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"Latinx in Wisconsin: A Historical Overview" By Sergio González

While the presence of Latinx people in Wisconsin dates as far back as the founding of the state in the mid-nineteenth century, substantive and permanent communities first developed in the early 1900s. During the 1920s, the state’s first significant community of Mexican industrial and agricultural migrant workers developed in Milwaukee. In the face of significant racial discrimination, members of this early colonia created resilient institutions such as mutual aid societies, Catholic mission chapels, and small businesses. Although the economic depression and deportation drives of the 1930s diminished the size of this initial community, Mexican nationals, and Mexican Americans continued to migrate to and settle in southeast Wisconsin through the mid-twentieth century. Following World War II, they were joined by two other Latinx groups also drawn to the state for economic reasons: Puerto Ricans, who arrived by the thousands to work in Milwaukee’s booming industrial economy; and Texas Mexican, or Tejano, farmworkers, fifteen thousand of whom scattered across the state every summer to work as harvesters and canners in Wisconsin’s flourishing agricultural economy. Following the Cuban Revolution, a small contingent of Cuban refugees also made their way to Wisconsin, often with the help of local faith groups that sponsored their resettlement in the state. By the early 1960s, Wisconsin’s diverse Latinx population stood at more than 60,000 residents, scattered across large metro areas like Milwaukee and Racine and smaller cities like Wautoma and Sturgeon Bay [1].

Despite their growing numbers in cities, towns, and farms across the state, Wisconsin Latinxs continued to encounter barriers to economic and social integration into the state’s larger community. With the advent of civil rights movements among Mexican Americans (often referring to themselves as Chicanos) and Puerto Ricans across the nation in the late 1960s, Wisconsin’s young Latinxs developed organizations to fight for expanded opportunities for their communities. These efforts included labor unions marching for migrant farmworker rights, groups advocating for bilingual education and expanded access to higher education in the state’s universities, and associations demanding a more robust welfare and social safety net for Wisconsinites. These organizations often worked in coalition with other working-class communities of color, including African Americans fighting for housing and welfare opportunities and American Indians demanding self-determination in political and social arenas [2].

Since 1980, Wisconsin’s Latinx population has nearly quadrupled, now accounting for nearly fifty percent of the state’s overall demographic increase. Today, Latinxs comprise 7.1% of the state’s population and are the largest and fastest growing ethnic minority group [3]. Their demographic strength aligns with their growing importance in the state’s economy. Recent studies reveal that Wisconsin’s signature industry, dairy, for example, representing 44% of the state’s total agricultural activity and generating $45 billion in industrial revenue, would collapse without the labor of Latinx workers [4]. In small and rural towns that have experienced significant demographic decline, meanwhile, Latinx people often account for the only significant population growth and have become lifelines for local economies and school systems. In towns like Arcadia in western Wisconsin, for example, where the Latinx population increased from 3% to 35% from 2000 to 2014, Latinx-owned businesses have revitalized a once-dormant main street while three-quarters of students in the elementary school are children of Latin American immigrants [5].

Although racially/ethnically diverse and representing a wide array of national backgrounds, professions, and community contributions, most U.S. Latinx communities share histories of systematic neglect and exclusion as well as a shared colonial and linguistic past [6]. In Wisconsin, that history continues to the present, where Latinxs continue to challenge persistent economic and housing disparities, legislative efforts to pass English-only laws, and anti-immigrant sentiment. These issues extend into the ways in which local communities understand the historical presence of Latinx across the region. As anthropologist Sujey Vega has noted in her study of Latinx communities in Indiana, the national imaginary of the Midwest as a non-diverse ‘American Heartland’ reinforces a broad public misunderstanding of Latinx populations and their contributions to the region [7]. In Wisconsin, most residents remain unaware of their state’s robust and thriving Latinx communities, both past and present. A lack of committed archives in historical societies and the absence of even one building associated with Latinx settlement on the National Register of Historic Places, for example, serve as a reminder that Latinxs are a historical afterthought in the state [8].


[1] Sergio M. González, Mexicans in Wisconsin (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2017); Theresa Delgadillo. Latina Lives in Milwaukee (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015).

[2] Marc Simon Rodriguez, The Tejano Diaspora: Mexican Americans and Ethnic Politics in Texas and Wisconsin (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Andrea-Teresa Arenas and Eloisa Gómez, Somos Latinas: Voices of Wisconsin Activists (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2018).

[3] Wisconsin Department of Health Services, “Hispanic/Latinos in Wisconsin: Overview,” March 30, 2021,; U.S. Census Bureau, “Quick Facts: Wisconsin,” March 30, 2021,

[4] Steven C. Deller, The Contribution of Agriculture to the Wisconsin Economy: An Update for 2017 (Center for Community Economic Development, University of Wisconsin-Madison: August 2019); Maria Pérez, “Wisconsin’s dairy industry would collapse without the work of Latino immigrants—many of the undocumented,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Nov. 12, 2019; Julie C. Keller, Milking in the Shadows: Migrants and Mobility in America’s Dairyland (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2019).

[5] Ruth Conniff, Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers (New York: The New Press, 2022), 127-158; Nathan Hansen, “Despite national tensions, Arcadia embraces diversity,” La Crosse Tribune, April 9, 2017.

[6] Armando Ibarra, Alfredo Carlos, and Rodolfo D. Torres, The Latino Question: Politics, Labouring Classes and the Next Left (London: Pluto Press, 2018).

[7] Sujey Vega, Latino Heartland: Of Borders and Belonging in the Midwest (New York: New York University Press, 2015). Two edited volumes on the Latinx Midwest make similar interventions. See Omar Valerio-Jiménez, Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez, and Claire F. Fox, ed., The Latino Midwest Reader (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016); Theresa Delgadillo, Ramón H. Rivera-Servera, Geraldo L. Cadava, and Claire F. Fox, ed. Building Sustainable Worlds: Latinx Placemaking in the Midwest (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2022).

[8] Angelina Mosher Salazar, “For Milwaukee’s Latino Community, There Are No Historically Designated Landmarks,” WUWM 89.7: Milwaukee’s NPR, April 2, 201,; Mallory Cheng, “Historians Work to Refocus Wisconsin History on Latinx Communities & Contributions,” WUWM 89.7: Milwaukee’s NPR, September 22, 2021,


Additional Readings

Andrea-Teresa Arenas and Eloisa Gómez. Somos Latinas: Voices of Wisconsin Activists. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2018.

Ruth Conniff. Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers. New York: The New Press, 2022.

Theresa Delgadillo. Latina Lives in Milwaukee. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015.

Sergio M. González. Mexicans in Wisconsin. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2017.

Armando Ibarra, Alfredo Carlos, and Rodolfo D. Torres. The Latino Question: Politics, Labouring Classes and the Next Left. London: Pluto Press, 2018.

Julie C. Keller. Milking in the Shadows: Migrants and Mobility in America’s Dairyland. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2019.

Joseph A. Rodriguez and Walter Sava. Latinos in Milwaukee. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2006.

Marc Simon Rodriguez. The Tejano Diaspora: Mexican Americans and Ethnic Politics in Texas and Wisconsin. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. 

Jesus Salas. Obreros Unidos: The Roots and Legacy of the Farmworkers Movement. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 2023.

Maia A. Surdam. Cris Plata: From Fields to Stage. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 2014.

Walter Sava and Anselmo Villareal. Latinos in Waukesha. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2007.

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