El Primer Enganche - The First Hook
El Primer Enganche – The First Hook – as they called themselves, were a tight-knit community of Colombian immigrants, recruited in the early 1970s to work in Lowell’s textile mills. With the earlier decline in the industry, the first Colombians were sought out by mill owners around New England who had trouble hiring skilled workers.
The first known recruitment of Colombians happened between 1964 and 1965 when Jay Gutiarri, son of the owner of Lyon’s fabrics in Rhode Island, was in Barranquilla Colombia, studying and doing business. He came across a textile factory and called his father and told him what he found. He suggested a way to stop his father’s factory from decline. The plan was to recruit three men, one loom fixer, a weaver, and a mill supervisor. Gutiarri’s father said yes, and the three men came to Rhode Island. The hiring was so successful that mill owners around New England started recruiting people from Colombia.
In 1969, the vice president of Ponemah mills in Connecticut recruited 19 mechanics from the major mills in Medellin, Colombia. The 19 men worked around New England. In 1970 they found themselves without work when Mario Quiceno came to Lowell seeking a job in the Suffolk Mill (Wannalancit). He met with Ted Larter, the owner of the mill.
Larter, so impressed with Quiceno, he asked him to recruit additional Colombian workers. The other men who’d come to New England during 1969 made their way to Lowell. Once here, the 19 mechanics recruited additional weavers from Colombia to work in Lowell. In the early 1970s, Ted Larter went to Colombia and brought still more workers to the city.
By the mid-1970s, Larter and other mill owners stopped their recruitment in Colombia because the U.S. Department of Labor no longer issued work visas for this purpose. By this time Colombians were coming on their own to Lowell largely to reunite families. When in 1980, textile operations ended in Wannalancit, many of the original mechanics scattered around the country seeking work. Other Colombian workers found work in Lowell at Joan Fabrics. In 1983 it was estimated in the Colombian community that nearly 2,000 Colombians resided in Lowell. The city set the number at about 500. In 2018, Colombians make up the second largest Latino community in the city. They are a significant part of the cultural melting pot that makes Lowell the place that it is.