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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.
I often feel uneasy with the festivities that the period of Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 brings for Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month.
More often than not, commemorations present simplistic portrayals of an increasingly diverse community and elevate only a small number of Latinx luminaries such as Cesar Chavez or Sonia Sotomayor. All-you-can-eat taco specials and margarita happy hours, often accompanied with corporate branding, of course do little to actually honor Latinx peoples and their cultures. Instead, these celebrations disregard the experiences and lived realities of millions of Latinx peoples, many of whom work without recognition for the essential labor and community-building they engage in every day.
Perhaps more than any other year, 2020 has clarified what Milwaukeeans consider essential. This word, and the accompanying term essential worker, have developed new connotations in the midst of a global pandemic. Thousands of Latinx workers in Wisconsin, newly tabbed as essential laborers, have trudged back to work in the service industry, meatpacking plants and so many other occupations our communities have now deemed necessary.
For their sacrifices, Latinx Wisconsinites have subsequently suffered from the coronavirus at disproportionally high levels. And in a cruel twist, being called “essential” has meant little for those Latinx residents who still face detention and deportation thanks to a runaway immigration enforcement system.
Before indulging in shallow celebrations for Hispanic Heritage Month this year, perhaps we should instead consider how Milwaukeeans can deem a population vital while allowing them to suffer so greatly. Here, some historical retrospection can serve as a guide, helping us understand how Milwaukeeans have for over a century regarded Latinxs as necessary for the very survival of our city while too often treating them as less-than, disposable, and in essence, not all that indispensable.
This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the arrival of the first large groups of Latinx migrants to Milwaukee. While the city’s first Mexican resident arrived nearly a quarter century earlier, it was in 1920 that 25 “sons of Mexico,” as the Milwaukee Journal referred to them, trekked from their homes in Jalisco and Michoacán to this northern industrial metropolis.
They came, like many of the European immigrants that preceded them, in search of work. The young sojourners found it at the Pfister and Vogel Tannery in the Menomonee River Valley, where labor recruiters, known in Spanish as enganchistas (“those who hook”), had enlisted them to work in one of the city’s most important industries.
What those recruiters did not tell the young Mexicans, however, was that they had been brought to the city as strikebreakers to be used against the company’s unionized workforce. And so, told first that they were essential for keeping Milwaukee’s booming tanning industry thriving, Mexicans instead found themselves throughout the 1920s portrayed as job-stealers, racial nuisances and unwanted by the majority of Milwaukeeans.
These sentiments reached a tipping point with the onset of the Great Depression. Mexican workers were often the first to lose their jobs as the city’s tanneries, factories and foundries no longer required such a robust workforce. Depleted county resources and rising anti-immigrant sentiment, meanwhile, fueled migration crackdowns throughout the decade. Local elected officials worked with federal immigration officers to search for Mexicans on the county’s welfare rolls and lined them up for deportation. By the mid 1930s, what had once been a robust and resilient community of over 5,000 Mexicans had been decimated to fewer than 1,500 residents.
The 1930s certainly would not be the last time Latinx laborers, once deemed essential, would be cast away when their services were no longer desired. During National Hispanic Heritage Week in 1983, for example, federal agents initiated a series of deportation raids throughout Wisconsin. Mexican American leaders complained to Gov. Tony Earl that the raids were “worse than a slap in the face” of the state’s immigrant community.
Today, Wisconsin’s Latinx residents can sympathize with those past communities. Just a few weeks ago, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, announced that it had made more than 2,000 arrests during a six-week nationwide summer operation. ICE alleged that the focus of these apprehensions would be on individuals with certain criminal records. In practice, however, anyone in the country without documentation could fall in the federal government’s dragnet. That includes, of course, people who Americans had tabbed as essential just earlier this year.
Instead of valuing Latinxs as integral members of the Milwaukee community, instead of seeing them and regarding them as essential, our city has too often treated them as disposable.
And this year has perhaps proven to be little different.
As historians Natalia Molina and David Gutiérrez recently noted, the cascading crises of 2020 have “revealed a fundamental contradiction in U.S. immigration policy: critical reliance on immigrant labor, while, at the same time, vilifying and calling for the exclusion of immigrants.”
Before we break out nachos and turn up the merengue for what would only be a shallow celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, we should instead start with some self-examination and work toward actually respecting the dignity and humanity of Latinx communities that have called Milwaukee home for a century.