Rhode Island has been a destination for migrants throughout its history. Although the state is widely known for its Italian, Irish, Portuguese, and French Canadian influences, some of its first migrants came from Latin America. Not long after Roger Williams founded the colony in the mid-seventeenth century, approximately 15 families of Jewish settlers arrived in Newport from the West Indies, completing a dual migration that had originated in Spain and Portugal. More Jewish settlers came from Curasao, off the coast of Venezuela, during the 1730s. But the number of migrants from Latin America to Rhode Island was virtually negligible for the next two centuries. This was, in part, a consequence of the declining economic interaction between the state and the region; European commercial
restrictions following U.S. independence hampered Rhode Island merchants’ ability to trade with the West Indies.1 In fact, by 1900 the U.S. census counted only 253 Rhode Island residents who had been born in Latin America.2
Thanks to advances in transportation, as well as the need for labor, migrants from Latin America came in greater numbers in the early twentieth century. By virtue of their U.S. citizenship, the Puerto Ricans traveled an expedited path to the United States, and they were the first Latino national group to explore these new opportunities. During the 1920s, Puerto Ricans began arriving in the Ocean State in search of jobs in manufacturing, as well as seasonal work on small farms. But the Puerto Rican population in Rhode Island remained relatively small until the 1980s, a decade during which they migrated in numbers substantial enough to warrant their own political action committee and to establish a Puerto Rican parade and festival. By 2000 there were 25,422 Puerto Ricans in Rhode Island, comprising 28 percent of the state’s Latinos the largest national group.
Dominicans represent the second-largest Latino national group at about 20 percent. As was the case for Puerto Ricans, many Dominicans migrated by way of New York City in search of a better environment to raise families and to escape urban overcrowding. Many moved to Providence looking for better jobs, mainly in jewelry work and textile mills. At present Dominicans are the most politically active Latino group in the state. Their concerns about and experiences of discrimination have led to a drive for more collective action, the creation of community groups such as Quisqueya en Accion, and greater electoral participation. In fact, out of the 26 Dominicans who held elected office in the United States in 2006, three were in Rhode Island.
Guatemalans are the third-largest Latino national group, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the population. Many came in search of political asylum during the 1960s and 1970s when Guatemala was in the midst of a brutal civil war and relied heavily on the Catholic Church for services to ease their transition. Many have settled in places such as the west end of Providence, Portsmouth, and Middletown. But Guatemalans today are still generally isolated and have not been as visible in political and social circles as other Latino groups.3
Although Mexicans are the fourth-largest Latino group in Rhode Island at 6.5 percent, little recorded evidence chronicles their experience prior to the 1980s. A 1940 estimate counted only 21 Mexicans in the state (which was actually a threefold increase from 20 years earlier). But the Mexican community grew substantially in the 1980s and 1990s as more migrants came to work on farms in West Warwick and Coventry. In addition, many others have migrated to Providence to work in the jewelry industry and start their own businesses.4
The migration of Colombians to Rhode Island has been much more targeted. It began in the mid-1960s, when textile mill owners in Central Falls recruited work-
ers in the Colombian provinces of Antioquia and Baranquilla, where textiles were a popular industry. Promises of employment and education encouraged other Colombians to migrate to Rhode Island, even after most of the mills shut down in the mid-1980s. Today, Colombians represent the fifth-largest group of Latinos in Rhode Island.