In 1915, Wisconsin led the nation in the production of butter and cheese. Cows and dairy farms have since been central to the state’s identity and global reputation.
A hundred years later, Wisconsin is the nation’s second most productive dairy state. Economic and demographic forces are putting pressure on Wisconsin’s dairy farmers and those who work on the farms. A study sponsored by the national dairy industry in 2015 found that half of all dairy workers in the U.S. are immigrants. In Wisconsin, about 40 percent of the state’s dairy workforce are immigrants.
Today, Wisconsin’s $43 billion dairy industry is mostly made up of large farms that operate all day, every day, year-round. The work day starts before the sun rises and ends after sun sets in every type of weather, including rain, snow, blazing heat and subzero temperatures. The work of directing animals with commands, operating farm machinery and monitoring the milk pumping system requires training and skill. The wages start around $8/hour.
A number of factors – including increased herd size on farms, declining rural populations, a very low unemployment rate, and changes in farm family culture – have led dairy farms to hire employees when once they relied more on family members.
The WHC offers free screenings of the film Los Lecheros, a carefully researched 20-minute documentary film that explores Wisconsin’s shifting landscape of dairy production and rising tensions over undocumented dairy workers. Screenings are followed by facilitated discussions.
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.