A new permanent exhibit at the month-old Hispanic Heritage Center explores the roots of Latinos in Milwaukee and their contributions to local commerce.
Concentrated in the lobby of the United Community Center (UCC), 1028 S. 9th St., turn-of-the-century photographic collages and handmade displays both trace and pay tribute to the local Latino culture, from immigration to Milwaukee for migrant work to modern emphasis on education and entrepreneurship.
The Hispanic Heritage Center is a culmination of efforts from Latino Arts Inc., also located within the UCC, and the surrounding Latino community, according to Walter Sava, executive director of Latino Arts.
"It is a celebration of the four major places immigrants came to Milwaukee for work. The tanneries, foundries, railroad and migrant work," Sava said. "It is a good reminder to children and an even more important reminder that working as a strong-back is not the answer, but math, science and accounting are important. We know Latino children can do anything if educated."
Sava said change has come with almost every generation in Latino families since the first Mexican came to Milwaukee in 1884. As Latinos integrate into American society, they tend to become more educated, have smaller families, and have both parents working instead of the traditional family where only the husband worked, Sava said.
According to Sava, Latino families continue to strongly uphold their traditional values of religion, work ethic and family. Latinos are increasingly establishing their own businesses.
Salvador Sanchez exemplifies the evolving Latino and has lived in Milwaukee for 37 years. His family first came to Milwaukee as migrant workers to pick pickles. Today, he is the founder and owner of JNA Temporary Help Services, Pueblo Azteca Mexican restaurant and market and the Taqueria Azteca Mexican restaurant.
Milwaukee’s south side has emerged as a haven for the local Latino business community, and that trend will likely continue to grow, according to Sanchez.
"More Hispanics are coming to Milwaukee because the market is here," Sanchez said. "There are enough people around for any business to flourish. Probably 90% of my clientele at the restaurants is non-Hispanic. The only way businesses usually fail around here is through bad management or poor advertising."
Maria Monreal-Cameron, president and chief executive officer of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Wisconsin, said the state is home to currently 3,020 Hispanic-owned businesses.
"I think we are ushering into a new era," Monreal-Cameron said. "I think we’re seeing more and more Hispanics starting their businesses at rates never seen before. Based on economic data, it is clear that Hispanic business owners have come a long way, and many owners are being ranked locally and nationally as the fastest-growing and most successful business enterprises."
The collages on the walls of the Hispanic Heritage Center are of weddings, families and children growing up on Milwaukee’s south side throughout the last 80 years. Visual historical documentation depicts the beginnings of Latino leadership in Milwaukee. One collage consists only of various photographs of Ness Florez, who Sava refers to as "Milwaukee’s First."
"He was the first Latino elected official in Wisconsin, the first Latino judge, the first Latino on the Board of Regents at UW-Milwaukee, the first Latino member of the Public Service Commission. … He has done many great things for the Latino Community," Sava said.
The local Latino middle class is emerging and growing, according to Sava and Joseph Rodriguez, a history professor at UWM. Sava said 20% of the Latino population speaks only Spanish, 20% speaks only English and 60% are bilingual in Spanish and English.
"Latinos are Americanized pretty quickly," Rodriguez said. "They will assimilate, but because there is constant immigration, people tend to focus more on the immigrant and less on the 80% of Hispanics who speak English and those who don’t see themselves going back to Mexico or have never even been there in the first place."
Rodriguez said the trends for Hispanic-owned businesses have been in restaurants, hair salons, grocery stores, car repair, childcare, secretarial work, construction, landscaping, home rehabilitation, real estate, money transfer businesses and travel agencies.
"Until the 1970s, the largest percentage of jobs held by Latinos were on farms," Rodriguez said. "But growers began using machines in reaction to the demands for the crops. There was movement among Latinos to work in the city factories, but the factories began to close down. Now more people are working, going to school, graduating and finding better jobs."
A series of pictures on one wall in the Hispanic Heritage Center revisits Latino activism at UWM. In August 1970, Latino college students staged a sit-in until the university promised offerings of Hispanic history classes and what is now the Roberto Hernandez Center, which works as a liaison between the Latino student and faculty populous and the university. The photos depict the sit-in, the take over of the chancellor’s office and the arresting of the students.
"It was the first organized protest and followed the demands made by the Native American and African American students," Rodriguez said. "The goals in mind were to make the university recruit more Latino students for enrollment, the university had to offer courses that dealt with Latino experiences in literature or history, and the students demanded that UWM recognize its identity as an urban school, to live their mission of offering education for all."
The increase in education within the Latino community and the emerging middle class have together changed the UCC. Program changes within the UCC are a good measure of how far Latinos have come. Sava said the center is no longer needed for English or citizenship classes, but for daycare and after school activities, clubs, art exhibits, live music and the like.
"The reason we originally came here was for work, and we were taking jobs that many people did not want," Sava said. "But the foundries are gone now, and most migrant work is mechanized. Latinos now need things like computer skills and a high SAT score. At the UCC, schools and programs, our emphasis has turned to proficiency in English while facilitating Spanish."
Sava said the photographs are important because Latinos still need to connect to their roots and their past. He hopes to one day be able to transform the Hispanic Heritage Center into a Hispanic historical society.
April 2, 2004 Small Business Times, Milwaukee