This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Marta Martinez is the community oral historian behind Nuestras Raíces: The Latino Oral History Project of Rhode Island, as well as the Executive Director and Founder of nonprofit Rhode Island Latino Arts. Martinez told morning host Luis Hernandez that when she came to Rhode Island in the 70s to attend Providence College, she found that she was the only Latina on campus.

Marta Martinez: It was not only isolating in terms of the culture but I didn't have a car, I didn't have a way to get off campus. So I was stuck on campus. And it was a very good and positive experience. I don't want to make it sound like it was a terrible time. But once I stepped off campus, I found there was – there were Latinos out there. The first hint that I got that there were Latinos was in my junior year at PC, I got an internship. So I worked at Channel 12. And channel 12, at that time, now that I'm doing this project, I learned the Latino community was just getting started in terms of social movements.

Luis Hernadez: What was the impetus to start this project though? What was the inspiration? 

Martinez: After I graduated, I got a job, and it was for an organization called Hispanic Social Services Association, HSSA. I also realized that the Latinos that I was meeting were not like myself. Again, I felt a little bit like an outsider. There were no Mexicans, there were mostly Dominican, Puerto Rican. And I wanted to mainly find, not just other Latinos, but now that I was off campus, I wanted to find my food. I decided I'm going to work for a Latino organization. I wanted to get to know the community that I would be working with, so on Fridays I would shut down and go up and down Broad Street. My office was on Elmwood Avenue. And everybody said, if you wanted to buy Latino food, you need to go to Broad Street. So I did, I'd walk up and down. And that was the Latino community that I first met, and they were all Dominican. So I would talk to people, and having a journalism degree I just started asking a lot of questions. And everybody kept pointing me to one person, this one woman – her name was “Doña Fefa,” or Josefina Rosario. And they all said you need to talk to her, she's really someone that I think you should meet. And so I did, I made arrangements to go see her. And that turned out to be my very first interview, talking to her and meeting her family and, and it was my entry into this project after having interviewed her.

Hernandez: Is there anything about that project that really surprised you?

Martinez: One of the things that we all do is, we're very proud of our nationalities. Right? We're Mexican, you're Dominican, you’re Puerto Rican. And that's kind of how I was approaching the project. But what surprised me, and what, it was actually a pleasant surprise how similar our stories were. So others would tell me how they felt just like I did. They were all looking for Latinos, all looking for their food, and different kinds of food, they felt isolated – you know, the shared experiences that we had. But also how diverse Rhode Island is. I was looking for Mexicans. I met Dominicans, and then through the project, I started to find Guatemalans and Colombians and Venezuelans. And pretty much every single country from Latin America, and there 21 of them, is represented in Rhode Island. I think that's really cool.

Hernandez: But the biggest groups, or at least the early on in the project, were Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. 

Martinez: Right. And they still are.

Hernandez: What, what brought them here?

Martinez: Well, work, they were looking for work. The original story, and the one thing they all shared is that they came by way of New York. And in the case of the Dominicans, it was through refugees. They left, there was a dictator, and life was changing in their countries and they fled. And then once they learn that there's other people like themselves in New York, they go there. But then they come to Rhode Island and they discover what they all refer to pretty much across the board is paradise. “Un paraíso,” they all said. They loved Rhode Island and Providence compared to life in New York. And so they were brought here for opportunities. Not so much as today when you would ask somebody, they're like I came here for my kids, I want them to have a better life. Back then it was, we just want to have a new life ourselves.

Hernandez: That's so interesting though, to call it paradise. What was it that they found that was paradise?

Martinez: It was not New York City. So when – if you come from places like Santo Domingo or Puerto Rico and you're surrounded by your ocean, first of all, life is a little more tranquil. When you go to New York City, they just, some of the neighborhoods they described, it was just a shock to them. They really weren't – they didn't know anything else living in New York, but then they come in to Rhode Island, and they see a park, green space, and just, life was just more tranquil.

Hernandez: I wonder how over time, and you've had the chance to see this, how that growing Latino community is reshaping Rhode Island? What have you seen?

Martinez: I've seen and I've learned, just doing the oral histories and reading, what shaped it was when people started to just say “enough is enough.” And the movements that started in the 80s that laid the groundwork to where we are now, I mean – originally, we had, there were battles against bilingual education, they were tired of being put in the basement, and they never learned English. These were some of the kids. And then being discriminated, they didn't – they were learning English, didn't understand simple things like getting their gas bill, not knowing what it meant getting their gas shut off because they didn't read English. And now we're way past that. But there was a point in the 80s, where there was a social movement, and they realized that in order to get change, you need to be politically involved. And so that groundwork that started in the 80s, I mean, look what happened today. Now we had a Secretary of State who was a Puerto Rican. We had our first Latino mayor, a Dominican. Our first – second Latino mayor, a Colombian in Central Falls. And we're politically powerful now. And that's what happened in the 80s, and it finally came into fruition just in the past couple of years.

Hernandez: Besides this project, you also wrote a book based on the stories that you collected. And there's a website where people can access the collection. Do you have any other plans or other projects that you're working on, expanding on the work you've already done?

Martinez: Yes, I think, one of the things I learned as I was collecting the stories is that I didn't want them to become archives, put away in folders for researchers and scholars. I really feel that these projects belong to the people who gave their stories. So it's my way of just making sure that all of those stories, and the history that that we've brought, of the people and the places, gets back out into the young people. And I've been in rooms where I was just a fly on the wall, so to speak, and I've heard people repeat some of the information that I collected. Like hey, did you know that the first woman who came to Rhode Island was a Dominican? And it comes from the Dominican young person, and they say it with great pride. When I hear that, it really makes me feel good. They don't realize that story did not exist until, you know, recently.

Hernandez: Are you still collecting stories?

Martinez: I'm still collecting stories. And I feel like doing oral histories, it's a never-ending project. And I still run into people who say, “Oh, my aunt came in the 60s and 70s.” And those are the cues I look for. And if there's anybody listening to this, if there's anybody you know, or maybe perhaps you came in at an early time, I'll interview you. I just want your story.

Hernandez: I've got to ask, did you ever find your food?

Martinez: I did, eventually. It took a while. Took me a while, but I found my tortillas and my chile.

Hernandez: Marta, it's such a pleasure, I really appreciate it. Thank you for sharing with me.

Martinez: Oh my pleasure. Un buen placer, gracias.

Hernandez: Gracias.

Learn more about Nuestras Raíces: The Latino Oral History Project of Rhode Island, including how to participate, at