How Segregation Impacts Milwaukee's Latino Community

Mar 6, 2017

There's a common misconception that many, or most, Latinos in Milwaukee are actually immigrants; however, Hispanic people have been living in the area since the 1920s.

"I personally do think that over the long-term if there's fewer and fewer places where individuals can interact from different races and ethnicities that, that...has a detrimental effect on civic engagement."

There were relatively few Latinos in our community for decades. "The big numbers start in the late '70s and '80s and '90s is really when the large influx of Latinos come to Milwaukee," says Enrique Figueroa, the former longtime director of the Roberto Hernandez Center and an associate professor at UW-Milwaukee.

At that time, many of the Latino people coming to the area were immigrants and they mainly settled on the city's south side, something Figueroa attributes to the cheaper rents and proximity to factory jobs. Today, 73% of Latinos were born in the U.S. While the community has seen more growth into the suburbs compared to the city's African-American population, 67% of Latinos continue to live in the central city. 

Perhaps the most visible way Milwaukee's Latino community is impacted by segregation is through school choice and charter schools."We're the number one metropolitan area in the country that has the highest percentage of Latinos in choice and charter schools," says Figueroa. 

He says the community has been specifically targeted by some schools, like St. Anthony, who saw opportunity in their dissatisfaction with Milwaukee Public Schools. "In MPS there was one white teacher per two white students. There was one African-American teacher for every forty-eight African-American students, and there was one Latino teacher for every fifty-eight or fifty-nine Latino kids," he explains.  

To many, a "charter school" equates to a "good school," and Figueroa admits it's a divisive issue. As a result of school choice and charter schools, many Latino students are in "hyper-segregated" schools. "About 80%, 8 out of 10 Latinos, who attend charter or choice schools are attending schools that are classified as hyper segregated," Figueroa explains. 

From Latino Milwaukee: A Statistical Portrait report by UWM Center for Economic Development, April 2016.

It's unclear how this might impact a student's education, but regardless it means that many Latino students aren't coming in contact with white, black or Asian students at school. Figueroa contends that a student attending a quality school probably won't be hurt academically, but it could affect a student's understanding of the larger community around them. 

"I personally do think that over the long-term if there's fewer and fewer places where individuals can interact from different races and ethnicities that, that...has a detrimental effect on civic engagement," says Figueroa. "Historically, schools have played that purpose."

For more on this topic, explore our Project Milwaukee: Segregation Matters series.

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