The post-war economic boom of the 1950s and 60s sharply increased Wisconsin crop production. In this photo from the Wisconsin Historical Society, Latino farm workers hoe a cucumber field near Wautoma in 1967.
The post-war economic boom of the 1950s and 60s sharply increased Wisconsin crop production. In this photo from the Wisconsin Historical Society, Latino farm workers hoe a cucumber field near Wautoma in 1967.

‘Impossible to talk about the state’s economic health’ without giving credit to decades of workers and new residents.

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

“It’s impossible to talk about the state’s economic health, not just in 2021, but really across the 20th century, without talking about Latinx labor,” said Sergio Gonzalez, assistant professor of Latinx studies at Marquette University. “All of our agricultural industries since the 1940s have been dependent on, specifically,  [people of] Mexican descent  . . . and to this day, that’s still very much the case when we think about the dairy industry.”

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

While there were a few, but not many, Spanish speakers 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 ​​C. D. Hess Opera company in 1884. 

The first big wave of Latino immigrants came from Mexico when the Mexican Revolution started in 1910 and for the first few decades, it ebbed and flowed with the economy.

In the roaring 20’s the US passed the Johnson-Reed act, which set immigration limits on Europeans and Asians but did not restrict immigration from the Americas. As a result, Mexicans were recruited to work in Milwaukee’s tanneries, foundries, and factories and as migrant laborers on sugar beet farms. When the Great Depression hit, many returned to Mexico but another influx of Mexicans were recruited during the labor shortage in World War II through the Bracero program, a US government initiative which brought millions of Mexicans into the US to work  throughout the war and into the 1950s and early 60s.

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

Mexicans are still the largest Latino group in Wisconsin, though Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Salvadorans, Colombians, and Nicaraguans have also made Wisconsin home. While Mexicans and Puerto Ricans were initially drawn to the state for work opportunities, Cubans in the 60s, and Central Americans in the 80s were fleeing oppressive governments, and Wisconsin’s robust interfaith refugee support network—including 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 assume that is due to immigration, Gonzalez pointed out that US-born Latinos make up the majority of that growing population. 

“I think when Wisconsinites often think of Latinos—if they think of us at all—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 across Wisconsin for decades and they found a way to make themselves at home in this state for a very long time.”

La Raza unida jamás será vencida 

(The people united will never be defeated)

While Latino workers have been key to Wisconsin’s economy, their neighbors of European descent haven’t always welcomed them with open arms.

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

Those communities included mutual aid societies, baseball teams, schools, newspapers, and religious organizations. As a result, Latinos from different countries were able to build 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 looks at “ways in which 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 said 

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

“I remember sitting in the pews and watching her at the 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 farm worker movements and to build movements against police brutality. And again, against economic exploitation and going all the way into the 1980s with the arrival of Central American refugees and the creation of a sanctuary movement here in Milwaukee.”

Demonstrators from Obreros Unidos (United Workers), an independent farm workers’ union in Wisconsin, make signs at a Milwaukee rally. In the background, a man is painting the National Farm Workers of America Aztec eagle symbol on a poster. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.)

That organization spread out to the farm fields. Inspired by Cesar Chavez, founder of the National Farm Workers Association, Wisconsin Latino farm workers formed their own independent union, Obreros Unidos. The union was formed in 1966 after two dozen farm workers marched the 80 miles from Wautoma to Madison. The union faded in the 70s as more farm workers resettled in Milwaukee and other Wisconsin communities.

Saving history

Documenting Wisconsin’s Latino communities and their histories is the goal of the Wisconsin Latinx History Collective (WLHC), founded and led by Tess Arenas. Arenas, who identifies as Chicana after the Chicano movement, a Mexican-American campaign in the 1960s focused on political and social justice as well as cultural awareness and pride, was born and raised on the south side 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 1969-1982 in Milwaukee. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.)

Arenas worked on diversity and inclusion policy for the UW System for years then switched to the office of service learning, which works with instructors to develop community-based student research projects. Through doing that 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 some Wisconsin Latinas for their archive.

In partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society, Arenas expanded the project and created the Somos Latinas oral history project, which includes interviews with over 40 Wisconsin Latinas about their lives and their activism; starting newspapers, starting bilingual schools, raising money for refugees, and running for office. 

“My gut feeling about the power of brown women was validated and expanded upon,” Arenas said. “I became keenly aware of the multiple sacrifices women activists made in order to create change, whether it was in their community, the country or 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. Once she and Gómez wrapped up the book tour, she started meeting with historians, archivists, and Latino communities to plan WLHC.

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

“I’m 70 next week and it’s wonderful,” Arenas said. “I have been hearing about the Latinx population surge for 35 years and how much impact we will have. And I have to say that once we announced the collectives agenda, and we got all of these responses from people waiting for our work, because they want to include our history, that tells me we’re starting to break through.”


To learn more or get involved with collecting oral histories for the Wisconsin Latinx History Collective, contact Andrea-Teresa “Tess” Arenas at Andrea.Arenas@wisc.edu.