January 16, 2011 | The Providence Journal | Original Article

Hispanics, Rhode Island’s fastest-growing group, join an already diverse state

A new portrait of Rhode Island shows that traditional ethnic groups — Irish, Italian and French — still dominate, with pockets of others — Cape Verdeans, Dutch, Armenians — scattered across the state.

But an up-and-coming group, centered in the urban core, promises to reshape the state and its cultural traditions, much as the Irish, Italian and French did upon their arrival.

Those who claim Hispanic or Latino heritage have been the fastest-growing group in recent decades and now make up nearly 12 percent of the population.

This new portrait of the state is found in recently released tallies from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey program, which is not part of the 2010 Census. The survey combines five years’ worth of information, essentially creating an average, and paints a detailed picture of Rhode Island down to census tracts, subdivisions of cities and towns with a few thousand people each. The survey covers 2005 to 2009.

The Providence Journal analyzed this information to learn who we are in Rhode Island and where we live.

The survey showed a state that is predominantly Irish, Italian, French, English, Hispanic and Portuguese in ancestry, with clusters of other groups, from Cape Verdeans, Polish and Norwegians in Pawtucket to Dutch in Warwick, Swedish in East Greenwich and American Indian in Providence.

The analysis shows varying settlement patterns for the major ethnic groups in Rhode Island.

Rhode Islanders claiming French ancestry hug the northern border with Massachusetts, while Portuguese spread down the eastern border with the Bay State.

The Irish, the largest single ethnic group in Rhode Island, are spread fairly evenly across the state.

And Italians cluster in Westerly, western Cranston, Johnston and North Providence.

Hispanics concentrate in cities — Providence, Central Falls, Woonsocket and Newport — while those of English ancestry dominate the state’s smallest towns, such as New Shoreham, Foster and Little Compton.

It can truly be said that, in Rhode Island, Hispanic is the new Italian.

Nowhere is that more emblematic than in Providence’s Federal Hill neighborhood, a traditionally Italian enclave. On Federal Hill, Hispanics are literally following in the footsteps of Italians, outnumbering them 1,762 to 1,343 in the Census survey.

“Federal Hill is one of those neighborhoods where you have a sense of being in another country, of being in the Old World,” said Marta V. Martinez, a historian who has been collecting oral histories of Rhode Island’s Latinos, a term that the Census Bureau considers interchangeable with Hispanics. That atmosphere “drew them there, and then they kind of added to it.”

One key element creating a familiar feel: the church. Italy and most Latin American countries have Roman Catholic majorities, as high as 95 percent for the Dominican Republic, whose emigrants and descendants make up the largest Hispanic group in Rhode Island.

The biggest parallel between the Italian and Hispanic groups lies in how quickly their populations took hold.

By 1900, about 9,000 Italian immigrants had settled in Rhode Island, according to the Italian American Historical Society. Within 30 years, their population rose above 100,000.

Similarly, the 1970 U.S. Census counted 7,596 persons of Hispanic background. That grew to 90,820 in the 2000 Census and to 125,805 in the 2009 American Community Survey. Results from the 2010 Census are expected in February or March.

In the 39 years from 1970 to 2009, the Hispanic population rose by about 118,000 people, an increase of more than 1,500 percent. Meanwhile, the state’s population rose 11 percent, or 106,000 people.

Like the Italians and Irish before them, Hispanic Rhode Islanders have become a political force to be reckoned with, exemplified by last year’s election of Angel Taveras, the first Hispanic mayor of Providence.

“I voted for Angel Taveras principally because he’s Hispanic,” voter Manuel Santos said on his way out of a polling place on Election Day. “But he’s also a serious man, a hard-working man. We need a change and I believe he’ll be able to fix this town, which is very, very bad.”

Taveras’ election was no accident, following the rapid growth of the state and city’s Hispanic population.

“I started to see around the mid ’90s it just started to explode,” said historian Martinez. “There was a sense of empowerment.”

As immigrants have in the past, Hispanic groups are embracing the American way and grasping their power in Rhode Island.

Community groups are helping immigrants apply for citizenship and then register to vote. They also stress the importance of filling out census forms, which make their numbers more visible and bring political power as voting districts are redrawn to take into account the larger Hispanic population.

One difference between the Italian immigrants of the early 20th century and the Hispanic immigrants of today: Italians left a single nation to come to the United States, but Hispanic Rhode Islanders trace their roots to diverse countries — Venezuela, Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Colombia, among others — as well as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

As a result, the story of how Hispanic groups settled in Rhode Island is at once diverse, yet essentially the same as what brought most immigrants to the state.

“There’s two things that have drawn them primarily: family reunification and jobs,” said Martinez.

The formula is familiar: a small number of pioneers come to a place, and then their families and friends follow them, sometimes over the course of several generations. The difference in the story of the various Hispanic groups, then, is what brought those pioneers to Rhode Island.

Martinez said Puerto Ricans arrived in large numbers in the 1920s when they were brought to Newport to pick vegetables on the farms serving the Navy base. Others followed, working on South County farms around the University of Rhode Island. “They were just brought temporarily,” Martinez said. By the 1950s, though, the migrant farm hands had fallen in love with the beauty of the state, and many of them started staying permanently.

“The Dominicans came differently,” said Martinez. “They came for work and settled directly in South Providence.”

The jewelry industry drew the Dominicans, she said, as it did for Mexicans, whose move was also prompted by the North American Free Trade Agreement, commonly known by its acronym, NAFTA. “Mexicans started coming more in larger numbers around the ’90s.”

In the 1960s, textile mill owners in Central Falls recruited Colombians to work in their factories.

Guatemalans began flowing to Rhode Island in large numbers in the 1980s as they fled their country’s civil war, Martinez said.

The story of Hispanic migration in Rhode Island is far from over, but already a new chapter is opening.

Just as Italians originally concentrated on Federal Hill, but then spread out into Providence’s suburbs, so, too, are Hispanics moving within Rhode Island.

One notable trend is the move into the Woonsocket area.

“Jobs in Massachusetts,” Martinez explained. “They work right over the border.”

But they stay in Rhode Island to be near family and friends.