PROVIDENCE — Marta V. Martinez recalled taking out her tape recorder to interview Josefina “Doña Fefa” Rosario, a woman credited with launching the first wave of immigration from the Dominican Republic to Rhode Island in the 1950s.
Over the years, Martinez collected the stories of Spanish-speaking pioneers and leaders, leading to “Nuestras Raíces: The Latino Oral History Project of Rhode Island.”
On the Rhode Island Report podcast, Martinez said Rosario and her husband, Tony, used to go to New York to pick up Dominican food, which they couldn’t find at the time in Rhode Island. Eventually, the Rosarios opened a bodega on Broad Street, and she began bringing people back from New York with her, along with the food.
When she made the trips, people would ask Doña Fefa what Rhode Island was, Martinez said. “She just raved about it — she called it a paradise, un paraíso,” she said. “So people would hop in the car with her and they would come to Rhode Island to check it out. And they agreed — they loved it here.”
Many of those who visited decided to move their families to Rhode Island, Martinez said. “She pretty much created, she built, she planted the seed,” she said.
In the play, actresses play characters based on Doña Fefa and many others who have helped to build Rhode Island’s Latino community over the decades, and Martinez said she was shocked to discover that one character is based on her – a Providence College student with a journalism background.
Martinez said people in the community have enjoyed seeing these stories on stage.
“I think the most fun part is that it has become interactive,” she said. “I’ve learned from the Trinity staff that they’re not used to audiences actually jumping on the stage like that. There’s music. Latinos, when the music comes on, you get up and dance — it’s just a natural instinct. And some of them have jumped on the stage to to dance along and to sing along.”
Martinez said she hopes the play inspires young people to start collecting their own stories and to learn more about oral history and the context of historical movements.
“Everybody has a story to tell,” she said. “And I hope more Latinos come forward and tell their story for future generations.”
To get the latest episode each week, follow Rhode Island Report podcast on Apple Podcasts and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player above.