Who is La Broa’s Doña Fefa?: Ode to the mother of the Hispanic community

Fefa and Martínez with bus stop art featuring young Fefa. (Photo: RI Latino Arts)

In the wake of Rafael Trujillo’s regime, Josefina “Doña Fefa” Rosario arrived in New York City from the Dominican Republic. In 1960, she moved to Rhode Island with her husband and became a pillar of the local Latine community.


Not long after, she opened Fefa’s Market on La Broa’ (Broad Street), which was the first Latino-owned business in the area.

Soon, Doña Fefa was known as the mother of the Hispanic community, providing support to newly arrived Latinos with a home away from home at the market, where they could find special ingredients from their home countries, and meet others like them to commiserate with.
Fefa was the focal point of Orlando Hernández’s play La Broa’ (Broad Street), which ran earlier this year at Trinity Rep.
The play, directed by Tatyana-Marie Carlo, mainly portrays Fefa’s connection with RI Latino Arts director Marta V. Martínez. Martínez interviewed Fefa in a series of oral histories that she compiled into her book, Latino History of Rhode Island: Nuestras Raíces.
But who was Doña Fefa to those who knew her and spent time with her? And did Hernandez’s La Broa’ get it right?
“She was very warm and everybody I met said that, but she was [also] very kind,” Martínez says. “She mailed me a birthday card, and then she’d call, not say a word, and play ‘Las Mananitas’ on the other end.”
Fefa took Martínez in as if she were family. Martínez recalls, Fefa was proud to be a Latina woman in business. “She was also very determined,” Martínez adds. “Very strong and determined by the way she accomplished what she did.”
Anyone who met Fefa instantly remembered her, Martínez reflects, especially those who came to visit her market. “The minute you walked in the door, she knew you were from another country, and she made sure you had what you needed,” Martínez said.
According to Martínez, there was one Guatemalan customer who arrived at Fefa’s Market looking for masa to cook with, but it was not in stock. So Fefa took it upon herself to make sure she carried the masa at her market for the customer’s next visit.
Doña Fefa and Martínez met in 1991, when Martinez first moved to RI and worked for a Hispanic management organization. “I didn’t know who the Latinos were; I couldn’t find other Mexicans,” Martínez explains. “Then I went to Broad Street and was told there was a woman I needed to meet.”
Martínez’s friend Juanita then took her to Fefa’s house, and the connection was instant. Fefa was very welcoming, Martínez remembers, taking everyone in and making them feel at home.
By the time they met, Fefa owned her second market on Prairie Avenue and her husband had passed away. Her first market was demolished, along with several other businesses on Broad Street, when I-95 was scheduled for relocation.
Martínez learned that Fefa and her husband had been politically involved and it was well known they were friends with the late former Mayor Buddy Cianci. Cianci recruited Fefa and her husband to get Dominican and Puerto Rican citizens to vote and help them understand the importance of voting.
Fefa expressed concern over homelessness and made sure to help others find somewhere to live, to ensure they had a “happy, safe, and clean home.”
“She was very proud; if she saw the power Latinos have gained in RI, she would be very proud,” Martínez says.
Regardless of all that she did to help the community, Fefa’s life purpose was plain and simple. “Her story was not to move here to make life better for her children,” Martínez continues. “She didn’t set out to be the first Latina to register people to vote, she just wanted a good life.”
For Martínez, the most memorable aspect of Fefa’s character was her memory, which she said served her well. “She remembered everything and everybody,” Martínez says. “She remembered my husband and she would call him on his birthday and play Irish music over the phone.”
Once she retired, Fefa was happy to stay home and visit family regularly. Martínez recalls how she still cared for others by asking her daughters to do the things she no longer could.
What Martínez most learned from Fefa was patience — trusting that if something doesn’t happen now, it will because it’s meant to be. Fefa taught Martínez how to “sit down, listen, and pay attention to people and what they’re telling you (or not), to see how you can help them.”
The most difficult aspect of Martínez’s relationship with Fefa was watching her friend age and seeing her feel helpless about not being able to help others. “She’d throw her shoulders down, and she’d have that look of desperation of not being able to do anything,” Martínez says.
Doña Fefa passed away on December 18, 2018. Martínez says her true wealth was defined by the people who loved her, as evident in the outpouring of those who attended her funeral.
As far as how Fefa was portrayed in Hernández’s La Broa’ (Broad Street), Martínez called it “spot on.” She was pleased with how the play represented her friend’s legacy. “Orlando picked up on the little things; I’m happy with the way she was portrayed.”
If Fefa were alive, Martínez has no doubts — she would have loved La Broa’ (Broad Street).
The play’s director, Carlo, never had the chance to meet Fefa before she passed, but if she could tell her anything, it would be what an impact she has made.
“I’d tell her, look at what you’ve done,” Carlo says.
When Carlo met actress Alina Alcántara, who played Fefa in La Broa’ (Broad Street), she was certain Alcántara was made for the role. “The way she was able to tap into Doña Fefa was similar to Doña Fefa in real life,” says Carlo.
Hernández tried to honor Fefa’s “persistence, dreaming, and generosity” through his script.
“I also brought in influences from some of the women in my own family, such as my abuela and my older cousin Zoa,” Hernández says. If he could, Hernández would thank Fefa for helping to deepen his sense of identity as a Latino in the United States. “It’s an honor to tell her story… It’s also very powerful to work on a piece of art that has so many connections to real-life people and communities.”