Colombians in Rhode Island

Colombians in Rhode Island

This weekend many Colombians in Rhode Island will celebrate their heritage at the Colombian-American Parade and Festival. Join them this Sunday, July 22nd! The parade will step off at 10am in the parking lot of Dexter Credit Union in Central Falls, wind through the streets of Central Falls, and end at Slater Mill Park in Downtown Pawtucket. The festival will follow at Slater Mill Park from 12-6pm (67 Roosevelt Avenue, Pawtucket, RI 02860). For more information contact the Colombian American Cultural Society of RI at info@cocultura.com or visit their website at www.colcultura.com.

Pedro Cano Sr. - One of the first Colombians in Rhode Island.

Photo: Pedro Cano Sr., One of the first Colombians in Rhode Island  

 

In this study of the Colombian community of Rhode Island, the City of Central Falls plays a very important role. For it is here that active recruitment of labor by local factories was influential in bringing the large Colombian population to the state. Research on this community shows that this migration to Rhode Island by the Colombians began in 1966, and a today a large percentage of that community continues to work in factory and textile mills in Central Falls.

 

Central Falls is located north of the City of Providence. It is an area often recognized as the birthplace of the American Revolution, where textiles and factories began to spring up in the 1700s. The first person to bring industry to the region was Samuel Slater, who in 1790 opened the first American cotton-spinning mill in nearby Pawtucket. It was because of Salters innovative thinking that countless of future immigrants to this country found themselves quickly settling into life as mill workers in Northern Rhode Island.

 

Remarkably enough, almost all of the Colombians who live in Central Falls today come from one of two regions in Colombia: the Antioquia Province, in the central mountainous region, and Baranquilla, located on the Atlantic coast. Antioquia, of which the capital is Medellín, has historically been one of the most developed and industrialized areas of Colombia. As far back as the 1920s, textiles were the biggest manufacturing industry there, besides coffee processing.

 

The Colombian population in Rhode Island owes its beginnings to one gentleman who, in the early 1960s, had an insightful idea. Jay Guttiari was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) when his father, who owned Lyons Fabric Company, a textile mill in Central Falls, told him that he was experiencing a labor shortage at his work site. The idea came to Guttiari while visiting his college roommates family in Colombia in November of 1963. It was then that he saw first-hand the highly skilled work of the textile workers in Baranquilla. He called his father back in Rhode Island to share his excitement, and soon recruited four men to work in his fathers mill back in Central Falls. The four men who were all in their 20s included Gustavo Carreño, Valentín Ríos, Oracio Gil and Fidel Díaz, and they arrived in March of 1964. Because these men were already trained in the textile business, they proved to be excellent workers. Soon, the idea caught on and many other mills in Central Falls began to recruit Colombian workers. In the years that followed, businesses like Pontiac and Cadillac Mills traveled to Medellín to recruit more workers, including Bernardo Chamorro and Pedro Cano. It was these men and others that followed who stopped the textile business in Rhode Island from fading away in the 1960s.

 

By the mid-70s, the textile factories stopped recruiting Colombian labor. However, a steady flow of family and friends from Colombia continued to make their way to Rhode Island for the next ten years. Many Colombians began to come to Rhode Island from New York in search of the proverbial peaceful life. Employment opportunities here were good and the promise of a good education, the opportunity to start a business and reunification with family were many reasons for coming to Rhode Island. The promise of jobs were always available to the Colombians who came to Central Falls, and many of the mills employed generations of families because they proved to be hard working and dedicated workers.

 

In the mid-1980s, however, all that changed when most of the mills and factories began to slow production and the owners were forced to lay off hundreds of workers as they prepared for the businesses to shut down for good. This posed an especially difficult problem for Colombians employed at these factories. Many workers began moving to South Carolina, where it was rumored that the textile mills there were looking for workers. It was especially difficult for those who had come in the early years, because they did not feel like uprooting their families for a second time. Another issue they faced was the fact that despite having lived in America for almost 15 years before the factories began closing down, they still had not had the opportunity, nor did they feel it necessary to learn English. One of the first men who came to work at Lyons was Bernardo Chamorro who said that he had spent so much time with other Colombians at work, at home, and socializing that he never felt the need to learn English. Anyone who walked through many of the mills on any given day could hear the buzzing of Spanish as the workers busied themselves with their daily tasks.

 

Many families did not, however, believe that their lives were over when the mills began to close down. Instead, they saw this as an opportunity to seek new skills, including the learning of the English language. The younger Colombians saw this as an opportunity to leave Central Falls, enroll in a school of higher learning, and to seek better opportunities for themselves and their families.

 

In the 1980s and 90s, the Colombian community of Rhode Island continued to grow steadily, with Central Falls remaining as their destination whether it be directly from Colombia, or from places like Florida, where a number of Colombians who were living there felt it was time to be reunited with families in Rhode Island. Businesses grew to the point where one could walk down one of the main streets of Central Falls and find Spanish-language signs boasting Colombian-owned markets, restaurants, bakeries, record stores, beauty salons, and even a social service agency founded by Colombians. Cultural organizations such as the Colombian American Association were formed, and the local Catholic and Episcopal churches began holding religious services entirely in Spanish.

 

The development of the Colombian community in Central Falls has brought a large increase in their numbers. While the early Colombian settlers came to Central Falls to make a living, they did not plan to establish an enclave. Today, however, the Colombians are very much an established part of Central Falls, and the children and grandchildren of the first families in the city are in a better position to organize their community and to promote their culture while seeking a greater presence in the larger American society. In the Fall of 2001, Colombians in Central Falls elected the first Latino in City Hall. This is indeed a message to the greater community of Rhode Island that they are definitely here to stay.

 

Source: The Latino Oral History Project of Rhode Island