Project Milwaukee
3:15 pm
Wed June 17, 2009

Influx of Latino Immigrants

Our Project Milwaukee series about race relations continues now on WUWM. Today, we talk about a newer wave of immigrants to the city: Latinos. They now comprise 12 percent of the population of Milwaukee County, or more than 114,000 residents. WUWM’s Marti Mikkelson reports on the Latino movement here and how it compares with the black and white experiences.

Students learn English at the Council for the Spanish Speaking.
Students learn English at the Council for the Spanish Speaking.

The 1920s signified the height of the industrial revolution in Milwaukee. In particular, the south side was booming with jobs on the railroads, in foundries and in tanneries. That’s when the first group of Latino immigrants began arriving in the city, according to Joseph Rodriguez, a history professor at UWM.

He says a couple hundred men from Mexico came here to fill jobs at one of the city’s largest employers, the Pfister and Vogel tannery.

“There was a strike by the European American workers and Mexicans were brought in as strike breakers, and they were actually put up at the Atlas Warehouse,” Rodriguez says.

The dormitory warehouse was located across from the tannery on Virginia Street, on the near south side. Rodriguez says the Latino population grew slowly, with immigrants settling close to their jobs. When the Great Depression hit however, jobs dried up and many Latinos returned to Mexico. But he says the population picked up again in the 1940s during World War II.

“The war industries increased employment substantially,” Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez says word spread throughout Mexico and down south that the northern states had an abundance of good paying jobs. So, friends and family members began following the original settlers to Milwaukee. By the 1960s, the Latino population on the south side had exploded, with 15,000 people from Mexico and Puerto Rico living here.

Because many new residents could not speak English and therefore could not find employment, the community was in desperate need of social services.

The Spanish Center opened on the south side in 1964 and has been serving the Latino population ever since. Today, nearly 30 Spanish-speaking students are learning English here, starting with the alphabet. One student is Carlos Ramirez. He moved to Milwaukee from Guatemala three years ago.

“If you don’t know English you cannot do almost nothing. You can find better jobs and if you stay just with your language you cannot find anything good,” Ramirez says.

Director Tony Baez says before the 1960s, Latinos learned English on the streets and found jobs by asking around.

“It was very fragmented. It was all over the place. Some individuals could come to a church and get the church to do something for them,” Baez says.

The Spanish Center has been offering generations of Latino immigrants not only language class, but also help in finding housing and job training, and obtaining citizenship. Baez says their immigration experience has been similar to whites who came to Milwaukee from Europe.

Polish, French and German immigrants settled in pockets of the city and found services through churches and small gatherings in the homes. Eventually, those settlers became self-sufficient and began opening businesses in their neighborhoods. Baez says by the 1990s Latinos were forming their own businesses…and the south side became dotted with Mexican bakeries, delis and restaurants.

“Because people get more help, more support, they become more legal, they do all that kind of stuff and that entrepreneurship spirit is multiplied immensely,” Baez says.

Baez says it’s taken longer however, for many black migrants to pull themselves out of poverty. He says that’s because blacks arrived in America under different circumstances.

“If you came here in the slave ships and you came here as an oppressed people and you were oppressed in the south of the United States for a very long time, culturally and politically you develop an attitude about race that is quite significant and it impacts how you connect to the rest of society,” Baez says.

Baez says the Spanish Center now provides services to low-income residents at 18 locations in the Milwaukee area. He says at some centers, half the clientele is black.