization like that even in the year 2000. It was especially strong because we had all the leadership and the diversity in the Hispanic community. There were people like Roberto González... he's a judge now; we had Manuel Jiménez, who is now the owner of one of the largest real estate companies in [Providence]; we had people like José González, who is with the Providence school department, and we also had José Alemán, who today is working as an administrator in a high school. Look at the titles of these guys today. These are people who used to be students and look at where they are now! And you also had people like Juán Francísco who is a top official for the University of Rhode Island now. And another thing that we did at that time is that we forgot about nationality, because sometimes there is no question that there had been some friction over that. I always have that in my mind, I always think about diversity. That has been, if there is something that I would like people to remember me, as part of the work that we all have done is that I have been one who fought for diversity and for equal opportunity for all.

First Latin American Festival of Music in Rhode Island

I organized the first Latino festival in the state. I organized the first one, it was the Latin American Festival of Music in 1979. It was very, very famous and we got 20,000 people in the park. It was through the Hispanic Cultural Arts Committee, an organization that I founded and served as its Chair. Today the Hispanic Cultural Arts Committee still exists, but it is very, very different – it doesn’t organize the Latin American Festival. Another organizations that is running the Latin American literature in Rhode Island is the Annual Latin American Writers Conference that is annual program done by one of the organizations that belonged to the original Hispanic Cultural Arts Committee.


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