Nuestras Raíces: Building Bridges and Community Pride Around Latino History in Rhode Island

NEFA Award Recipient

Providence, RI

Contact Name
Marta V Martínez
Project Dates
January 2014-December 2016
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2017
Nuestras Raices is a Providence-based community empowerment project managed by RI Latino Arts that tells the story of the fastest-growing immigrant group in the state. The project uses art, community events, community story collecting & storytelling to bring people together to increase neighborhood pride. This project presentation will show how RILA engaged and mobilized Latino communities in collecting and preserving their history. Through culturally appropriate strategies RILA has built bridges and connected communities: elders and youth; neighborhood and government organizations; the humanities and the arts.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
Through a wide range of innovative programming developed with community partners at key organizations in South Providence, the Nuestras Raíces oral history project (sometimes referred to as “Café Recuerdos”) engaged both Latinos and non-Latinos in understanding a vital part of our state's history, as told by the people who contributed to it, but whose voices are rarely heard. The project in its current form was launched in 2015 and was based in neighborhoods where the greater part of the residents are economically disadvantaged and in need of culturally relevant arts projects that unite them in a celebration of history and heritage. Our challenge was to provide immigrant residents with a greater understanding of how they can connect the place where they immigrated to the place to which they now live in a culturally appropriate and satisfying way. How can we develop community pride and empower neighborhoods to embrace all the people who live there.

RILA's basic goal, through this project, was to be a creative place-maker, to encourage community engagement in public spaces. As such, the arts installation became a temporary café with bistro chairs and tables set up on street corners, in local parks in an effort to engage as many people from the neighborhood as possible. Public engagement became an important part of the process as we further engaged young people in the collection of community stories at various local venues including schools, libraries, community organizations and outside locations located but not limited to underserved neighborhoods. We fulfilled our goal as the installation traveled to six sites in South Providence and had a great impact on a multigenerational Latino community. As mentioned above, it also traveled to three sites outside of Providence.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
In 2016, after a successful run in Providence, the Nuestras Raíces project traveled to neighboring sites in Central Falls, Pawtucket and Woonsocket. While the overall goal of the project did not change, the manner in which we connected with communities outside of Providence evolved. In Central Falls and Woonsocket, we worked with the local high school ELO Programs and met with very recent immigrant youth and, through the collection of oral histories and place making strategies, we interconnected them with people and places in their new surroundings/home in the U.S. In Pawtucket, we worked with Adult ESL classes at the local library in a similar fashion, that is by collecting oral stories of immigration, connecting students to their neighborhoods, and facilitating questions and discussions that answered the question “what is home?” It also changed in the manner in which we connected and presented individual stories: in Central Falls we collected old photographs of local residents, created a series of “fotohistorias” -- four enlarged banners -- and placed them in public view in City Hall. Likewise in Providence, we took a family photograph from a key Latino “pioneer” from our archives and created a fotohistoria mural and placed it on the inside of a local bus shelter in South Providence. All these activities were accomplished with the goal of raising cultural, community and neighborhood pride.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
Nuestras Raíces, in the form of the Café Recuerdos coffee cart, launched in 2015 in South Providence, forming a strategic geographic triangle connecting Broad Street, Elmwood Avenue and Prairie Street. South Providence is one of the most underserved neighborhoods in the city with over 65% Latino residents. The project engaged six community partners, including ¡CityArts! for Youth, a key arts community center for youth ages 8-12; Pace Senior Center, whose clients are over 65% Latino; three neighborhood libraries (South Providence, Knight Memorial and Washington Park), where related cultural activities (artist lectures, storytelling, hands-on workshops) were presented; The Leviton Dual Language Elementary School 5th grade class; and in a bus shelter adjacent to the former Fefa’s Market, the first Latino market identified through existing oral histories. Partners in neighboring communities included Trinity Repertory Theater in Downtown Providence, which served a different audience than in South Providence; The Adams Library (Central Falls); Pawtucket Public Library; Woonsocket High School and Central Falls High School.

Additional partners included the RI Public Transit Authority, Central Falls City Hall, the City of Providence Planning & Development Department and local school departments in our target sites. Finally, RILA received support from the RI State Council on the Arts, the RI Council for the Humanities, local banks and businesses.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
This program is in line with RILA’s strategic plan, which includes organizing & implementing new programs and activities that will strengthen our mission and deepen community connections by building partnerships & developing educational programs. The project also contributes to a larger vision of community building by creating neighborhood pride leading to safe places to live, shop and play.

Nuestras Raíces was offered to students in local urban schools, and exposed recent immigrant students and their teachers to oral history techniques. We visited schools once a week and taught them how the art of story collecting and storytelling can provide a sense of place. We were able to offer all our partners, their neighbors and friends who live in the neighborhood where we worked, an opportunity to learn about Latino history. The history panels/mural as they are currently presented in two public settings, have exposed residents of all kinds to the rich history and roots (raíces) of RI Latinos, thus creating a more welcoming, inclusive sense of place for all
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
RILA has had a strong relationship with all partners in that we are the only statewide cultural arts group working toward the enrichment of Latino cultures in RI. Further, our relationship with all of our partners has been strengthened in that we all share the strong belief that the arts and humanities can instill pride in local Latino immigrants, can help second-generation Latinos connect to their heritage, and that it is important to engage non-Latinos in understanding the cultural contributions of Latin-Americans to our overall society. Through the years of collecting the Latino oral histories and sharing them with local communities, we’ve discovered that a project like Nuestras Raíces is the first of its kind in RI. Today it is a model for artists, educators and preservationists, and RILA Executive Director has been invited to share its work in communities outside of RI.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
RILA’s Executive Director began collecting the oral histories of RI’s Latinos in 1992, and today she continues to collect, record and generally add to the overall project. She is often invited to share best practices of oral history and the collected stories in public places. In the process, she has collected countless photos, artifacts and recorded stories. The idea of turning a humanities project into art came from a local Cuban artist, who in 2013 was invited to tell her story so it could be added to the collection. Instead of offering a taped recording or photographs, the artist proposed the idea of creating the coffee cart and she was hired to assemble it. The next steps were to seek funding, build partnerships in an effort to raise funds, raise awareness and expose the general public to our work and to our organization. RILA has a strong relationship with the majority of the partners mentioned, and through this project, we have made new ones and strengthened ties with others. It took three years to seek funding; one year to meet with community partners, collect stories and create and foster trust; one year to meet with the artist, find other artists to help assemble the cart, and generally to create excitement about the art piece. It took over a year to meet with city officials to develop trust and final approval for the art murals; finally, it has taken two years of traveling through the City of Providence and into surrounding communities to create excitement around the project as a whole. Our next phase will turn the stories into theatrical monologues and to use the coffee cart as a back-drop when we present the monologues to the community at-large.
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
The manner in which we reach our audience and how we bring all our partners together has been refined and has proven to be the key success to our program. RILA is now hosting community “pláticas” or culturally appropriate, bilingual convenings/discussions in each of the communities where our project has been or where we are looking for partnerships to take shape. We use these pláticas as a way to learn and connect first-hand with local residents and stakeholders. These convenings have brought together elders, youth, educators, local government staff and community groups. We have taken the traditional oral history interview approach and have reshaped and adapted a more culturally appropriate method, to provide a platform where individuals can engage with each other in informal settings. As mentioned above, the next step is to take the collected stories from the original oral histories and recently collected stories, turn them into theatrical monologues and present them in the same locations where our coffee cart has been: parks, street corners, libraries, schools and community/neighborhood centers.
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
The greatest obstacle for our organization has been funding – piecing together grants from different funding sources to pay the artists to design, create and manage the coffee cart was and continues to be quite challenging in light of the current social and economic climate. RILA is often seeking ways to hire and sustain our staff while at the same time, providing ongoing, culturally relevant programs. Through this project, and with all our projects, we looked for ways to partner with organizations outside of the creative sector to gain more exposure, grow our programs and educate them about funding the cultural arts through our mission: to create bridges and raise awareness about Latino cultures in RI. A more concrete example where we faced a major challenge occurred as we were looking for public locations to place the public “fotohistorias,” our photo murals. It took almost two years to place the fotohistorias in strategic neighborhood locations while we sought out key individuals and maneuvered our way through paperwork, staff changes and legal issues. It wasn’t until the unveiling of the fotohistorias mural in Providence that individuals realized the positive impact it has on the surrounding neighborhood.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
We were able to overcome obstacles by continuing to build relationships with all stakeholders, including city government institutions, community organizations, neighborhood residents (through the pláticas) and most of all, through great PATIENCE and always remembering that our mission is to build bridges, educate and advocate for the arts as a whole.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1. Community partnerships cross-sector and cross cultures are vitally important. Know your audience.
2. Be patient and persistent with all stakeholders.
3. Be a strong advocate, take advantage of networking opportunities and ensure that you have strong local support.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
What we see difference is a heightened sense of self-pride among Latinos of all ages. We have received positive reactions and feedback from the public fotohistorias – from residents, city officials, strangers who sit waiting for a bus shelter, and from the Latino community as a whole.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
This project continues to give RI Latino Arts greater visibility, not only in RI but around the country. It has generated new partnerships that help us support RI Latin American arts and artists. It has contributed to the development of a larger and more diverse network of working artists and civic leaders, has pushed RILA into the role of being a civic and arts leader in Rhode Island, and allowed RILA to take risks in building partnerships within the Latino community that other organizations or government offices haven’t been able to accomplish in Rhode Island. It has fused our main vision of enriching the greater Rhode Island community with Latino culture, and has raised self-esteem and awareness of building neighborhood pride through our creative engaging community pláticas. The traveling coffee cart/arts installation is currently housed at the RILA offices and in 2017 will be used as a backdrop for storytelling events, the performance of theatrical monologues and places that have hosted us in the past, have inquired about a repeat visit to their site.
How did you measure this success or progress?
Success has been measured by the requests for our arts installation to travel to different neighborhoods and for repeat visits to past sites. Latinos and non-Latinos expressed great interest in learning the history, offering their story and finding a sense of place where they can connect to Rhode Island as their “home.” Immigrants from around the world participated in the ESL classes at the libraries, Americans shared their ancestral stories of family heritage, and young Latinos were introduced to their cultural roots through creative arts activities, learning to be junior oral historians and collectors of their own family history thus appreciating and valuing who they are.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
Buoyed by the success of its Nuestras Raíces and Café Recuerdos, RILA now holds regular community “platícas” as a way to take the oral history idea to raising self pride and give residents of South Providence a sense that their neighborhood is important. RILA believes that when residents take pride in who they are and where they live, neighborhoods will prosper and become lively and safe and places to live. We are tickled when young people email us to offer to add cans of Café Bustelo painted with images of people they have interviewed as a result of our visit to their school or local library. In general, the story of Doña Fefa which is told on the fotohistoria photo mural on the bus shelter has reached people who never knew the story and who have asked if there will be any others installed in other bus shelters. We know this because RILA’s Director often stops by to visit the shelter to check for vandalism (none to date!) and engages in conversations with people waiting to take the bus. Many have expressed great pleasure and pride in being able to sit inside a shelter that holds such a powerful story.
CCX Workshop Handout

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