Hidden History: Wisconsin’s Farm Workers Movement

Hispanic Heritage Month

The progress and activism we see within Wisconsin’s Hispanic community comes from years of steadfast work by many. One of the influential voices at the heart of the state’s farm workers movement is Jesus Salas.

The fight against racial injustice has roots on every street corner of the U.S. For Jesus Salas, it started in America’s farm fields.

“In the early 50’s then, we joined, all six of us, all five brothers and I, joined my dad. And for the next ten years were migrant workers.”

As a third generation migrant worker, he traveled from his home in Texas to the Great Lakes region, but in 1959, after attending three different high school in just one year, he family made Wautoma, Wisconsin their permanent home.

“So, my dad said no. This has got to stop. You’ll never get an education that way. You’ll never stop being a migrant worker unless I get you situated in a place where you can go to school year-round.”

And that’s what Salas did; he graduated from high school. Then, while attending the University of Oshkosh, he’d spend his summers doing educational programs for youth migrant workers.

“Families started complaining to me about their wages, of people being injured, of over-crowded conditions. And that’s when – in 1966 I said we’ve got to do something about those conditions.”

He knew something had to be done, so he looked to the west at the leadership of Cesar Chaves in the United Farm Workers movement.

“So, I called Cesar Chaves up and I didn’t know him from Adam…and I say, ‘Hey my name is Jesus Salas – we want to do what you’re doing. We want to protest the working and living conditions.”

While Salas focused on bettering the lives of Hispanic workers out of this old orphanage in Milwaukee, the city’s racial inequalities entrenched in segregation was boiled over just blocks away. On August 13, 1968, Salas says, for the first time, the city’s Hispanic and African American communities united, fighting for fair hiring in the Allen-Bradley protests.

“Being in picket line with these kids who’d been marching for 200 days was an experience for those of us – who had been marching and conducting the grape boycott for the last three years had never experienced before. We had never experienced direct action.”

What happened on these Milwaukee streets 50 years ago has paved the way for more activism, organization, and for expanded resources for the Hispanic community.

“At that time they united community center is born, the health services; the so called 16th Street Clinic is born, Journey Houses is born around that time. So, you can go anywhere in the  United States and you’ll see the services that all grew out of the activism and the move for self determination.”

Salas went on to be the Hispanic Director of UMOS (United Migrant Worker Opportunity Services). He taught at Milwaukee Area Technical college and served on the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.

The migrant population and the challenges Latinos face has evolved. Salas says the work is never done, but he’s proud of the role he played in getting the community to where it is today.

“So, you can go anywhere in the  United States and you’ll see the services that all grew out of the activism and the move for self determination of Latinos back in the late 60’s early 70’s.”

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