Ernesto Gonzalez Jr. is president of Casa Hispana, a nonprofit in Menasha, Wis. that serves Hispanic people primarily in the Calumet, Outagamie and Winnebago counties. Gonzales, who spent his early years as migrant farm worker, was among the founders of Casa Hispana. He is shown here on March 16, 2022, in Menasha. (Dan Powers/Appleton Post-Crescent)
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This piece was produced for the NEW News Lab, a local news collaboration in Northeast Wisconsin.

Microsoft is providing financial support to the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation and Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region for this initiative.

When Carlos Muñoz arrived in the United States in 1973, he was thinking only about vacationing.

Family members who lived in Aurora, Illinois, had spent years trying to convince him to stay in the country, but he believed he had a good job in Mexico. 

“All my family was here,” he said. “I was the only one living in Mexico, and I had a steady job at the National Bank as an accountant.”

During that visit, his brother-in-law, Esteban de León, who worked as a supervisor at a factory, took him to a shoe store.

Curious, he asked de Leon if he was buying new shoes. No, his brother-in-law answered, “You are. Safety shoes.”

“Why would I need those?” Muñoz asked.

“I want you to work at the factory for a week,” de León told him. “If you like it, you can stay.”

Carlos Muñoz Sr. of Fond du Lac, Wis. and his son, Carlos Jr., stand outside Fond du Lac High School on Election Day in 2014, where the father cast his first ballot as an American citizen. (Fond du Lac Reporter)

Muñoz worked the job for a week and got paid. Then he worked for another week with a day of overtime pay.

“In Mexico I had a salary-based job. You would work 15 hours and wouldn’t get an extra penny. Here, in two weeks, I made a lot more,” he said. “My perspective changed. I decided to stay.”

From Aurora, he and his family moved to Racine, Wisconsin and then to Oshkosh, where few Hispanics or Latinos lived at the time.

But Oshkosh’s Hispanic population has since grown to 3,000 people, or 4.4% of its population. About one-third of those residents moved to the city in the past decade, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.

The change in Oshkosh is reflected across northeastern Wisconsin, a place where new Hispanic and Latino arrivals are increasingly finding established multi-generational communities that offer  support systems.

In Green Bay, home to the largest Hispanic population north of Milwaukee, Hispanic people make up more than 40% of the population in the neighborhoods that fall within four census tracts on the city’s east side. Almost one in five Green Bay residents identified as Hispanic in the 2020 census.

Muñoz stayed in northeastern Wisconsin for the same reasons that bring other people to the region: He found security to raise his family and better job opportunities.

After earning a welding license, he worked at Oshkosh Corp. for 35 years before retiring four years ago. In 2014, after moving to Fond du Lac, he became a U.S. citizen and voted for the first time in that year’s November election.

In his spare time, Muñoz focused on building and supporting the region’s Hispanic community. He has, since the early 1990s, organized Mexican celebrations like Cinco de Mayo and nights for Mexican music, dancing and food that draw people from across the region.

There are far more people to reach these days. More than 45,000 Hispanic and Latino people now live in Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago counties, an increase of 45% since 2010.

The U.S. Census Bureau earlier this month acknowledged the 2020 census undercounted several groups, including Hispanics, for whom it estimated the census may have missed 5% of the population.

Nonetheless, the census paints a picture of a fast-growing Hispanic population that includes newcomers as well as families that have been here for generations. In fact, the first Hispanic people to come to the state arrived well before Wisconsin’s statehood.

A long history in Wisconsin

The first Spanish speakers likely arrived in Wisconsin in the late 1700s, when Spain maintained a frontier outpost in St. Louis, research shows. Soldiers probably adventured north on the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers, although such travels are largely unrecorded.

The first prominent Mexican settled in Milwaukee with his family in the 1880s: Raphael Baez, a musician, composer and teacher, tells Sergio Gonzalez, assistant professor of Latino Studies at Marquette University, in his book “Mexicans in Wisconsin.”

Wisconsin didn’t see a significant migration until the 1920s, when laws passed after World War I restricted immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Corporations and farmers turned to Mexico to find a new source of low-cost labor.

By the mid-1920s, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were working in the United States, including several thousand in Wisconsin.

Their numbers declined in the 1930s as work dried up during the Great Depression, but employers again turned to Mexican workers during World War II — keeping farms and factories producing as men left to join the military. 

A 1942 treaty with Mexico paved the way for a program that brought guest workers to the U.S. on short-term work contracts. Employers often flouted program requirements for fair wages and discrimination protections. The program brought 4 million-plus workers to the county until the agreement ended in 1964.

Even as farms became increasingly mechanized by that period, the Wisconsin farm economy continued to rely on Hispanic laborers who increasingly arrived in the state. In Door County, they picked cherries, processed cabbage, beans, cucumbers, potatoes and other crops statewide. They tended and harvested Christmas trees.

And Hispanic men and women also became a crucial workforce on dairy farms, in canneries and in slaughterhouses.

Other Hispanic groups were also arriving.

As Puerto Ricans came to Michigan to harvest crops in the 1950s, many lived in places like Milwaukee and Chicago between harvests. Others migrated to Wisconsin from Lorain, an industrial city in Ohio.

By 1953, more than 2,500 Puerto Ricans lived in Wisconsin, mostly in Milwaukee.

Cubans arrived in significant numbers in the 1960s after fleeing the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Some who fled to Florida were sent temporarily to Fort McCoy and, after screening, moved to Madison, Milwaukee and Green Bay.

As their numbers increased, Hispanics in Wisconsin found themselves better positioned to fight for better treatment. Jesus Salas, a Texas-born, third-generation American from Wautoma, became a prominent labor organizer for agricultural workers in the 1960s.

A man shakes hands with Jesus Salas, founder of Obreros Unidos labor union, during a march from Wautoma to Madison, Wis. to demand better living and working conditions for migrant workers. (Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society, WHI-93386)

Salas’ grandfather was part of the early wave of migrant workers who each year followed the harvests north, from Texas to Wisconsin and then back south for the winter.

His parents also were migrant workers. The family in 1959 settled in Wautoma because Salas’ father wanted his children to finish school and go to college. He and his brother attended the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

Salas started working with migrants after representatives of the state Department of Children and Families asked him to help start a new child care program for migrant families. That work sparked more efforts to improve working conditions and wages of migrant workers.

At 22, he became a founder of Obreros Unidos, a farmworkers union that demanded better pay and protections  at farms and factories across eastern Wisconsin.

In 1966, he led a high-profile march from Wautoma to Madison — drawing support from César Chávez, whose California farmworkers union rose to national prominence during the Grape Boycott in the mid 1960s.

In 1969, Salas became the executive director of Milwaukee-based United Migrant Opportunity Services, which works to improve employment, education, health and housing opportunities for migrants.

UMOS became a leading force in encouraging workers to leave the migrant stream, settle in Wisconsin and raise their children here. That work helped grow urban Hispanic populations and the vibrant business communities that have followed.

“We are an integral part of the economy of the state of Wisconsin, including Green Bay by the way,” Salas said. 

Gov. Patrick Lucey organized a task force in 1971 to bolster upward mobility among members of the state’s Spanish-speaking communities. It offered a list of recommendations regarding education, health and social services, law enforcement and community relations and recreation.

“We believe the Governor’s office should use its vast moral and political influences to immediate positive results based upon the community needs described in this report,” the task force wrote.

The recommendations provided a starting point, with other efforts by activist groups leading to the bilingual-bicultural education law in 1991, the migrant labor law, and access to a network of social services, Salas said.

From migrant to advocate

Appleton resident Ernesto Gonzalez didn’t plan on moving from Texas to Wisconsin, but he counts himself among those whose lives were changed by the work UMOS did in Wisconsin’s farm fields.

Gonzalez, 70, grew up as a third-generation migrant farm worker. His grandmother and others from his hometown came to Wisconsin in the 1950s each summer to work on crops in Bear Creek. He joined the migrant workforce when he was 18 in 1970.

Gonzalez’ older brother stayed in Wisconsin after meeting his wife. After Gonzalez finished school in San Antonio and got married, his brother urged them to come up for another summer to make enough money to live comfortably in San Antonio. He came, but the latter half of that plan never happened.

“We didn’t make enough money,” Ernesto Gonzalez said. “So, we just stayed, and stayed, and stayed.”

After three years of farm work, UMOS helped Gonzalez find new opportunities.

Eventually Ernesto Gonzalez helped start Casa Hispana, a Menasha-based nonprofit that serves Hispanic people, primarily in Calumet, Outagamie and Winnebago counties.

“We were getting a lot of immigration up north. People from all over were moving in,” Ernesto Gonzalez said. “We gathered some Hispanic leaders, and we started this organization.”

The next generation

Emmanuel Vargas, 19, is the son of Mexican immigrants who came to Green Bay in 2003.

His dad works at the JBS meatpacking plant and his mom at Bay Towel. Vargas’ family lived with his grandparents when he was growing up in. 

Emmanuel Vargas poses for a portrait at the College of Business building on the campus of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay, Wis., on March 8, 2022. Vargas is studying digital media. (Samantha Madar/Green Bay Press-Gazette)

“I’m thankful that my parents worked hard to have a roof over our heads, able to work, and to get food and water for me,” he said.

That hard work allowed him to live a quintessentially American life, one spent skating downtown, playing soccer or sprucing up his home.

He also grew up watching YouTube vloggers and streamers — curious about how they turned a hobby into a career. It made him realize that he could find a job doing something he loves, while also supporting his family.

Last fall, he started studying digital media technology at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in hopes of working in video production.

“To be able to accomplish that childhood dream — it’s God’s work and it would help out tremendously with my family, me and my life situations,” Vargas said.

Ariel Perez is a business reporter for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. You can reach him at APerez1@gannett.com or view his Twitter profile at @Ariel_Perez85. Contact Benita Mathew at bmathew@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @benita_mathew.

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