The United States has long been considered a “melting pot” where people from different cultures arrive from all over the world to start a new life. While the chase of the “American Dream” is exciting for most who seek it, the fear of losing touch with one’s upbringing and the unique characteristics of the places they emigrated from can be daunting.
“There is always that fear in people who have recent heritage in immigration,” Progreso Latino Executive Director Mario Bueno said. “Will I maintain the language? Will I maintain the customs? Will I maintain the traditions? It’s very a real fear that becomes a reality.”
Many immigrants hope to keep their roots close while continuing to grow in a new place. Rather than looking at the United States as a melting pot where different components fuse into one, organizations like Progreso Latino work to help the country feel more like a salad bowl. Bueno explains that blending in doesn’t have to mean losing one’s original shape or substance. In fact, the combination is enriched by each ingredient’s unique variation in color, zest, flavor, and origin.
“We hope that we continue to embrace diversity because that’s a strength for our community,” Bueno said. “We do have differences and they are not weaknesses. They are strengths. If we strive to be inclusive and we acknowledge those differences and we celebrate those differences, then we will have happier people who are more productive and successful because they know where they come from and where they are going.”
Founded in 1977 to serve and support Rhode Island’s Latino and immigrant communities, Progreso Latino got its start in Central Falls when a group of Columbian immigrants working in the textile industry shared concerns about not being represented or having translation services to accommodate their needs as immigrants. The organization has since grown to offer more than a dozen core programs and services, including adult education, early childhood education, senior services, health and wellness, workforce development, youth development, domestic violence intervention and prevention programs, volunteer income tax assistance, immigration and social services, and emergency food relief.
Progreso Latino is also hosting its 45th Anniversary Gala on October 21st at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet. Each year, the fundraiser spotlights one of the organization’s programs. In 2022, Progreso Latino is highlighting its adult education program and how it contributes to the community.
“I think it’s important to have organizations that are composed of immigrants and people who are from diverse communities because they serve as a place where individuals can be empowered and take pride in who they are while contributing to the community,” Bueno said.
Quisqueya en Accion is a 501 c3 nonprofit organization that shares a similar mission.
“We have so many people who came through our programs and are now giving back to their communities in a positive way representing Latino heritage,” Quisqueya en Acion President Marilyn Cepeda explained. “A lot of these people who come out of Quisqueya en Accion have gotten involved civically at a national and a local level.”
Cepeda’s sister founded Quisqueya En Accion in 1987 at the age of sixteen after many years of acting as their mother’s translator and feeling compelled to hold onto their family’s culture and traditions rooted in the Dominican Republic.
While the organization is well-known for hosting the annual Dominican Festival and Parade which draws over 13,000 people to Providence each August, their civic involvement spans beyond that over the course of the year. Other initiatives include youth and parent programs, a college awareness preparation program and the Broad Street Cleanup, an effort to remove litter and beautify the street by planting trees.
Quisqueya en Accion also has a group of 32 girls who perform around the state to represent the 32 Provinces of the Dominican Republic (including the national capital Santo Domingo). Their most recent performance was at Roger Williams Middle School in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.
“One of the mistakes that we sometimes make when we become Dominican Americans or Latino Americans is that we forget where we come from or where our parents come from,” Cepeda said. “I think it’s important that people hold onto their roots because it makes them unique.”
“Getting to know other people is a challenge for all of us wherever we come from,” Bueno agreed. “Learning about the perspectives and life experiences of others is important because it enriches our lives and what we do.”
In Rhode Island, there are plenty of opportunities to learn about other cultures thanks to the work of organizations like Progreso Latino and Quisqueya en Accion. National Hispanic Heritage Month is just one more reason to take a moment and appreciate the unique communities that define the Ocean State.
“We are very proud of that unity that exists here in Rhode Island amongst different folks from different origins and different countries,” Bueno said. “It makes us such a diverse state and that’s something to celebrate and think about. It should be a strength that we continue to embrace.”