Latino communities have called Wisconsin home for over a century.
The earliest known Mexican resident of Wisconsin was Raphael Baez from Puebla, Mexico. Baez settled in Milwaukee in 1814, where he taught music at Marquette University and served as the organist and music director for numerous churches and synagogues.
Throughout the early twentieth century, Mexican-descent workers traveled from Mexico and the U.S. Southwest to Wisconsin in search of work in industrial and agricultural fields. These seasonal migrants began arriving in the Great Lakes Region in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Throughout the 1950s, more than 15,000 Tejanos (Texas-born Mexican Americans) migrated to Wisconsin every year, propelling Wisconsin to become a leading producer of cherries, canned peas, sweet corn, cucumbers, and sugar beets.
In addition to Tejano workers who migrated with the seasons, millions of Mexicans came to the United States to work on short-term agricultural labor contracts during World War II. About 4,800 workers from Mexico (as well as the Caribbean and Central America) came to Wisconsin as part of the Bracero Program.
Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Wisconsin’s Latino community continued to grow and become increasingly more diverse. Following World War II, thousands of Puerto Rican migrants traveled to Wisconsin every year, eventually creating a vibrant community in Milwaukee. In the 1960s and 1980s, Cuban refugees found safe harbor in cities like Milwaukee and Madison, while Central and South Americans also made their way to the state in the final decades of the century.
Today most Latinos in Wisconsin, and in the United States, were born in the United States. The most recent national census, completed in 2010, found that 336,000 Hispanic/Latino people lived in Wisconsin (5.9% of the population). When compared with the populations of all 50 states, Wisconsin’s proportion of Latino residents ranks near the middle.
Many immigrants begin learning English after they move to the United States. This has been the case since the earliest immigrant arrivals to the country. A unique aspect of Wisconsin’s cultural history has been the maintenance of native language among its immigrant communities.
For example, Germans were the largest immigrant group to settle in Wisconsin in the early years of statehood. In 1910, a quarter of Wisconsin’s population reported being able to speak only German. Many had been living in Wisconsin for over a decade but still spoke little English. In some German-speaking communities in the state, the third and fourth generations born here continued to learn German as their first language at home.
Today’s Latino immigrants are learning English more quickly than past generations of new arrivals. Many Latino immigrant families speak English in the home and therefore children are often less likely to learn their parents’ native language. While many of the U.S.-born children of Latino immigrants may be bilingual in Spanish and English, by the third generation, Spanish may be lost entirely.
Language is not only a means of communication. A shared language is part of maintaining culture, traditions, and identity. The loss of a community’s heritage language can have negative repercussions for the community as a whole.
Immigrants come to Wisconsin from all over the world for different reasons and bring with them a wide range of education and experiences. Today, over 280,000 of Wisconsin’s 5.84 million residents are immigrants. They have come here from more than 113 different countries and are employed in many job sectors in the state.
Nearly 3 out of 10 adult immigrants who have settled in Wisconsin have a college degree or more, a proportion similar to that of native-born Wisconsinites. On the other hand, immigrants are more likely than the U.S. born population to have less than a high school diploma (25% vs 7%).
In total, immigrants account for about 6% of the labor force in Wisconsin. They often work in jobs where there is a growing need for workers, including in manufacturing and agriculture. As of 2015, 7.2% of the manufacturing workforce and 11.2% of ‘Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing & Hunting’ workforce was immigrants.