Latinos have shaped Wisconsin’s economy for over 100 years


“You can’t talk about the economic health of the state” without giving credit to decades of workers and new residents.

We cannot talk about the history of Wisconsin without talking about the history of agriculture and organized labor in the state. And we can’t talk about the history of agriculture and organized labor in Wisconsin without talking about the history of Latinos living in Wisconsin.

“It’s impossible to talk about the economic health of the state, not just in 2021, but really throughout the 20th century, let alone Latinx work,” said Sergio Gonzalez, assistant professor of Latinx studies at the Marquette University. “All our agricultural industries since the 1940s have depended, in particular, on [people of] Mexican descent. . . and to this day, that’s still the case when you think of the dairy industry.

According to the Wisconsin Historical Society website, Wisconsin’s first Spanish speakers were Spanish traders, trappers, sailors and soldiers, who controlled Louisiana territory from 1763 to 1803.

While there were a few Spanish speakers, but not many, living in Wisconsin in the 1700s and 1800s, the first recorded Wisconsin Latino was Rafael Baez, a classically trained musician from Pueblo, Mexico, who moved to Milwaukee after joining the Hess Opera CD. company in 1884.

The first major wave of Latino immigrants came from Mexico when the Mexican Revolution began in 1910 and for the first decades fluctuated with the economy.

In the Roaring Twenties, the United States passed the Johnson-Reed Act, which set immigration limits for Europeans and Asians, but did not restrict immigration from the Americas. As a result, Mexicans were recruited to work in tanneries, smelters and factories in Milwaukee and as migrant workers on sugar beet farms. When the Great Depression hit, many returned to Mexico, but another influx of Mexicans was recruited during the labor shortage of World War II through the Bracero program, a U.S. government initiative that brought in millions of Mexicans in the United States to work throughout the war and into the 1950s and early 1960s.

Wisconsin farm worker Conrado Lopez flaunts his “Huelga!” – NFWA union button with its black eagle symbol in a red circle in the center in 1967. “Huelga” means “strike” in Spanish, the NFWA means National Farm Workers of America. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.)

Mexicans are still the largest Latino group in Wisconsin, although Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Salvadorians, Colombians, and Nicaraguans have also made Wisconsin their home. While Mexicans and Puerto Ricans were initially drawn to the state for work opportunities, Cubans in the 1960s and Central Americans in the 1980s fled oppressive governments, and Wisconsin’s strong interfaith refugee support network, comprising Catholic, Protestant and Jewish organizations, offered the promise of sanctuary and safe harbor.

Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in Wisconsin today, but while many speculate this is due to immigration, Gonzalez pointed out that US-born Latinos make up the majority of that. growing population.

“I think when the people of Wisconsin often think of Latinos – if they think of us – they think of two things: they think of farm workers and maybe the dairy industry, or they think of urban centers,” Gonzalez said. “But the reality, of course, is that Latinos have lived in Wisconsin for decades and they have found a way to feel at home in that state for a very long time.”

La Raza unida jamás será vencida

(The united people will never be defeated)

While Latino workers have been the key to Wisconsin’s economy, their European-born neighbors have not always welcomed them with open arms.

“Cases of prejudice, racial discrimination, residential segregation, economic discrimination, and therefore Latinos often have to find a way to make a home,” Gonzalez said. “The way they often did it was to withdraw into themselves and create communities within the neighborhoods in which they lived. “

These communities included welfare societies, baseball teams, schools, newspapers, and religious organizations. As a result, Latinos in different countries were able to develop a sense of solidarity, according to Gonzalez.

He is working on a book called “Strangers No Longer: Latino Belonging and Faith in 20th Century Wisconsin” which examines “how churches have been places where Latinos have come together to form community, but also, just as importantly, to create a sense of solidarity and create social movements ”, he declared

The idea came from his own childhood; her mother was an immigration and labor activist who went to church every Sunday to speak with congregations about her work.

“I remember sitting on the benches and watching her in front of the congregation, talking about the importance of solidarity,” he said. “[Organizers did] so in the 1960s, when they went to churches to help build their farmworker movements and to build movements against police brutality. And again, against economic exploitation and going until the 1980s with the arrival of Central American refugees and the creation of a sanctuary movement here in Milwaukee.

Protesters from Obreros Unidos (United Workers), an independent union of agricultural workers in Wisconsin, wave at a rally in Milwaukee. In the background, a man paints the National Farm Workers of America Aztec eagle symbol on a poster. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.)

This organization spread to the fields of the farm. Inspired by Cesar Chavez, founder of the National Farm Workers Association, Latino farm workers in Wisconsin formed their own independent union, Obreros Unidos. The union was formed in 1966 after two dozen farm workers walked the 80 miles from Wautoma to Madison. The union collapsed in the 1970s as more farm workers relocated to Milwaukee and other communities in Wisconsin.

Saving history

Documenting Wisconsin’s Latin American communities and their histories is the goal of the Wisconsin Latinx History Collective (WLHC), founded and directed by Tess Arenas. Arenas, who identifies as Chicana after the Chicano movement, a 1960s Mexican-American campaign focused on political and social justice as well as cultural awareness and pride, was born and raised in the southern part of Milwaukee.

Roberto Hernandez (left) and Esequiel Guzman (center) work on the layout of “La Guardia” newspaper in 1969. The underground bilingual newspaper was published in Spanish and English from 1969 to 1982 in Milwaukee. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.)

Arenas worked on the diversity and inclusion policy for the UW system for years, then moved to the office of service learning, which works with instructors to develop community student research projects. In doing this work, Arenas was connected to Chicana por mi Raza, an online archive of Chicano and Latino civil rights movements. The organization asked Arenas if she would interview Wisconsin Latinas for their records.

In partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society, Arenas expanded the project and created the Somos Latinas Oral History Project, which includes interviews with more than 40 Wisconsin Latinas about their lives and activism; create newspapers, create bilingual schools, raise funds for refugees and stand for election.

“My intuition on the power of brunette women has been validated and developed,” said Arenas. “I became fully aware of the many sacrifices that women activists have made to create change, whether in their community, in the country or in the world. “

With Eloisa Gómez, Arenas turned some of the interviews into a book, also called Somos Latinas. Along the way, she was asked when she would document the rest of the community. After she and Gómez completed the book tour, she began meeting with historians, archivists, and Latin American communities to plan for the WLHC.

The five-year project now includes more than 60 collaborators collecting oral histories from Latin American communities across the state, including smaller communities like Arcadia, Waukesha, Green Bay, Appleton, Delavan, Lake Geneva and Burlington. Libraries, museums, researchers and the media have come out of the woods to find out more and get involved.

“I’m 70 next week and it’s wonderful,” said Arenas. “I’ve been hearing about the increase in the Latinx population over the past 35 years and the impact we will have. And I have to say that once we have announced the collective agenda, and we got all these responses from people who are waiting for our work, because they want to include our story, it tells me that we are starting to break through.

To learn more or get involved in the oral history collection for the Wisconsin Latinx History Collective, contact Andrea-Teresa “Tess” Arenas at [email protected]

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