History comes to life at Old South Side Day celebration

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An elderly Polish man played the accordion, visitors munched on cheese enchiladas and an Aztec dance troupe dressed in colorful native costumes were among the attractions at Old South Side Day 2013, an event intended to teach residents about their neighborhood’s diverse history.

Sponsored by Urban Anthropology, Inc., the event honored community pioneers and showcased the area’s American Indian, Polish and Mexican roots. Held at Kosciuszko Park, 2201 S. 7th St., the celebration included a tree dedication ceremony, displays representing each culture and a variety of ethnic food.

Dr. Jill Lackey, event organizer and principal investigator at Urban Anthropology, said she hoped the event would help the ethnic groups in the area “feel more tied to the neighborhood and feel more pride in the neighborhood” once they knew one another and their common history. Urban Anthropology is a community organization that celebrates diversity.

“We know from the research that true commitment to a neighborhood only happens when people know about the neighborhood they’re living in, including the history,” Lackey said.

As of 2011, the neighborhood’s population was 50 percent Mexican, 20 percent Polish and 9 percent American Indian.

Ten new trees were planted in the park and dedicated in a ceremony honoring early or leading Old South Side residents, including Roman Kwasniewski, an early Polish-American photographer; Manuela Figueroa, the mother of the first Mexican-American family; Del and Frank Porter, Ojibwe Indian leaders of Ace Boxing Club, 2160 S. 10th St.; and James Witkowiak, a Polish-American former alderman.

Many of the honorees or their descendants spoke about time they spent in Kosciuszko Park as kids, including Witkowiak, who said he “spent five days a week in this park.” When his family had the chance to move to the suburbs, his father didn’t leave, saying,  “We don’t want to live in a separatist neighborhood,” Witkowiak said.

Peggy Romo West, the first Latina county supervisor on the Old South Side and in Milwaukee, also was honored with a tree. “The park needs trees and each one of these trees — representing the people that helped build such a strong history … is a way of continuing history,” West said.

Kosciuszko Park has one-third of the trees it used to have because ash trees are dying, according to Lackey.

Another honoree, Margarita Garcia Guerrero, said that her tree will help her grandchildren study their family history. Guerrero, who advocates for Hispanic and immigrant rights, came to the city from Mexico with her late husband, who founded the first Hispanic Alcoholics Anonymous group in Milwaukee.

“I have been here for 45 years and the reason we came here was because we were looking for a better life in Milwaukee,” Guerrero said. “Being Hispanic we knew it was up to ourselves to advocate for ourselves and others for what we needed.”

Jose Perez, the first Puerto Rican alderman from the Old South Side, grew up in Walker’s Point. His grandfather came to Milwaukee from Puerto Rico with no education, and he worked at Grade Foundry. “For me, the tree symbolizes not only my grandfather’s roots but every immigrant here,” Perez said. “

Residents could learn about the Bay View Historical Society; the Rozga funeral home, which has been in the community since the 1880s; early Polish, American Indian and Mexican residents; the Fair Housing March in the park in 1967; Ace Boxing Club, still run by the American Indian family that founded it in 1960; the Basilica of St. Josaphat, 2333 S. 6th St.; and the Old South Side Settlement Museum, 707 W. Lincoln Ave.

Most people visited the basilica, Lackey said. “According to our biannual surveys, 75 percent of our residents haven’t gone inside the basilica,” she added. “The purpose was to get residents educated on the history of the neighborhood.” Many participants also toured the Old South Side Settlement Museum.

Three generations of the Ortiz family represented Morelia’s Market, 2105 S. 6th St., the first Mexican grocery store in the area, which opened in 1992 and is still family owned.

“We’re thankful to be recognized,” Veronica Ortiz said. “Things are transitioning in this neighborhood. [It’s important] to know the story of the businesses and people here.”

“I love being a part of this community,” added Esmeralda Ortiz, Veronica’s mother. “That’s why we’ve stayed here.”

Musical and dance performances throughout the day were provided by Ballet Folklorica, an Aztec dance group, and the Strawberry Moon Women’s Singers, an indigenous drumming and singing group that also spoke about issues facing Native Americans today.

Urban Anthropology Executive Director Rick Petrie said the event was inspired by “Milwaukee’s Old South Side: Images of America,” a book co-authored by Petrie and Lackey.

Mike and Soledad Socha are a Polish and Mexican couple who have lived in the neighborhood for 33 years and came to the celebration because of the book. “We live about a block and a half away,” Mike Socha said. “We know some of the history already, but we’re interested in learning more about the South Side.”

Lackey estimated that about 800 people visited the event throughout the day.

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