Milwaukee's First Mexican-Americans Left Legacy Of Struggle And Pride

'Los Primeros' Built A Fleeting Yet Pioneering Immigrant Community
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Courtesy of Arnoldo Sevilla

Milwaukee's Mexican community held a Mexican Independence Day parade in 1930.

Latino immigrants and their descendants make up a small but rapidly growing segment of Wisconsin's population. As much as this growth may be considered a late-20th and early 21st century phenomenon, the history of Latinos in the state has much earlier origins. 

Milwaukee's first community of Mexican immigrants flourished briefly but was shattered by the tragedy of the Great Depression. In the early 20th century, immigrants from Mexico came to Milwaukee seeking work, and faced great resistance in carving out a role for themselves in the city. Initially recruited as strikebreakers, they encountered hostility over access to jobs, resources, and civic participation. Their struggles were deeply intertwined with federal immigration policies, labor strife, religion, discrimination and nativism.

Historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison doctoral student Sergio González discussed their story in an Aug. 15, 2016 presentation at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison. His talk was recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place. González is author of the book Mexicans In Wisconsin, due out in October 2017 from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press

González started with a look at the Día Sin Latinos (Day Without Latinos) demonstration held on Feb. 18, 2016 at the Capitol Square in Madison. About 20,000 people took part in a rally against two anti-immigrant bills making their way through Wisconsin's legislature. Some restaurants in Madison even closed their doors for the day in solidarity with their Latino employees. The protest helped to defeat one of the bills, which would have allowed local law enforcement around the state to enquire about the immigration status of people they suspected of a crime. The other, forbidding local governments from issuing identification cards to people who had trouble getting state IDs, had previously passed both houses of the legislature, and Gov. Scott Walker signed it in April of that year.

For González, these protests in early 2016 reflected a response to discriminatory policies and attitudes that immigrants have faced throughout American history. He drew links between prejudice and racism in the early 20th century and the xenophobic statements and policy proposals of Donald Trump, who at the time of the talk was running for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. 

Today, people of Mexican and other Latin American heritages live in communities throughout the Wisconsin, from bigger cities to individual dairy farms. But González said they owe a lot to people he calls "Los Primeros" (the first). This relatively small but resilient group of Mexican immigrants left an important mark on Milwaukee between 1910 and 1930. 

Key facts

  • One important Mexican figure in Milwaukee history predates Los Primeros. Rafael Baez, born in Mexico in 1863, came to Wisconsin in 1886 to work as a classical musician. A violinist and composer, he ended up playing organ and working as a musical director for churches and synagogues throughout Milwaukee, and became the first-ever Latino professor at Marquette College (now Marquette University). Baez eventually became a respected member of Milwaukee's civic community. But unlike the city's later group of Mexican immigrants, he arrived highly educated and with specific professional skills.

  • The first real wave of immigration to Wisconsin from Mexico started in 1910. Some of these immigrants came to work on sugar beet farms in the Fox Valley near Green Bay, Oshkosh and Fond du Lac. Most settled in Waukesha, where they worked a mix of agricultural and industrial jobs. However, this particular group of workers was relatively small and didn't stay in the state very long.

  • Two pieces of legislation in the early 1920s were crucial to drawing more Mexican immigrants to Wisconsin. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 limited immigration from eastern Europe and blocked all immigrants from Asia. But American business interests demanded cheap immigrant labor, and Congress responded by carving out an exception for immigrants from the Western hemisphere, with an eye on Latin America. These businesses and their political allies claimed that Latino workers would live in the United States only temporarily, at times of peak employment, and leave little imprint on the nation's cultural landscape.

  • During the 1920s, between 50,000 and 100,000 Mexican immigrants arrived in the U.S. each year. American companies, sent recruiters to central Mexico to find new workers, often luring recruits with deceptive short-term labor contracts. In Milwaukee, the first big group of Mexican workers was brought in to break a strike by unionized workers of European descent at Pfister and Vogel Tannery. This action immediately set a tense tone for the Mexican experience in Milwaukee: The strikers responded so angrily that Pfister and Vogel made its new workers sleep inside the factory to protect them (and the company's investment). Other industrial companies in Milwaukee soon followed suit by recruiting more Mexican workers.

  • In 1910, fewer than 50 foreign-born Mexicans lived in Milwaukee. By 1927, the number had passed 3,000, and by 1930, there were as many as 7,000 immigrants from Mexico living in the city. New arrivals tended to settle in neighborhoods near their workplaces, including Walker's Point and Merrill Park on the city's south side, and Riverwest on the north side.

  • The public discourse of the early 20th century in Milwaukee reflected hostile and openly racist attitudes toward Mexicans. The Milwaukee Journal published editorials that described the new immigrants with terms like "mongrel" and "half-breed." A 1930 report by a local social worker named Agnes Fenton inveighed against their integration into U.S. society. Mexicans were also frequently arrested on trumped-up charges and barred from popular public establishments like the Gem Theater. In public schools, teachers would admonish Mexican children for not speaking English, send them home and tell them not to return until they'd learned to speak the language.

  • Despite discrimination, Mexican immigrants found common ground with some of Milwaukee's European-American communities — often through shared Catholic faith — and began creating their own civic institutions. Founded in 1924, El Club Mexicano, was the first Mexican-led organization in Wisconsin, and it celebrated the community's ethnic and religious heritage through dances and other programming. Mutual aid societies also played a crucial role in Mexican immigrant life in Milwaukee, and their contributions ranged from establishing Spanish-language newspapers to providing social opportunities. Arturo Morales opened the city's first Mexican grocery store in 1925 on the near south side.

  • The growth of Milwaukee's Mexican immigrant community during the 1920s coincided with the Cristero Rebellion, during which Mexico's anti-clerical government clashed with supporters of the Catholic Church. This conflict intensified Mexican immigrants' relationships with existing Catholic institutions in Milwaukee; some Mexicans would go to church every night to pray for fellow Catholics back home.

  • The onset of the Great Depression ended the growth and ultimately withered Milwaukee's Mexican-American community. In the early 1930s, jobs dried up and state and federal officials rounded up Mexicans for "repatriation" regardless of their citizenship or immigration status. By 1933, the city's Mexican population was reduced to about 1,500 people.

Key quotes

  • On how U.S. business leaders and politicians in the 1920s reconciled nativism with support for Mexican immigration: "Due to Mexico's proximity to the United States, legislators argued that Mexican immigrants would be less likely to attempt to permanently remain in the country … and thus they would pose a minimal threat to natural cultural and racial homogeneity, to this idea of American identity or American character. The popular term for immigrants coming from Mexico at the time was this idea of 'birds of passage, ' you know, how a bird migrates according to the seasons. Legislators argued that Mexicans would come to work as temporary migrants during peak levels of employment, considered the planting season and the harvesting season, and then they would return home to Mexico when they were no longer needed."

  • On Mexicans' term for recruiters U.S. companies sent to scout for workers: "Enganchista means someone who hooks, enganchar means to hook or to grab, and these were labor recruiters. So they would send them down either to the border region or directly into Mexico, and these enganchistas promised Mexican men, many who were single and young, the opportunity to travel to the United States to find stable employment."

  • On the hiring practices of companies that sought Mexican workers: "These [labor] contracts were often in English, they weren't translated into Spanish, and what the workers were not told in Mexico when they were signing these contracts is that they were actually being recruited as scabs, to come up to replace the unionized workforce. Now for those of you who know Milwaukee's history, MIlwaukee has a rich and long union history. Milwaukee was a stronghold of labor power throughout the turn of the century and up really until pretty recently."

  • On how Mexicans' experiences differed from those of Milwaukee's eastern European  immigrants: "Despite settling in one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country, the city of Milwaukee, Mexican workers experienced a much different settlement experience from that of European-origin immigrants, marked less by growing access to social and political power, and marked more by ethno-racial discrimination, economic exclusion, and social isolation. Institutions across the city — and we're talking about the media, social services, and public schools — viewed Mexicans more as a problem to be solved than a community to be welcomed into the city."

  • On the irony of Milwaukee schools' approach to foreign languages in the early 20th century: "European immigrants who had settled previously had fought for Milwaukee's public and parish schools to use native languages along with instruction in English, elevating their own cultural and linguistic heritage to the same as American and English standard. Milwaukee schools before the arrival of Mexicans to the city at this point had a national reputation for their progressive language immersion programs, but of course they didn't seem to extend that same sort of progressive idea to the newly arrived Mexican immigrants."

  • On Agnes Fenton's 1930 report on Milwaukee's Mexican population: "She asked Milwaukeeans, 'Do you know how intimate an American problem the Mexican has become?' Her report depicted an immigrant group that threatened to disrupt the cultural and social character of the city. She portrayed Mexicans as lazy, uneducated, unscrupulous and ultimately as being undesirable for integration as citizens. She commented that this racial group, which she referred to constantly as 'peons,' was darker-skinned and of lower intelligence than Europeans who had preceded them. Her findings marked Mexicans as racially and culturally nonwhite, as dangerous, and thus as as being unworthy of integration. And through her conversations with city officials she additionally stoked fears of potential public-safety concerns."
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