Dominicans in Rhode Island

Dominicans in Rhode Island

Although most literature today will chart the immigration patterns of Dominicans from the Dominican Republic to New York City, a sizable population of Dominicans can also be found in  the City of Providence. The story of the Dominicans in Providence, however, is one of migration, not immigration. Between 1980 and 1990, the Hispanic population of Rhode Island grew by 132%, and during the next decade by 98.5%. Although many Dominicans have made their home in New York since the passage of the Family Reunification Act of 1965, their arrival to Rhode Island took place almost a decade later.  

Beginning in the 1970s, and through the 1990s, Providence experienced a steady increase in its Hispanic population, mainly people looking for a way to get out of New York City. The migration of Dominicans and other Hispanics toward the  New England states occurred for a variety of reasons. Like most immigrants, the Dominicans came to the United States looking for a better life. Their trip northward stemmed from the same reasoning. Since New York City is the first stop for many Dominicans, the overcrowding of the City and the heavy concentration of Latinos there were cited as one of the main factors for leaving. Described by many Dominicans as beautiful due to its small-town-infrastructures, some of them moved to Providence to escape the City atmosphere and the tight ethnic enclaves. Dominicans currently living in Providence say that Rhode Island especially offered a safe environment for Dominicans with children.

Employment was another motivation for the migration from New York City to Providence. New factories started opening up in New England, and jobs became available to the Dominicans, mainly in jewelry and textile mills. During that time, it was said that jobs were so abundant that factory owners took to the streets to look for workers. And Dominicans who found these jobs, sent home word of the employment opportunities with money tucked inside their letters.

To many Dominicans, Providence was and still is the city of choice because this is where many of the first Hispanics settled, and continue to reside today. During the late 1950s and 1960s, there were not many Hispanics in Providence, and certainly fewer in other parts of Rhode Island, to help them acclimate to their new home. Without family, many Hispanics relied on the help of a woman named Josefina Rosario, and her family. Fondly known as “Doña Fefa” many people visited Providence before moving here, staying with Doña Fefa. To many, she was their only friend and ally. For years, Fefa and her husband, Tony, cordoned off sections of their apartment located on Broad Street in the Southside of Providence, and housed the newcomers. They helped their guests find jobs in restaurants, jewelry factories, textile mills. They went as far as to go with them to help them get driver’s licenses and social security cards, and even provided assistance with enrolling their children into the public schools.

Doña Fefa proudly poses in the first Hispanic market in Rhode Island, opened by the Rosario family.

Photo: Josefina “Doña Fefa” Rosario, matriarch of the first  Dominican family, proudly poses in the first Hispanic market in Rhode Island, opened by the Rosario family.

The Rosarios were not only the first Latino couple to arrive in Rhode Island from New York City in 1952. They were also the first to open the first Hispanic food market and restaurant in the state called Fefa’s Market. Today the Dominican Community is clearly the leader in Hispanic-owned businesses on Broad Street, Elmwood Avenue and Cranston Street in the City of Providence. Providence is now a community waiting to be shaped by Hispanics, their experiences and their customs. A walk along Broad Street and other parts of the Southside of Providence today boasts the entrepreneurial endeavors of Dominicans in the form of bodegas, restaurants and beauty salons, among the many cultural symbols of success. Today’s Dominicans also boast the highest political activity among Latinos in Rhode Island. This community has helped elect two Dominicans to the Providence City Council, two Latina legislators to a House seat, and the first Senator to serve in the Rhode Island State House.

Source: The Latino Oral History Project of Rhode Island