Hidden History: The Growth of Hispanic Populations in Wisconsin

Hispanic Heritage Month

Wisconsin is a land of immigrants who moved here from Germany, Poland, Ireland, and many other locations. Hispanic Americans have lived here for more than 130 years. Populations began in the larger cities before expanding all across the state.

15 years ago, Gabriela Gamboa came to the U.S. from Mexico, leaving behind the life she knew to build a better one for her family.

“When I came here, I saw working in labor, I had the opportunity to make more money.”

She also saw a safe community.

“I like Green Bay, it’s a really nice city.”

A place where she’s established a career in radio and her two sons have both pursued college degrees.

“It’s something I would do again because of my kids, you know. It’s something I do not regret.”

And according to Sergio Gonzalez, Assistant Professor of Latinx Studies at Marquette University, it is a journey hundreds of thousands of Hispanics have made over the last 130 years in Wisconsin.

“I think it’s important for us as Wisconsinites to remember that our immigrant history reaches further back than just the people who came from Europe.”

Gonzalez is the author of Mexicans in Wisconsin. He says Latino immigrants first settled in Milwaukee in 1884, but Mexican immigration numbers began to grow in the 1920’s as the U.S. imposed quotas on those coming from Europe.

“And so industries here in Wisconsin had to look for a different location to find workers.”

And then in wave after wave over the coming decades, first, as Tejano migrants arrived to work in the state’s farm fields and later, immigrants searching for work in factories and foundries.

“They first arrived in southeast Wisconsin in Milwaukee and Waukesha working in an assortment of industries where they can at times work in the fields in the summertime and in the winter work in the factories.”

Over time, these immigrants settled into major cities, Milwaukee and Madison, establishing communities of Latino descent.

“They’re not just brining their clothes and furniture. They’re also bringing their culture, memories, language, who they actually are.”

“From the 1980’s to the present, we start to see more of a dispersal throughout the state of Wisconsin.”

UW-Milwaukee Professor Javier Tapia says in the 80’s, Hispanics moved into Green Bay finding jobs first in the meat packing industry and later on dairy farms in rural Wisconsin.

“Without the Hispanic immigrant labor, the dairy industry would be in a state of severe crisis.”

An Hispanic population that has grown from 62,000 in 1980 to roughly 380,000 in 2015. Fueled by people like Gamboa, now a U.S. citizen, who have established roots and have made Wisconsin their home.

“I feel so proud for my people because we are here to work. We are here to bring the best of us and we are hard workers.”

Immigrants which Gonzalez says deserve our communities’ support and respect.

“If they make a home for themselves here, if they call the state home and if they feel they are part of the community, they must be treated as such.”

According to the 2017 U.S. Census, roughly 7% of Wisconsin’s population is of Hispanic descent.

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