Exhibits at Museum of Work and Culture Museum Seek to Bridge Historical Gaps

Oral histories of local Latino communities add depth to a poster exhibit on view in Woonsocket


From now through September 24, museum-goers can get a glimpse into the history of Latino settlement and life in Rhode Island over the past century through dual exhibits on view at the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket. 

“Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964” – a bilingual Smithsonian poster display – is complemented by “This Kind of Love, Our Love: Latino Stories in the Blackstone Valley, 1960s-Today,” which was created in partnership with RI Latino Arts and builds on the themes of the first exhibit by telling regional stories. A third mini exhibit delves into the rejuvenation of the textile industry by Colombian workers in Central Falls during the 1960s. 

The Museum of Work and Culture, which is part of the Rhode Island Historical Society, traditionally focuses on the history of French Canadians in Woonsocket. However, exhibit and program coordinator Deborah Krieger says she hopes the current displays will help to shine a light on the history and lived experiences of Latino communities in and around Woonsocket. 

“Bittersweet Harvest” details the Bracero program that began in the 1940s, in which the United States and Mexican governments came to an agreement to bring Mexican workers into the United States to fulfill wartime labor shortages. These were largely agricultural jobs in states like California and Texas, though a small number of braceros came to Rhode Island to work on the New Haven rail line. 

Using oral histories from their Nuestras Raíces project, RI Latino Arts’ “This Kind of Love, Our Love” then continues the story, filling in the more recent and local history with a collection of historic artifacts and an art installation supplementing the informational posters of “Bittersweet Harvest.” 

It’s thanks to research published by Marta Martinez, executive director at RI Latino Arts, that we now know there were braceros in Rhode Island. Martinez plays an instrumental role in the ongoing work of compiling and preserving oral histories within the Latino community. “The push-pull of immigration is an important story that cannot be overlooked,” she explains. “Today, Latin Americans and Central Americans continue to make Rhode Island their home, and to contribute to the economic growth of the state.” 

The exhibits are connected not only thematically, but also in their attempts to answer questions the museum has always asked: “‘What does it mean to be a worker?’ ‘What does it mean to be a laborer?’ and ‘What does it mean to build community and to maintain community?’” explains Krieger. 

Krieger also credits Woonsocket City Councilor and pastor Valerie Gonzalez for her role in engaging the community in the exhibition. Gonzalez is most excited about hosting the first-ever Spanish-language tour of the Museum of Work and Culture on September 3, highlighting not only the bracero exhibit, but the museum at large. 

“I feel one of my biggest roles is not just to serve, but to bridge,” Gonzalez says, “to be a bridge between those who have not been able to connect to the community as they would have liked to and I think that this exhibition is a great effort towards that.” RIHS.org


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