Sergio M. González is an assistant professor of Latinx Studies at Marquette University. A historian of 20th century U.S. immigration, labor and religion, his scholarship focuses on the development of Latina/o/x communities in the U.S. Midwest.
On Wednesday, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the nation’s oldest Latino civil rights organization, will hold its 90th annual national convention in Milwaukee.
While this year’s LULAC convention will be the largest national Latino meeting organized in Milwaukee’s history, it certainly won’t be the first of its kind. That honor belongs to the 1971 Milwaukee Latin American Convention, an event organized to harness an upsurge in social movement activism among the city’s growing Mexican American and Puerto Rican communities.
In 1970, more than 20,000 Latinos called Milwaukee home. They were bound together not just by a common language and related cultural heritages, but also by shared concerns over employment, housing, and educational opportunities.
On the near South Side, where the majority of the city’s Latinos lived, 20 percent of residents suffered from unemployment, a marked disparity from the city’s overall unemployment rate of 6 percent. Latinos faced disproportionately higher rates of overcrowding and lower median property values than other Milwaukeeans. The city’s K-12 and higher education systems, meanwhile, failed to offer curriculum or programs that spoke to young Latinos’ linguistic diversity or cultural heritage, much less their lived experiences.
In response to these persistent inequalities, several Latino organizations emerged as vocal and integral members of the city’s larger civil rights movement. Like their African American contemporaries, Latino activists demanded full access to and participation in American political, economic and social life. Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans formed organizations like the Latin American Union for Civil Rights, or LAUCR, as well as chapters of the farmworker union boycott movement and the Young Lords Organization. These groups produced energy and enthusiasm for change but at times lacked cohesion in their organizing efforts.
To coordinate the work of these organizations, the LAUCR proposed a statewide meeting for Wisconsin’s Latino communities in January 1971. The Milwaukee Journal referred to the conference as the “most ambitious organizing project” yet attempted among state Latinos. The LAUCR sought to create a “federation” of organizations that could address problems cooperatively while reducing the duplication of services among a growing assortment of nonprofits across the state. Most important, attendees hoped this collaboration would empower Wisconsin Latinos of all backgrounds to confront current and future needs within their own communities.
More than 800 attendees from Milwaukee, Racine, Waukesha, Delevan and Sheboygan assembled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and St. Hyacinth Catholic Church for the convention. With delegates from block clubs, social service agencies, churches, social groups and businesses, the meeting brought together a wide range of political perspectives, ranging from those calling for militant and radical change to more conservative voices. Regardless of their political orientation, most attendees agreed on the need for a more robust and organized movement to build a strong base for social and political change.
Participants attended workshops addressing community problems, including employment, housing, education, social services and political engagement. They also heard from representatives from national organizations. Carlos Guerra, national chairman of the San Antonio-based Mexican American Youth Organization, described the recent political success of La Raza Unida Party, which had shaken Democratic Party politics in 26 Texas counties. A representative from the Chicago Young Lords Organization, meanwhile, detailed the establishment of a free breakfast program and medical clinic for children.
The conference’s most thrilling development, however, were the actions taken by a committed group of Milwaukee Latina activists. Calling their initiative “Power of Women (POW)-Fuerza Femenina,” the 60-member caucus seized the conference stage and presented a list of their demands.
They argued that women for too long had been relegated to “cooking tortillas” instead of being equal partners in building community institutions. The activists consequently urged that Latinas hold leadership positions on all boards of directors for agencies and organizations serving Latino communities in Wisconsin.
POW’s efforts to empower all members of the state’s Latino community, women included, spoke to the conference’s central message of solidarity. Participants of different nationalities and citizenship statuses spoke of “una raza unida,” a united community with the shared goal of Latino empowerment. Local media described the multiday convening as “more than a convention” and instead a “coming of age” for the city’s rising Mexican American and Puerto Rican populations.
Since the 1971 convening, Milwaukee’s Latino community has continued to grow, both demographically and politically. The upcoming LULAC convention, which runs through July 13, represents another chapter in this community’s long history of activism and political engagement, one that places it now on the national stage.