Latina Lives in Milwaukee

Latina Lives in Milwaukee

by Theresa Delgadillo

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Milwaukee's small but vibrant Mexican and Mexican American community of the 1920s grew over succeeding decades to incorporate Mexican, Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American, and Caribbean migration to the city. Drawing on years of interviews and collaboration with interviewees, Theresa Delgadillo offers a set of narratives that explore the fascinating family, community, work, and career experiences of Milwaukee's Latinas during this time of transformation. Through the stories of these women, Delgadillo caringly provides access to a wide variety of Latina experiences: early Mexican settlers entering careers as secretaries and entrepreneurs; Salvadoran and Puerto Rican women who sought educational opportunity in the U.S., sometimes in flight from political conflicts; Mexican women becoming leather workers and drill press operators; and second-generation Latinas entering the professional classes. These women show how members of diverse generations, ethnicities, and occupations embraced interethnic collaboration and coalition but also negotiated ethnic and racial discrimination, domestic violence, workplace hostilities, and family separations. A one-of-a-kind collection, Latina Lives in Milwaukee sheds light on the journeys undertaken then and now by Latinas in the region, and lays the foundation for the further study of the Latina experience in the Midwest. With contributions from Ramona Arsiniega, María Monreal Cameron, Daisy Cubías, Elvira Sandoval Denk, Rosemary Sandoval Le Moine, Antonia Morales, Carmen Murguia, Gloria Sandoval Rozman, Margarita Sandoval Skare, Olga Valcourt Schwartz, and Olivia Villarreal.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252081361
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 11/15/2015
Series: Latinos in Chicago and Midwest Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Theresa Delgadillo is an associate professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at The Ohio State University. She is the author of Spiritual Mestizaje: Religion, Gender, Race, and Nation in Contemporary Chicana Narrative .

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Latina Lives in Milwaukee

By Theresa Delgadillo


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09793-5


Latinas in Milwaukee

Why Milwaukee?

A playbill for the Palace Museum in downtown Milwaukee, open from 1883 to 1897, announces a show featuring "Mlle. Vallecita" and "performing mountain lions" as well as the "The Mexican Impalement Act" at its location on Third Street near Grand Avenue. It is not known whether this was a traveling or local troupe, whether it involved actors posing as French and Mexican or actual Mexican or Mexican American performers, whether "The Mexican Impalement Act" was a tropicalized routine of exotic magic and escape or a performance based on misnaming and misrecognition — as is the case with Wisconsin's Aztalan State Park — or even a collective fantasy of wish fulfillment in an era when U.S. settlers steadily and systematically dispossessed newly incorporated Mexican Americans in the Southwest of their governments, lands, and homes. But the playbill, and the questions it raises, serve to prompt us to consider the possibility of many individual and unrecorded crossings, travels, and migrations that brought Latinas/os to Wisconsin; to recognize the ways that Latinas/os entered into the consciousness of societies far from Latina/o population centers and explore how that may have influenced how Latinas/os were received when they arrived in this region; and to remain attentive to the records and stories of Latinas/os themselves in the Latina/o Midwest. Indeed, it is no longer unfathomable to imagine some Mexican residents in Milwaukee in the late nineteenth century since Latinos in Milwaukee has identified Rafael Báez as a resident of the city in 1884, though in the main, significant migration from Mexico to the Midwest begins only in the early twentieth century. As historian Zaragosa Vargas notes, "Over 58,000 Mexicans settled in the cities of the Midwest during the fifteen-year period from the end of World War I to the first years of the Great Depression." Employers recruited Mexican labor in southwestern cities and towns, prompting many Mexicans and Mexican Americans to migrate to the Midwest. This volume adds to our growing understanding of the experiences and histories of Latinas/os in the Midwest by making available a set of oral histories by Latinas in Milwaukee.

The participants in this project represent diverse generations, ethnicities, and occupations as well as varied political and social perspectives and life experiences. The interviewees include women who arrived in Milwaukee as migrants from another region or territory, or immigrants from another country, as well as women born and raised in Milwaukee. These oral histories provide further insight into Milwaukee's Latina/o communities in the twentieth century, with particular emphasis on the experiences of women. The women chart their family's or their own arrival in Milwaukee in ways that confirm the existing research on significant migrations from Latin America to the United States and to the Midwest in particular, as well as important research on interregional migrations of Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans within the United States. The stories of Antonia Morales and Elvira, Gloria, Margarita, and Rosemary Sandoval confirm research on early twentieth-century migrations from Mexico to the United States with their families' arrivals in Milwaukee in the 1920s. María Monreal Cameron's oral history identifies her own family's migration from Mexico to Texas in the 1920s, and then from Texas to Wisconsin in the 1940s. These oral histories strongly suggest that the 1920s is, in fact, the inaugural moment for a Latina/o community in Milwaukee. Olivia Villareal's and Ramona Arsiniega's oral histories chart their families' emigrations from Mexico to Milwaukee in the 1940s–1950s postwar industrial boom that brought recruits and migrants to the Midwest. The migrations of Olga Valcourt Schwartz and Daisy Cubías from Puerto Rico and El Salvador, respectively, occur outside of the main, as both arrived in the 1960s for education — Valcourt in Milwaukee and Cubías in New York and eventually Milwaukee. Cubías's oral history takes up the period in the 1980s when significant numbers of Salvadorans and other Central Americans migrated to the United States, fleeing war and violence, through the impact on her family and her own antiwar activism. Carmen Murguia's oral history offers the perspective of a U.S.-born Latina/o member of a civil-rights-minded family as she tells of her life growing up in Milwaukee. Participants in this project include women in their eighties, seventies, sixties, fifties, and forties. This generational spread among women yields the set of life stories collected here that span much of the twentieth century, from the 1920s through the 1990s, and continue into the beginning of the twenty-first century. In this way, the book offers a textured view of Latina experiences in work, career, business, family, community, philanthropy, advocacy, and activism over the past ninety years.

Archival evidence of Latina/o community activities in Milwaukee in the 1920s and 1930s is scant. The two fliers pictured here from 1927 and 1933 reveal a community large enough to host activities such as dances in rented halls. The appeal to both women and men in each text, in Spanish, suggests that despite the widely held view that early migrants were mostly single men, women were obviously present in significant numbers. These fliers also suggest a growing stability to this mixed-gender population if we consider the contrast between the 1927 flier (figure 1), with limited information, and the 1933 program (figure 2), which lists multiple presenters and performers.

Research on major migration periods, major ports of arrival, and key areas of settlement for Latinas/os form an important part of piecing together the story of Latinas/os in the Midwest, and so, too, does the exploration of individual and smaller group migrations outside of the major periods, especially since these provide evidence of enduring transnational social and economic networks and continued cross-cultural encounters. Nor should we overlook the interregional circulation and mobility of Latina/o groups and individuals, especially in considering Latina/o populations outside of typical population centers for these groups. For example, we know more about Latinas/os in Chicago than about Latinas/os in any other midwestern city or town, yet we need to know much more about Latina/o life throughout the region. Latina/o experiences and contributions in the Midwest are only beginning to make their way into the larger bodies of knowledge about regional history, literature, and culture.

In recent decades, several important histories on Latina/o life in the Midwest have emerged, including work on Milwaukee's Latina/o populations. Dennis Valdés notes in Barrios Norteños:

In Milwaukee, which boasted the largest concentration of Mexicanos in Wisconsin, workers were lured to Inland Steel and Illinois Steel plants during World War I, while in 1920 the largest employer of the pre-Depression era, the Pfister and Vogel tannery, initially imported a contingent of about one hundred Mexicans as strikebreakers. Others worked for local railroads, construction companies, and packing plants. By the end of the 1920s they approached four thousand residents, clustered in five neighborhoods bordering the Milwaukee or Menominee Rivers. The largest was in the factory district on the near South Side, with a second important colonia near the tannery on the North Side. As in many other northern cities, Milwaukee also was an important winter residence for sugar beet workers. Yet Milwaukee's Mexican population was reportedly "not well organized socially or politically" in comparison with many midwestern cities, despite its Sociedad Hispano-Azteca and the Guadalupe mission on Grove Street.

Valdés's sources for this information and claim are, among others, a report by Agnes M. Fenton titled "The Mexicans of the City of Milwaukee-Wisconsin," published by the YMCA and International Institute of Milwaukee in 1930, and George T. Edson's 1926 report titled "Mexicans in Milwaukee, Wisc." in the Paul Taylor Papers of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. The popular photographic history Latinos in Milwaukee (2006) echoes these sources on the major sites of employment for early-twentieth-century Mexican and Mexican American residents of Milwaukee, but it belies the notion that these communities were not well organized: each caption's photograph provides details of family, social, religious, and economic organization among both "Los Primeros" and succeeding generations as told by those pictured in the photos themselves or their relations.9 Discussing Milwaukee history, Zaragosa Vargas notes that "the Mexicans who went to work for Pfister & Vogel were unaware that a strike by the company's mostly Polish tannery workers had brought them to Milwaukee." Valdés provides an excellent and comprehensive history of regional and interregional settlement by Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Midwest. Latina Lives in Milwaukee adds to what we know about how Latinas/os in the region organized socially, culturally, and politically and how they viewed their own experiences by expanding the archive on Latina/o experience in the region. Among other things, this book allows readers to hear, from those involved, how industrial work shaped life and expectations for Latinas/os in Milwaukee — as industrial workers themselves or as the wives and daughters of industrial workers — and how the loss of those jobs, when economic restructuring affected the region, impacted Latina/o families. This book, therefore, is animated by the need and desire to hear about the history of Latinas/os in Milwaukee from those who have participated in making it.

The small but vibrant Mexican and Mexican American community founded in Milwaukee in the 1920s grew over succeeding decades to incorporate further Mexican, Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American, and Caribbean migration to this midwestern city. According to Valdés, "between 1970 and 1980" Milwaukee's Latina/o "population grew by 60 percent." A flier included here (figure 3) for a 1967 program sponsored by the International Institute in Milwaukee suggests citywide interest in this growing population. Valdés notes that in St. Paul, Minnesota, the International Institute (a project of the YMCA) functions as a route toward Americanization. In Milwaukee, at least one interviewee in this book, Ramona Arsiniega, describes it differently, as a social club through which she met Latinas/os of various ethnic and national backgrounds and participated in learning about a variety of ethnicities. While the language of the 1967 flier might suggest a lack of civil rights awareness in calling the group a "Spanish Club," we might also read this wording as an attempt to find a common denominator for what is already a multiethnic Latina/o population in Milwaukee. A second 1971 flier not pictured here advertises a celebration at Trinity-Guadalupe Parish, which represented a merger of the white ethnic immigrant Holy Trinity Parish and the Mexican and Mexican American Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission — discussed by both Antonia Morales and the Sandoval sisters. It includes an explicit invitation to both Puerto Ricans and Mexicans as well as other Latinas/os by using the term Panamerican. Since the advertised "Panamerican Mass" is set to occur only a week after the national U.S. holiday of the Fourth of July, the flier might also suggest an alternative mapping of belonging and citizenship for Latina/o residents of Milwaukee and a recognition of enduring transnational ties.

Valdés notes that in the 1980s,

Mexicans became more concentrated in the largest district, the near South Side, where they increased from 48 percent to 56 percent of Milwaukee's Latinos. Several South Side neighborhoods exceeded 75 percent Latino, particularly around Sixth and National, while Puerto Ricans, who had earlier been concentrated on the North Side, also moved into the district. The Mexican population also grew rapidly in several industrial cities in the eastern part of the state, particularly Waukesha, Racine, Green Bay, and Kenosha, where factory employment in textiles, meatpacking plants, and canneries predominated, and new work was available in many smaller enterprises, including restaurants, laundries, and nurseries.

This population growth makes Milwaukee an important site of Latina/o life in the Midwest. Although Valdés highlights the region's population as being primarily of Mexican origin, countering the assertion that the Midwest is more Latina/o than Mexican, we can't ignore the significant number of "other Latinas/os" in Milwaukee in these statistics — at least 44 percent of the city's Latina/o population. Puerto Ricans, for example, began arriving in Milwaukee and the nearby smaller cities of Racine and Waukesha in the mid-twentieth century. At least twenty employers in Wisconsin were hiring Puerto Ricans at the time, and civic groups assisting Puerto Rican integration included the Spanish Club and International Institute (mentioned in figure 3), Adult Education and Recreation Department of Milwaukee Public Schools, Wisconsin State Employment Service, Catholic Welfare Bureau, and, of course, Puerto Ricans themselves, who turned out in large numbers to discuss issues affecting them. While some leaders expressed a strong anti-Communist fear as motivation for their "integration" efforts, Puerto Ricans themselves appeared to be much more civil-rights oriented. As Olivia Villarreal and Ramon Arsiniega note, this era was also one of increased Mexican migration to Milwaukee, and many migrants also participated in "integration" programs.

The oral histories in this volume, from Mexican, Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and Salvadoran American women, aim to provide a fuller picture of multiethnic Latina/o life in the Midwest. Unfortunately, some ethnic/national groups from Milwaukee's Latina/o population are not included. Additional interviews were conducted with Mexican, Cuban American, Colombian American, Puerto Rican, and Mexican American women that are not included here for several reasons, including relevance, space, and withdrawal from the project by interviewees. There are also no interviews with Dominican women, a population that has grown in the city since the 1980s. In this volume, readers will find that oral history participants repeatedly refer to the significance of collaboration, coalition, and community among differing Latina/o groups in the city, strongly suggesting the necessity for collaboration across Latinidades in a city with a diverse Latina/o population. This study, therefore, offers a perspective on Latina/o life in the region different from that of work focused on single ethnic groups (which is the norm in the field), and in doing so suggests that the plural term Latinidades might better serve to account for the heterogeneity and distinctiveness of groups encompassed in the term Latina/o than panethnic, which tends to emphasize similarity across differences.

Geography, Region, and Gender

Vicki L. Ruiz observes that "in Latina historiography, immigration, sexuality, generation, wage work, and cultural coalescence have frequently overshadowed region as a distinct category of analysis. And yet region is intricately tied to Latina identity." Here I want to explore what this volume adds to existing scholarship on Latinas/os in the Midwest and in Milwaukee in particular, as well as the approach I take to geographical paradigms.

Proletarians of the North(1993) and Barrios Norteños (2000) bring important attention to the roles and work performed by Mexican and Mexican American women settlers to the Midwest, even though both works focus primarily on the migration, labor, and life experiences of men. Yet to be explored are the character and experience of work for Latinas in the region, what it meant for them and what unique challenges they faced, as well as how they viewed their own participation in efforts such as English and citizenship classes. The focus on male leadership, work, and activity continues in the recent popular pictorial history Latinos in Milwaukee (2006) as well as in Marc Rodriguez's The Tejano Diaspora: Mexican Americanism and Ethnic Politics in Texas and Wisconsin (2011), yet each of these volumes also provides valuable insight into the histories, experiences, and forms of organization among Milwaukee's Latina/o communities. In addition to the groundbreaking, excellent work of all these historians in exploring and making known the rich labor, settlement, political, and community- building history of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Milwaukee and the region, documenting how migrants participated in burgeoning midwestern industries and unions and formed neighborhoods and communities, three more recent texts (all focused on Chicago) incorporate gender as a category of analysis: Gabriela F. Arredondo's Mexican Chicago: Race, Identity and Nation, 1916–39 (2008); Chicanas of 18th Street (2011) by Leonard G. Ramírez; and Lilia Fernandez's Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago (2012). Women's experiences and voices are also incorporated and included in recent sociological, ethnographic, and anthropological research on Latinas/os in the Midwest, such as in Apple Pie and Enchiladas: Latino Newcomers in the Rural Midwest (2004), edited by Ann V. Millard and Jorge Chapa, which focuses on Indiana, and Nicholas De Genova's Latino Crossings: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and the Politics of Race and Citizenship (2003), which focuses on Chicago.


Excerpted from Latina Lives in Milwaukee by Theresa Delgadillo. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Preface, ix,
1. Latinas in Milwaukee, 1,
2. Antonia Morales: It Wasn't Bad to Live without a Car, 31,
3. Elvira, Gloria, Margarita, and Rosemary Sandoval: Hilitos de Oro, 42,
4. María Monreal Cameron: On the Shoulders of Women, 80,
5. Olga Valcourt Schwartz: A Life Dedicated to Education, 107,
6. Ramona Arsiniega: My Group of Mexican Comadres Made All the Difference, 128,
7. Olivia Villarreal: It's the Hispanic Community That Keeps Us in Business, 145,
8. Daisy Cubias: You Have to Believe It and You Have to Do It, 161,
9. Carmen Alicia Murguia: It Was Okay to Be Mexican, but I Wanted More, 185,
Epilogue: Contemporary Challenges for Latinas in the Midwest, 207,
Acknowledgments, 211,
Notes, 213,
Index, 223,

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