How Bowling Became a Pro-Immigrant Sport in Rhode Island
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because communities like these have the power to effect real change.
By Nick Fouriezos
Hiram Marquez steps up, his black bowling ball in hand. The middle-aged Dominican-American’s first two rolls have been strikes — he blows on the ball for luck then launches it down the lane with a hard thud. Another strike. Watching on is Jose A. Mejia, also Dominican, who arrived in Rhode Island 40 years ago. His wife, Diany, originally immigrated to New York but found the Big Apple unappealing, like many other Latinos who eventually migrated to Providence for the plentiful jobs, low crime and reduced chaos. “They used to call it the Jewelry State,” Mejia says, noting how most Hispanics worked in the factories that produced bling for the fingers of New England’s rich and famous.
In the late ’70s, Mejia helped start a weekly gathering, “the Spanish League,” as a means of getting the small community through the harsh winters: Bowling is a social sport, he says, and “we don’t have to stay home just shoveling snow.” His daughter, Joelly, remembers spending almost every Sunday at that bowling alley. In many ways, it became her church.
If you picture Latinos playing a sport, you probably put them on a soccer field. Where I grew up, they’re bowling.
Joelly Mejia, daughter of a Spanish League organizer
Today, that tiny league has expanded to a spring softball season as well. Nearly a hundred members play each weekend from early fall into late spring. All are welcome to join, at $20 per week, but most are Dominican, Puerto Rican and Guatemalan. Their ranks have swelled to include city council members and mayors, local activists and popular disc jockeys. After bowling, the policy-minded gather to discuss the issues troubling their community — most urgently, raising money for Puerto Rico recovery efforts and addressing the recent Trump proposal to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It’s just another sign of the increasing political will of the Latino community in Little Rhody, which is 14.5 percent Hispanic, second only to Connecticut (15.5 percent) in the New England region.
Some believe bowling is a particularly enlightening window into the health of American communities, a topic Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam covered in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone. Putnam theorized that the United States had gone through an unprecedented collapse in civic and social life, using the drop in bowling league enrollments as a prism for viewing the lack of social interaction most Americans face. Rhode Island, though, has the conditions to “become a genuinely exemplary place for how to meet the challenges of our time,” says Michael Kennedy, a sociologist at Brown University. “We have the diversity, but we also have the social ties. We have the economic challenges, but we also have the entrepreneurs. We have real poverty, but we also have real concentrations of innovation.”
Though she now works as a television producer in Los Angeles, Joelly is producing a documentary about the league. Her focus increased when Donald Trump, on his way to the presidency, said many Mexicans were rapists and murderers.
“Immigrant suddenly became a dirty word,” she says. “I want to change the narrative about what immigrant meant to me, growing up in this community. If you picture Latinos playing a sport, you probably put them on a soccer field. Where I grew up, they’re bowling. It’s so Americana. They’re bowling, and they are city leaders.”